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The Politics of Violent Intimidation

ISSUE:  Winter 1982
The Terror Network. By Claire Sterling. Holt, Rinehart & Winston. $13.95.

Terrorism, or the technique of internationally perpetrating overt intimidation, coercion, or damage to human lives and property, historically has held for political groups several fundamental objectives: to gain national or regional independence; to acquire ethnic or racial minority rights; to achieve “world revolution”; to generate pervasive publicity; to secure funds through extortion or blackmail; and to embarrass, discredit, or demoralize governmental authorities. In this causal connection, terrorism is hardly a novel instrument of political expediency, for it has been employed by numerous peoples in varying degrees since antiquity. Even so, it is readily realizable that during the past decade terrorism has assumed significantly more recurrent, pernicious, and rampant proportions, especially in Western Europe. Why has this recent surge in terrorist activity occurred? Who is responsible for its promotion? What means have facilitated its proliferation? These are cardinal questions which Claire Sterling seeks to address in The Terror Network, and her findings clearly foster ample insight into the problem and thus give pause for serious concern.

In essence, Ms. Sterling posits that there exists today a confraternal international terrorist circuit, i.e., a “network” through which disparate terrorist groups receive aid, assistance, and support internally from each other, as well as externally from other interested politics. This motley assortment of variegated radical elements, she contends, is ear-marked by a common leitmotif: they inculcate “elite battalions in a worldwide Army of Communist combat.” Accordingly, the author exposes in an intriguing fashion the political linkages she detects between “Red” terrorist bands in Italy, West Germany, Ireland, Spain, and Turkey. These linkages—which take the form of Palestinians, Libyans, and Cubans-—have trained, equipped, and given sanctuary to terrorists throughout the 1970’s (“Fright Decade I”) and thus ostensibly serve as surrogates for proselytizing Soviet communism.

Thematically, this work is divided into three discernible parts. The first, and by far the most extensive section, presents twelve case studies of terrorist groups, largely as portrayed through quasi-psychohistories of their respective leadership factions. The Tupamaros of Uruguay; Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, patron of Italy’s Red Brigades; Henri Curiel’s Help and Friendship network in France; Petra Krause and the Zurich ring; West Germany’s Norbert and Gabriele Kröcher-Tiedemann; George Habash and the Palestinian Liberation Organization; the Peruvian playboy, Carlos, “the Jackal”; the Basque separatists; the Provisional Irish Republican Army—these and other vignettes of terrorist movements supply the bulk of evidence with which Ms. Sterling convincingly makes her case for exposing the international terrorist network.

The second section examines the manner and perforce rationale by which these diverse terrorist bands dovetail into any or all of three “magnetic poles”; there is the guerrilla training ground provided by Castro’s Cuba, the petrodollar-fueled sponsorship of terrorism by Libya’s Col. Muammar Quaddafi, and the military support supplied by Ahmed Jibril and the Palestine Resistance Movement.

The third part entails a relatively succinct assessment of who actually benefits from the operation of this internecine world terrorist confederation. The answer, not surprisingly, is the Soviet Union, although this conclusion is not intended to suggest that there exists some appointed official in the Presidium who has been designated responsible for coordinating and orchestrating terrorist machinations around the world. Rather, the author plainly avers,

It was never part of the Soviet design to create and watch over native terrorist movements, much less attempt to direct their day-to-day activities. The phantom mastermind coordinating worldwide terror from some subterranean map room is a comic-book concept. The whole point of the plan was to let the other fellow do it, contributing to Continental terror by proxy.

“In effect,” she concludes metaphorically, “the Soviet Union had simply laid a loaded gun on the table, leaving others to get on with it.”

To be sure, such a conspiracy theory of terrorism, with the Soviets playing the sinister role of arch culprits, seems neatly tailored to the Reagan Administration’s thus far espoused political perceptions and policy priorities abroad. These may or may not be true. Yet, while a valid criticism might be lodged that recent antiterrorism rhetoric by the United States has been overtly politicized and convoluted to suit its own premeditated, expedient purposes, the plausibility of global terrorist collaboration should not be dissmissed as a mere chimera. To do so would be politically ingenuous and, from a foreign policy maker’s perspective, dangerously myoptic.

There seems little question that terrorist tactics will persist and probably increase in the 1980’s (or “Fright Decade II,” to use Ms. Sterling’s term). Several reasons point up this likelihood. First, the very nature of an urban industrialized society renders vulnerable those transportation centers, media installations, and production facilities which remain open and unprotected. Second, greater affluence and education concomitantly will exacerbate frustrations among young people whose opportunities fail to meet their aspirations. Third, technological advancement is likely to produce weapons which are more sophisticated, more compact, more destructive, and more easily available to terrorist groups. Fourth, enhanced interdependence through our burgeoning global communications and transportation system correspondingly will permit transnational terrorism to proceed with more efficiency and greater centralization of effort. Fifth, but certainly not least, assured extensive publicity of terrorist acts carries great propaganda dividends, especially in promoting the terrorist’s cause. Hence, given the avowed probability that transnational terrorism will increase, the resultant logical approach would presumably suggest the need for a viable solution aimed at its total suppression. Regrettably, this critical facet of the terrorist equation is absent in Ms. Sterling’s study. The thrust of her treatment sets out clearly and comprehensibly a compendium of evidence which demonstrates that a worldwide terrorist network is operating to the Western industralized democracies’ detriment; yet, no attempt is proffered to propose requisite policy changes or new legislative provisions which might contribute to obliterating the specter of terrorism. In addition, there is no discussion of the international legal efforts being undertaken to coordinate national and regional antiterrorism measures. Ms. Sterling seems somewhat content to accept the hope that recently successful police crackdowns in Italy and West Germany, coupled with the profound psychological disillusionment that eventually stems from the individual terrorist’s furtive life-style, will work to turn the tide of transnational violence. Unfortunately, such a denouement on a global scale presently seems at best premature and politically impracticable.

These observations notwithstanding, The Terror Network provides a valuable educational service for the layman reader. Its thesis is timely, provocative, plausible, and certainly alarming. Consequently, there is no mistaking the prevalence which terrorism has assumed as a persuasive instrument of political intimidation. The paramount task now confronting Western nations’ policy-makers and their populaces alike is how to design and implement effective social, economic, political, and punitive deterrents for bringing the Age of Terrorism to a quick and complete close. Nonetheless, competing priorities and conflicting pressures in modern democratic societies strongly intimate that this goal will be a formidable challenge indeed.


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