Commentary Magazine

Hydra of Carnage, edited by Uri Ra'anan et al.

The Terrorist Mosaic

Hydra of Carnage.
by Uri Ra'anan, Robert L. Pfaltzgraff, Jr., Richard H. Shultz, Ernst Halperin, Igor Lukes.
Lexington. 638 pp. $22.95.

This volume contains two distinct full-size books: a collection of documents consisting of interviews with persons formerly involved in terrorism and papers captured in the invasions of Grenada and Lebanon, and the contributions to a conference held at Tufts University in 1985. The collection provides a first-hand look at the ties that bind what one might call the Soviet action coalition: leaders of states like Syria, Libya, Nicaragua, Vietnam, East Germany, and Bulgaria; officials of such movements as the African National Congress, the PLO, a bewildering variety of Middle Eastern groups, the Red Brigades, etc.; and unnumbered individuals whose names the world learns only after they pull triggers or set bombs. The papers from the conference, by U.S. officials, academics, and journalists, try to make sense of the problem and provide prescriptions. Although they have little difficulty in tracing the terrorist hydra's many heads to a reasonably well-defined neck, and only a little more difficulty in defining the material options available to the U.S. for choking it, these papers inadvertently make it clear that our government lacks the intellectual and moral tools for doing so.

The collection of documents, entitled “The Witnesses Speak,” illustrates, among other things, that today's terrorism, like any other large-scale human enterprise, is composed largely of mundane activities. The minutes of a meeting among Yasir Arafat, Andrei Gromyko, and Boris Ponomarev show that coordination between the Soviet Union and the PLO necessarily entails making sure that both parties understand the lay of the land in the same way. There is nothing shocking here; this is day-to-day business. But a glance at this business also leaves no doubt about the two sides' identity of purpose—at least on the level of operations. That purpose is quite simply to bloody the West, and all who would stand with it, by as many hands as can be gathered to do the work. Thus, when one reads a Sandinista official's account of the “blood unity between us and the Palestinian revolution,” of how Sandinistas gave their lives to help hijack planes in the Middle East, and of how “we received Palestinian aid for our revolution in various forms,” one does not find oneself wondering what on earth might have brought these denizens of the jungle to the desert, and vice versa, or who brought the two together.

Document 23 is a Vietnamese diploma awarded to one Mahmud 'Abdul-Fattan Zeidan on completion of a military course. Another document, signed by Abu al-Walid of Fatah, tells us, “It has been decided to send several officers to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam to study the air-defense system there, for a period of 45 days.” The same Abu al-Walid gives us a list of PLO trainees who have completed a course in North Korea. Yet another document, evidently from the Soviet Communist party's International Department (then headed by Boris Ponomarev and now by Anatoly Dobrynin) lays out the path along which the armed forces of Ethiopia are to be developed so as to “enable them to fulfill their internationalist duty.” The banality of these evil connections forces the conclusion that without the Soviet Union's eager promotion and relentless catalytic function, the phenomenon of modern terrorism would be far less significant than it is.

Some of the papers from the conference explain how the various parts of the terrorist mosaic fit together, and discuss the Soviet Union's role both in fostering this variety and in giving it coherence. The best of these are by Claire Sterling, Michael Ledeen, and Paul Henze.

Claire Sterling tells how the Italian judicial system learned of meetings in Paris at the Hyperion Institute between Abu Iyad, on Arafat's behalf, and the Red Brigades' high command. At this meeting the PLO agreed to provide arms to the Red Brigades, which agreed in turn to “commit anti-American and anti-Israeli acts on Italian soil.” Subsequently the Red Brigades kidnapped the highest-ranking U.S. military officer in Italy, explaining the act as an attempt to block the installation of American Pershing missiles in Germany.

Michael Ledeen reports on a conference held outside Tripoli, Lebanon, in 1972, which brought together the PLO, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Black September, and European terrorist groups. George Habash, the head of the PFLP, boasted at its conclusion: “We have created organic supports between the Palestinians and the revolutionaries of the entire world.” Indeed, within months Black September had bombed the oil refinery in Trieste for the Red Brigades, and Italian extremists were later caught transporting an SA-7 anti-aircraft missile for the PFLP toward Rome's airport. In the 70's, also, boatloads of weapons were shipped from the PLO to the Red Brigades. In 1983, Ledeen writes, Andrei Gromyko told the Foreign Minister of Spain that if Spain stayed out of NATO it would have less trouble with the ETA terrorists. By the 1980's, 40 Italian Red Brigaders too “hot” to operate in Italy were fighting in Nicaragua to crush opposition to the Sandinista government. Thus people often presumed to be “senseless,” anarchic, flower children fight to enforce and extend Managua's rationcard system and neighborhood secret police.

Paul Henze details the logistics of the upheaval in Turkey at the end of the 70's. In brief, some $300 million worth of arms crossed the Bulgarian borders into Turkey, destined for both rightists and leftists. There is no doubt that the Turks involved in this trafficking made money. But they did not sell the weapons; the Bulgarians and their Soviet masters paid both for the weapons and for the traffickers. This in return nearly destroyed the Southern flank of NATO.

Uri Ra'anan, Robert Pfaltzgraff, and Sam Sarkesian lay out what the U.S. can do to oppose the hydra. Ra'anan's essay, “Vulnerabilities of the International Support Apparatus,” is based on the premise that it is much easier to gather intelligence about terrorism's high command than about what its “privates” will do tomorrow morning. We have long since identified the regimes and organizations that, in effect, make war on us by inspiring, financing, equipping, protecting, and, above all, giving meaning to the bloody business. If we were to kill or cripple these regimes and organizations, private individuals who chose to continue their terrorist activities would indeed be practicing mere “senseless violence.” Plain irrationality of this kind is a much scarcer phenomenon in history than is conventionally supposed.


The list of suggested recipes for squeezing the hydra's neck contains no surprises. They amount to economic, political, and military measures against the PLO, Libya, Syria, Cuba, Bulgaria, East Germany, and, of course, the Soviet Union. No one in this volume advocates all-out war, needless to say, but the recipes add up to doing unto the Soviets at least what they do unto us. Given the discontent within the Soviet empire, the factional struggles in the dictatorial regimes it supports, and these regimes' obvious economic vulnerabilities, it is not difficult to conceive effective means of waging conflict adequate to the problem at hand. After all, these regimes have adopted terrorism as a tactic not for its own sake but because it seems to pay. If it began to cost disproportionately, they would presumably stop hurting themselves.

Such recipes, however, are not nearly so interesting as the question of why the U.S. government seems unable to take them seriously. William Casey's address to the conference begins to demonstrate the reasons. Unlike the Central Intelligence Agency atop which he sits, Casey has no truck with the notion that “one man's terrorism is another man's freedom fighter” (in the words of the CIA's National Intelligence Estimate). Nor does he indulge in self-indicting searches within our own society for the causes of international terrorism. He is very clear that most terrorism today is “an instrument of foreign policy.” Whose? “The Soviet Union and its satellite states in Eastern Europe, Libya, Syria, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, Cuba, Nicaragua.”

What then should our foreign policy be toward states that wage this war upon us? The moment Casey—never mind the host of U.S. officials less clear-headed than he—begins to consider this question, he magically erases all the facts and reasoning that show that the hydra has a neck, and begins to treat each head, nay, each bite, separately. He begins, in other words, to consider terrorism not as the policy of states but as a series of discrete acts. These acts, he declares, we will “take measures to warn and protect against.” Their sponsorship is “to be appropriately exposed and condemned in every available forum.” Diplomatic and political avenues will be used to “persuade those now practicing or supporting terrorism” to desist. The hammer for this persuasion? If we are absolutely driven to it, we will “consider” the “very difficult and sensitive problems in choosing appropriate instruments of response in each case” (emphasis added).

In short, according to Casey, any reaction by us should be understood not as part of a coherent, success-oriented plan in a war that we mean to win, but as judicial punishment meted out after we have been hurt, only when there is conclusive proof of guilt, as a cathartic retaliation—tit for tat. Rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding, that, certainly, has been U.S. policy.

Thus, having finally identified Qaddafi's Libya as the embodiment of terrorism (consciously neglecting Arafat's friend Abu Abbas, Syria's Hafez Assad, etc.), the Reagan administration decided to strike back. But at what? To accomplish what? We picked out some twenty-odd “terrorist-related targets,” including Qaddafi's house, and sent just enough aircraft to damage them. The early reaction among Americans was positive. We had struck back at someone about whom no one had anything good to say. Most Americans hoped he had been killed, and that a big chunk of the problem of terrorism had gone with him. When he reappeared in public, and it was learned that his baby daughter had been killed instead, Americans began to ask hard questions of the administration.

The answers were not as good as the questions. Had we meant to kill Qaddafi? No, answered the President. We had meant to convey a warning to stop terrorism, and to diminish his capacity to act as a terrorist. By how much did the loss of a few buildings and fewer than 100 people diminish that capacity? Not by much. How about the warning? What would we do if Qaddafi killed more Americans? We would act appropriately, said the White House. But what might that action be? Why did we not act after he had killed his first set of Americans? Why give him the chance to kill more? Besides, would this new “appropriate” action really stop him? As for the bombing, if we had not meant to kill Qaddafi, whom had we meant to kill, and why?

The administration avoided answering and retreated into make-believe: “striking the nerve center,” “sending a message.” Weeks later Secretary of State Shultz declared victory with a message that was as vague as it was premature: “You've had it, pal.”

The attack on Libya was the embodiment of U.S. policy concerning terrorism. After much provocation, we did our enemy a little hurt. That is sending a message, all right. And that is why books like Hydra of Carnage are of limited usefulness. All the evidence, and all the anti-terrorist recipes, in the world will not make up for moral and intellectual confusion.

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