The Ultimate Terrorists

Tim Cavanaugh reviews 'The Ultimate Terrorists' by Jessica Stern.

Published March 23, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

The ominous-sounding title "The Ultimate Terrorists" can't outweigh the balanced and blessedly concise arguments that Jessica Stern presents in the book itself. The threat of terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction (WMD) has given rise to a panic industry; Stern -- a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a former head of the National Security Council's Nuclear Smuggling Interagency group and an early WMD alarmist -- has emerged as one of a few influential voices of calm.

Her study is one of several recent books (including Bruce Hoffman's "Inside Terrorism" and Philip B. Heymann's "Terrorism and America") that suggest a new consensus on the threat of terrorism. "The Ultimate Terrorists" lays out three main points. First, the threat of chemical, biological and nuclear terrorism is indeed significant, and the emergence of nontraditional terrorist groups -- religious fanatics, death cults and disturbed activists -- adds a shiver of uncertainty to the mix. Second, more fitting defense efforts -- assisting in the disposal of Russian "loose nukes," beefing up detection efforts at airports, preparing emergency health responses -- will bolster both U.S. and international security. ("Ballistic missiles are the least likely method of delivery," Stern writes, "and yet Congress regularly allocates more money to ballistic-missile defense than the Pentagon says it can use -- roughly ten times what is spent to prevent WMD terrorism.") Finally, the threat of WMD terrorism, real as it is, has been exaggerated to the point of needless panic.

In her examination of nontraditional terrorism, Stern points to a practical divide between will and ability. State-sponsored terrorists can do the most damage, but they're constrained by fear of retribution and of bad publicity. Fringe groups, on the other hand, may have the will to destroy, but they lack the money or the sponsorship to cause much damage. But the book's strongest chapter concerns the threat of loose Russian materials (the area that was Stern's mitier at the NSC). Stern's knowledge of security in Russia -- and of how nuclear material could be (and may already have been) stolen -- gives these sections a punch that most reporting on this issue has so far lacked.

The same can't be said for sections in which Stern has to rely on secondary-source material. While her scheme of terrorist types is generally helpful, it raises some questions. How do we classify religious fanatics who are also state-sponsored political groups? For that matter, where do we put Japan's Aum Shinrikyo, a fringe cult that attracted massive funding and international membership (and whose Tokyo subway gas attack apparently represented a mere fraction of the hell it might have raised)? Stern considers Aum Shinrikyo an unusual case, which it certainly seems to be; but the group's success challenges her clear-cut distinction between traditional and nontraditional terrorism.

Since "The Ultimate Terrorists" gets much of its power from the assumption that terrorist activities are on the rise (although various data can be made to tell various stories), these aren't incidental points. You may find yourself occasionally wishing that the author would dispense with the overviews and get back to topics she has direct experience with. And in fact her anecdotes about encounters with fringe groups hint at the even more intriguing book she is working on now: a study of religious extremists at home and abroad. If any topic is subject to more Chicken Little mystification than the threat of weapons of mass destruction, it's the rise of extremist groups, and so no subject could better benefit from Jessica Stern's mix of clarity and caution.

By Tim Cavanaugh

Tim Cavanaugh is a freelance writer and the editor of the Web magazine the Simpleton.

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