The Price of Fanaticism

Now that extremists are willing to use weapons of mass destruction, they have crossed a threshold that experts have watched with dread for two decades

by Bruce W. Nelan
April 3, 1995


The image is at once ordinary and sinister. Amid the bustle of Kasumigaseki subway station, in downtown Tokyo, three attache cases stand unattended by the ticket barrier. Suddenly, gas begins hissing ominously out of one of them. When police eventually examine the cases, they discover that each holds containers of clear liquid, a powerful battery-operated vaporizer and a fan to blow the resulting vapor through vents. The cases are rigged to operate as automatic dispensers. But dispensers of what?

They represent the ultimate urban horror. Anonymous, malevolent packages planted by any of the thousands of subway riders and set to kill huge numbers of passersby indiscriminately. The prospective victims are temporarily captives in a subterranean steel and concrete execution chamber, and they could have died by simply by drawing a breath. The dead would have been selected by sheer chance, depending on petty details like which commuter was on schedule and who had dawdled over breakfast and taken a later train.

Those mysterious attache cases, perhaps testing devices for a subsequent attack, were found only five days before thousands of riders on the Tokyo subway were felled by nerve gas last week. The liquid inside turned out to be water.

The events in Tokyo were a clear warning to the world. Terrorism has taken a step across a threshold that security experts have been anticipating with dread for decades. It has been known that there are groups out there that are willing to kill at random. There is proof that they are able to use chemical weapons, and possibly biological and radioactive ones as well, that can destroy far more people than conventional bombs and bullets. Now that nerve gas has been used on ordinary citizens, it may possibly happen again: the fact that terrorists are copycats and hungry for publicity makes it a near certainty. With one act, the spectrum of danger has broadened into a threat more terrifying than ever before - and one far more difficult for governments to forestall.

It used to be known who the "terrorists" were: a handful of Middle Eastern or leftist political movements, sponsored and protected by governments, bent on achieving their well-advertised ideological goals through death and intimidation. The next generation of terrorists is more obscure, an assemblage of disparate fanatics pursuing unique or mysterious agendas, with only the capacity for random violence in common. While governments have them under fairly good control and international terrorist incidents are relatively few (321 last year, down from 432 in 1933), it looks to the experts as if the 1990s rise of apocalyptic sects and Islamic extremism has merged with the increasingly easy availability of chemical and biological weapons that can kill thousands in an attack. The potential for random murder and catastrophic governmental disruption lies within reach of small, unsophisticated and irresponsible groups of true believers. "Nightmares are coming true," says Robert Kupperman, a terrorism expert at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies. "I think we're in for deep trouble."

Even very sober public officials are deeply concerned. Three weeks ago, Georgia's Senator Sam Nunn sketched a lurid fantasy: how terrorists might wreck the central government of the U.S. On the night of a State of the Union address, when all the top officials are in the Capitol, Nunn said, a handful of fanatics could crash a radio-controlled drone aircraft into the building, "engulfing it with chemical weapons and causing tremendous death and destruction." This scenario, said Nunn, "is not far-fetched," and the technology is all readily available.

Many of the experts say they are surprised that chemical weapons have not been used in a major attack before. The ingredients for making them are available commercially and can be put together by almost any competent chemist. Muslim zealots, for example, are increasingly a younger generation of angry men who have the education and sophistication to construct weapons their fathers and uncles never dreamed of.

Even though radical groups have long had the power to kill more people than they actually did, the fact that they held back somewhat suggests they imposed certain restraints on themselves. Most such groups viewed themselves as political activists rather than wanton killers. They had to appeal to potential supporters of their program and were wary of producing a backlash of revulsion by using the most repellent methods. The cold war and the rules of state-sponsored terrorism curtailed their freedom of action. Governments knew more or less who was sponsoring whom, and the threat of retaliation was always present - as demonstrated when the Reagan Administration sent U.S. bombers to hit Libya in 1986 in retaliation for its support of several terrorist acts. But the end of the cold war and the beginnings of the Middle East peace process have taken Eastern European and some Muslim governments out of the sponsorship business.

At the same time, however, the collapse of the Soviet empire, the creation of new states and the breakup of others have triggered an explosion of ethnic conflicts, with racial and religious hatreds mixed in, giving fresh scope to terrorist free-lancers. Much of the violence committed today in the name of Islam is the work of small, loosely organized cells who emerge for little more than a single act of random vengeance. Sections of Pakistan are ungovernable safe havens for the remnants of 20,000 zealous volunteers from Muslim countries all over the world who went to join the Afghan mujahedin in their holy war against the Soviets. An estimated 1,000 fundamentalist fighters still gather in the country's lawless reaches to train and egg each other on. They frequently sally forth aboard international airliners, looking for new places to fight their messianic war.

Some free-lance terrorists have taken up residence in the U.S. They have brought with them a brand of activism previously almost unknown except for occasional episodes of violence among their kind, as when Sikh extremists attacked officials of the Indian government in U.S. cities.

The sense of American immunity was truly swept away in February 1993, when a group of Muslim conspirators detonated a homemade bomb under New York City's World Trade Center. Four months later, nine Islamists were arrested on charges of conspiring to blow up such landmarks as the U.N. and the Lincoln Tunnel. In both cases, the motivation was essentially religious and without any discernible goal: they were simply attacks on the U.S., the Great Satan, in the name of Allah.

The religious ingredient in violence is a dangerous trend the experts have been watching closely. The Irish Republican Army and the Palestine Liberation Organization might have a surface religious orientation, but they and their objectives are political. Some analysts designate even relatively violent Islamic groups "mainstream" terrorists. The Trade Center bombers are in a different category. They do not have clearly visible political motives and seem to have come together rather casually, outside a formal organization, only to inflict punishment on Americans, the infidel enemies of their religion.

In 1968, the first year in which international terrorism seized the headlines, of the eight known groups, all were political, without religious overtones. In 1980, a year after Islamic radicals overthrew the Shah of Iran, overtly religious terrorist groups made their appearance. Of the 48 international groups active in 1992, almost a quarter were religiously motivated. Shi'ite groups, though they commit less than 10% of the attacks worldwide, account for 30% of all the killings.

"Whenever religion is involved, terrorists kill more people," says Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at Scotland's University of St. Andrews. Last December a group of Algerian Islamists hijacked an Air France Airbus A300, which they planned to blow up over the center of Paris solely to kill as many people as possible. They would almost certainly have done so if they had not been killed on the ground in Marseilles.

Small, charismatic cults are adopting more violent methods as well. These extremist sects appeal to many people in an antispiritual age because they combine their empowering theology with a warm, supportive environment, at least at first. Those who join become part of a close-knit body of believers who are convinced they understand the meaning of history and what the future holds. That was true of David Koresh's Branch Davidians, and it applies to certain extremist Christian white-supremacist groups bent on "purifying" the U.S.

But once the recruits are in the cult's grip, they encounter a darker side, even if they do not recognize it. Their charismatic leader preaches that they are surrounded by enemies, that nonbelievers are out to crush them and that God commands vengeance. In some sects they are told to commit violent acts, says Hoffman, "because the only way they can hasten redemption or achieve salvation is to eliminate the nonbelievers."

Dehumanization of the enemy is traditional among violent sects. And if the opponents are accepted as children of Satan, killing becomes that much easier. The very basis of their faith makes such killing not only legitimate but also mandatory. In the U.S. there are many shadowy groups lurking - covert militias, survivalists, religious and political cults - with agendas of destruction and a newfound taste for exotic weapons. "You don't hear much about them," says Hugh Stephens of the University of Houston, "but these people are antigovernment and fearful. They are running around with arms and training for the millennium."

Symptoms of the trend have been visible for years. Back in 1972 an American fascist group called the Order of the Rising Sun was grabbed with 80 lbs. of typhoid bacteria cultures that the members planned to dump into the water supplies of Midwestern cities. In 1985 a group of neo-Nazis was arrested with 30 gal. of cyanide they intended to put into the water of New York City and Washington. Now, says Representative Glen Browder, an Alabama Democrat whose district is home to the Army's sole chemical-weapons training base, it appears "the psychological barrier" against the mass use of chemical and biological agents has finally been passed in Tokyo. "It's just a matter of time before it occurs in the U.S.," he says.

Marvin Cetron, president of Forecasting International Ltd., a Virginia-based think tank, last year co-authored an exhaustive study of terrorism for the Pentagon." He thinks a chemical or biological attack on the U.S. is increasingly likely, "perhaps within the next five years." He also predicts that if Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the Muslim cleric on trial in New York City, is found guilty on conspiracy charges, there will be "10 or 12 terrorist attacks on U.S. targets" within a few weeks.

If that is so, what is the government doing to prepare? The Pentagon is studying how terrorists might try to spread chemical or biological agents in urban areas and hopes to develop techniques to thwart them. The FBI and CIA are boosting their spending on trying to find and penetrate the groups. and thus catch the plotters before they strike. But to do that, governments must have early and reliable intelligence, which can be almost impossible to obtain about groups that are tiny and disorganized or not yet suspect at all.

Not always, though; there are sometimes early warning signs. Religious cults with apocalyptic ideas frequently publish their violent preachings and often set up their compounds in remote areas. "This filters out the members who are not committed," says Bruce Bueno de Mesquita of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Because the groups are isolated, he says, "they don't fit in with the rural community, and they are easy to spot." Law-enforcement agencies also find that while violent cults may start out small and unknown, as they grow and acquire weapons, it becomes harder for them and their potential for violence to remain hidden. Locals become suspicious of them and the purchases they are making and alert the law.

In the world's great cities, the prospect is far more uncertain. In Tokyo the police had a wealth of signals that a major nerve- gas attack might be in the making but were still caught off guard when it came. Some counterterrorism officials are speaking of the Tokyo subway poisoning as a "wakeup call" for governments around the world. But it is also possible that the gas attack in Tokyo was only a preview of what is yet to come.

Reported by Barry Hillenbrand/London and J.F.O. McAllister and Mark Thompson/Washington, with other bureaus


Copyright 1995 Time Inc.

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