Terrible Silence Follows Terrorism Many Attacks Not Accompanied By Legitimate ‘Confessor Claim’
At the beginning of the century, Russian revolutionaries used to say that terror was to be done, not talked about.
At the end of the century, terrorists seem to be taking their advice.
Many explosions are followed by a long, terrible silence, unbroken by any credible claim of responsibility. Yet how, many Americans wonder, could anyone blow a jumbo jet out of the sky, kill hundreds of perfect strangers, and not feel compelled to say why? More than three weeks after TWA Flight 800 exploded over the Atlantic, investigators have received scores of messages claiming responsibility. The FBI won’t say if any is valid; the crash hasn’t even been declared a crime.
Some interpret that silence to mean the July 17 crash was an accident. But many terrorist attacks - as many as half, by some estimates - are not accompanied by a legitimate “confessor claim.”
These include the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Scotland in 1988, of an Air-India jetliner over the Atlantic in 1985, and of the federal building in Oklahoma City last year.
“It doesn’t matter whether anyone claimed credit or not,” James Kallstrom, the FBI agent in charge of the TWA investigation, argued last week. “The event in itself is a public statement … that there is tremendous animosity and hatred in the world.”
It does matter, according to Charles Bahn, a forensic psychologist who has advised federal agencies on terrorism: “If you can label a problem, a solution seems more likely. It not, it’s more terrifying.”
If the fall of Flight 800 was the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, people want to know. If even the Son of Sam and Zodiac killers sent messages, however garbled, why not someone with a cause to push?
Rona Fields, an Alexandria, Va., psychologist, voices the common puzzlement: “If you don’t say anything, you’re defeating one of your purposes.”
The world is so filled with exploding bombs and explosive politics that no conclusion can be easily drawn when a car bomb plows into a post office. Absent a message, how do we know if it is the work of militant Muslims who feel U.S. policy is too pro-Israel, or Jewish militants who feel it is too pro-Arab? Or simply a domestic militia upset about taxes?
The Irish Republican Army practices a more easily understood form of terrorism. It always takes responsibility for its bombings, and each repeats a demand hundreds of years old: England Out of Ireland. The IRA’s grim dance with British authorities is so set that it uses a secret code to inform police if a bomb was the IRA’s.
But there is another approach: anonymous, seemingly pointless, terror.
With the end of the Cold War, none of the United States’ enemies has weapons for a toe-to-toe slugout. So they resort to war by other means, like the bomb in the baby carriage.
If such a conflict’s means are limited, its ends are not. To some, such as more militant Islamic fundamentalists, Western civilization is the fundamental evil in the world. The goal, however unlikely, is not negotiation, but destruction.
To claim responsibility is also to increase the risk of capture, and few terrorists are so radical as to court that fate.
The men who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993 mailed a ringing statement of principle to newspapers - which passed them on to grateful detectives. At trial, an expert testified that DNA found in dried saliva on an envelope flap matched one defendant’s DNA. And the voice on a tape-recorded message claiming responsibility matched, too.
Vincent Cannistraro, a former CIA counterintelligence officer, says state sponsored terrorism favors anonymity because a nation - a small one - is more vulnerable to sanctions and other reprisals. Libya’s refusal to hand over two men charged in the Pan Am 103 bombing led to United Nations sanctions and a worldwide ban on air travel and arms sales.
Such terrorists must satisfy the sponsor’s desire for secrecy, not the public’s desire to know why.
In other cases, terrorists bypass the public and take their message directly to those in power. For state sponsors, terrorism can be a subtle, unspoken bargaining chit, according to Bahn, the forensic psychologist.
A leader like Syrian President Hafez Assad, Bahn speculated, “might tell (U.S. Secretary of State) Warren Christopher, ‘Get Israel to give us some land up north, and we’ll restrain terrorism.’ “Even if there is a claim, it isn’t always immediately apparent. In 1993, it took almost a month for officials to confirm and announce that the Trade Center bombers had issued a statement.
It’s usually not easy to identify a legitimate message.
“When a bomb goes off, everyone takes credit,” says Robert Louden, a former New York City Police Department bomb squad member. “You have to eliminate the hoaxers.”
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