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Defeating terrorism: is it possible? Is it probable? - The Futurist

Defeating terrorism: is it possible? Is it probable? - The Futurist

Report by Forecasting International; "Terror 2000: The Future Face of Terrorism"
The Futurist; May 1, 2007
By Dr. Marvin J. Cetron

Forecasting International (FI) is in the business of predicting future developments. Therefore, let us begin with a few of the easiest and least welcome predictions that FI has ever made. 

  • Terrorist events will be more common and bloody in the years ahead than they have been to date. September 11 will prove to have been no more than a taste of things to come.
  • Al-Qaeda, often under other names, will grow much larger and more dangerous than the band of fanatics that attacked the Pentagon and the World Trade Center in 2001. This process already is well under way.
  • Jihadists, or Muslim extremists, will acquire nuclear weapons within the next 10 years, if they do not possess them already.
  • As things stand, the war on terror will drag on for decades, with many tactical successes but little or no strategic benefit. In the long run, this could leave the Western world facing choices even more horrific than the attacks themselves.

The remainder of this article will be devoted to explaining these forecasts and to examining the prospects for changing them. Finding some way to change the obvious direction of the war on terror is the single greatest need that faces not only the United States, but also the rest of the world. 

Could 9/11 Have Been Predicted And Prevented?

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, came as a horrifying wake-up call for millions of Americans and their sympathizers around the world. For the first time since the War of 1812, foreign attackers carried out a major assault on the U.S. mainland. For the first time since Pearl Harbor, thousands of Americans were killed without warning. 

However, not everyone was entirely surprised by the assault. Every major aspect of the 9/11 attacks had been anticipated in a report called Terror 2000: The Future Face of Terrorism, written in 1994. It was the product of a study carried out as part of the Fourth Annual Defense Worldwide Combating Terrorism Conference, sponsored by the Department of Defense's Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict branch (SO/LIC) and managed by strongPeter <>Probst, then on staff at SO/LIC.Probst was a pioneer in the study of terrorism at DOD and the CIA and, as a private consultant, continues to be a leader in the field. Acting for SO/LIC, Probst contracted with Forecasting International to help manage the conference and to carry out the Terror 2000 study. His contributions to the study itself were so extensive that, had the report been released publicly,Probst would have been listed as co-author. 

The common wisdom at the time held that terrorism was quickly becoming obsolete, as rogue states learned that sponsoring terrorist attacks cost far more than any possible benefit was worth. Sponsorship of the Lockerbie bombing had subjected Libya to an air and arms embargo, a ban on some needed oil equipment, and the loss of financial assets. Iraq, long a patron of terrorism, had finally exhausted the world's patience by invading Kuwait and lost a precedent-setting war to a broad coalition of foreign powers led, but by no means dominated, by the United States. With those lessons in mind, no state would be likely to sponsor future terrorist acts, and without that support, terrorism itself would dry up. 

The authors of Terror 2000 saw it differently. Terrorism, they said, would grow more common, not less so. It would not be sponsored by states, but increasingly by Muslim extremists motivated by a bitter hatred of the West in general and America in particular. And it would be designed to cause bloodshed on a level never before seen, even at the cost of the terrorists' own death. 

Some specific forecasts anticipated the September 11 attack with almost uncanny accuracy. The participants foresaw the execution of a second, much more successful, attack on the World Trade Center towers; the accomplishment of simultaneous assaults on widely separated targets (also seen in the embassy bombings of 1998); and the deliberate crash of an airplane into the Pentagon. (That last was removed from the report for fear that it would give terrorists a valuable idea they had not already conceived on their own.) 

Although the Terror 2000 report is now more than a decade old, it still offers useful lessons for the present and future war on terror. It is used in the curricula of the National War College, all three service academies, and their counterparts in a number of other countries. 

Many of the analyses and recommendations originating in Terror 2000 have been adopted with little change in later studies of terrorism. The reports of both the Commission on National Security (the Bremer Commission) in 1998 and the National Commission on Terrorism (the Rudman Commission) in 2000 relied heavily on our work. Even the 9/11 Commission used substantial portions of these three studies, including many that first appeared in the Terror 2000 report. 

Despite this, the lessons from Terror 2000 have yet to be completely absorbed. Many of our recommendations have been implemented only in part, if at all. And some of the thinking that shaped the study--but was not included in the final report--has since emerged as crucial to our understanding of the dangers the United States faces now, and will face in the years to come. 

Futurist Community's Contributions

In its day (1994), the Terror 2000 project was one of the most extensive studies of terrorism ever undertaken. It also was one of the most unusual, due to a combination of resources pioneered by FI. 

Like other studies, it involved leading experts in its subject area. Among them were Ambassador Paul Bremer of Kissinger Associates, formerly ambassador-at-large for counter-terrorism and more recently administrator of Iraq (2003 to 2004); Brian Jenkins, then with Kroll Associates and now senior vice president at the RAND Corporation; Bruce Hoffman of the RAND Corporation; Paul Wilkinson of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, a leading adviser in the anti-IRA campaign;Yigal Carmon, counter-terrorism advisor to two Israeli prime ministers; Major General Oleg Kalugin (Retired), who as head of the Soviet KGB foreign counterintelligence directorate had recruited, trained,funded, and managed some of the most dangerous terrorists of the 1970s and 1980s; and of course Peter Probst, who brought his own expertise to the project. 

However, it was a second group of advisors that made the study unique. They were professional forecasters. Few had ever considered terrorism before; their expertise was in identifying trends, regardless of subject, and figuring out where they would lead. These included Clement Bezold, president of the Institute for Alternative Futures; Edward Cornish, then president of the World Future Society; Jean Johnson of the National Science Foundation; and Vary Coates, project director for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. 

The combination of forecasting generalists with terrorism specialists proved to be remarkably productive. The forecasters provided many ideas that did not fit within the specialists' experience. These included new issues that might inspire terrorism, new methods of attack, potential targets, and many similar items. The specialists in turn kept the forecasters grounded in reality. They accepted some of the forecasters' ideas, rejected some as being too implausible, and elaborated on others, seeing implications that could not be recognized without their knowledge of the subject. A few ideas were rejected by the specialists, but were so strongly supported by the forecasters that they were included in the report despite the objections. The future importance of terrorism by Muslim extremists was one such case. 

Terror 2000 was not just a theoretical study. It made specific recommendations for combating the growing threat, from hardening American facilities abroad to improving intelligence collection, particularly human intelligence, and rebuilding the "area studies" think tanks that were abandoned after the end of the Cold War. In retrospect, it seems fair to suggest that al-Qaeda would have found it much more difficult to strike at the United States if these and other suggestions had been implemented. 

It was not to be. As the report was nearing completion, the Interagency Group headed by Ambassador Barbara Bodine, then acting coordinator for counter-terrorism, objected to its distribution. Bodine feared that a chapter titled "Holy Terror," which forecasted dramatic growth in religiously and culturally motivated terrorism by Muslims, would undermine American relationships with the oil-producing countries of the Middle East, and the threat of higher oil prices seemed more immediate and troubling than any possible risk of terrorism. In addition, she believed that little or nothing useful would be accomplished by releasing the report. As Bodine pointed out, in a democracy you can't deal with a crisis until it has become a crisis. In the end, Ambassador Bodine ordered the report shelved, labeled "Unclassified/Government Use Only," and halted its planned distribution to the president, vice president, cabinet members, and members of Congress. The study was remembered only by a few participants who joined in later studies of the terrorist menace. 

Today, terrorism is a crisis, but we still are not dealing with it effectively. It is not even clear that we can do so. 

Understanding "Holy Terror"

Widespread hostility toward the West will allow al-Qaeda to make a pivotal transition. Today, the terrorists are merely outlaws; they enjoy a base of popular support, but nonetheless remain outside the formal power structure of the Muslim world as it is recognized in other lands. In the next five years, they are likely to become something far more dangerous: legitimate political factions, and even governments, as first Fatah and then Hamas have done in Palestine. 

Islam is the second-largest religion in the world today, and probably the fastest growing. There are roughly 1.7 billion Muslims, compared with about 2.1 billion Christians and 900 million Hindus. By 2025, there will be perhaps as many as 2 billion Muslims around the world. In Europe and America, Islam is expanding even faster, thanks in part to immigration and in part to high birth rates. There are about 5 million Muslims in the United States and 1,500 mosques. In France, at the current rate of growth, more than half the population will be Muslim within 20 years. 

Islam, we are told, is a religion of peace. Non-Muslims are second class, but they are to be tolerated unless they show themselves to be enemies of Islam. Yet, some aspects of the Muslim world seem difficult to reconcile with claims of tolerance and piety. Consider these statistics, collected by Forecasting International and Battelle: 

  • One-third of Muslims believe that the 9/11 attacks were justified.
  • Two-thirds are unshakably convinced that no Muslims were involved in those events.
  • Two-thirds believe that the attacks were carried out by the intelligence services of Britain, the United States, or Israel, and perhaps all three, in an attempt to discredit Muslims.
  • These beliefs are held, in roughly those proportions, in every country of the Muslim world, at every socioeconomic and educational level.
  • In short, two-thirds of the world's 1.7 billion Muslims, roughly 1 billion people, take it as a matter of faith that the U.S. "war on terror" is no more than a fraud carried out for the purpose of returning them to colonial rule. It did not help that, in the initial phases of the global war on terror, it was referred to as a "Crusade," a word that Muslims have neither forgotten nor forgiven in more than 700 years.

Also significant is the view that, just as there is no god but Allah, and no source of true knowledge but the Koran, there is no valid authority save that of religious leaders. Secular government is illegitimate under God's law, and secular law an oxymoron, inevitably as weak and corrupt as the men who operate it. There is a vast and impassable gulf between secular governments throughout the Muslim world and the people whom they claim to rule. We see it in Pakistan and Iraq, Egypt and Jordan, and even Morocco and Turkey, where decades of secular tradition and rule have not erased the appeal of fundamentalist extremism. 

Extremist Muslim attitudes and beliefs create extraordinary volatility when they come into contact with the West. For all their belief in the moral superiority of Islam, many Muslims find the freedom and material prosperity of the West to be enormously seductive. Westerners are hated not for what they do or what they have, but for what they are. The temptation that the West represents -- to abandon pious self-denial, to accept freedom and comfort here on Earth and thereby lose Paradise -- makes Westerners "enemies of Islam" in a way that no specific action ever could. This is why jihadists no longer seek to change U.S. or Western policies but instead aim simply to destroy these "enemies of Islam." 

That implacable hatred takes much of its power from a long history that is every bit as important to Islam as any event in the present day. Time is of little significance to the Muslim worldview. The triumphs of Saladin in the Third Crusades rank alongside the destruction of the World Trade Center, without regard to the centuries that separate them. The pan-Arabism of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1920s is an obvious extension of the battle to drive infidels from Muslim lands. More recent successes include the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, the African embassy bombings in 1998, the attack on the U.S.S. Cole, and so endlessly on. Osama bin Laden's jihad is simply the latest expression of an everlasting war against the evils of the West, for the greater glory of Allah. 

This is a context in which the terrorist cause can never be lost, much less abandoned. Successes are forever remembered, failures ennobled. It does not matter that Osama now hides in the mountains of Pakistan; he struck a valiant blow against the great Satan. It is not important that Saddam has now been executed; he sent the Americans packing after the first Gulf War and serves as an inspiration to jihadists around the world. Both these heroes will rise again, or live on in Paradise, glorified for all eternity. Through fantasy and repetition and in the light of the eternal battle against evil, losses become gains, defeats become triumphs. And if the terrorist war can never be lost, there is reason to wonder whether the war against it can ever be won. 

Forecasts and Recommendations 

At Forecasting International, we see three major changes coming in the years ahead that will fundamentally alter both the terrorist threat to the United States and the terms on which the "war" on terror must be fought.


The terrorist ranks are growing. In deposing the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and depriving al-Qaeda of a safe haven there, the United States struck a major blow against the terrorist movement as it existed five years ago. Yet by failing to follow up on that success effectively, the nation has squandered much of the benefit that should have been gained from that first step in the counterterrorist battle. And by invading Iraq, the United States has supplied al-Qaeda and its sympathizers with a cause around which to rally their existing forces and recruit new ones. As a result, the terrorist movement is now growing stronger, not weaker. 

There is ample evidence to support this assessment. Up to 30,000 foreign fighters are believed to have gravitated toward Iraq, where they are now gaining contacts and experience that will serve them well in future campaigns against Western nations. In this, Iraq is now serving the function that Afghanistan provided in the 1980s. The war in Iraq is building a skilled and disciplined terrorist cadre that will fan out across the world. 

Saudi Arabia even has been forced to build a major program aimed at keeping young men from going to Iraq. The Wahhabi in Saudi Arabia are teaching that joining the jihad is the Muslim man's second-greatest duty, behind going to Mecca. After fighting in Iraq, the Muslim men must come back and be available to fight for fundamentalist Islam in Saudi Arabia. Thus are terrorist cells built, independent of al-Qaeda but firmly committed to its goals and methods. 

Similar developments are seen elsewhere. The Madrid railway bombings were carried out by a semi-autonomous terrorist cell based in Morocco, whose members cited the invasion of Iraq as one inspiration for their efforts. In Britain, the London subway bombings in 2005 were the work of a small, independent band of British citizens inspired by al-Qaeda. In France and Australia, authorities have arrested a number of Western converts to Islam, many of whom are believed to have joined al-Qaeda or associated organizations since the invasion of Afghanistan. A report by French intelligence officials estimated between 30,000 and 50,000 such converts, and by implication potential terrorists,in France alone. 

It is clear that terrorists have considerable sympathy among Europe's Muslim population. The riots in October and November 2005 affected at least 20 cities in France and touched off lesser violence in Belgium, Denmark, Greece, the Netherlands, Spain, and even Switzerland. 

More such events are all but inevitable. Saudi Arabia funds an extensive network of religious schools, from New York to Pakistan. Saudi authorities have admitted that as much as 10% of the curriculum in those schools contains material preaching hatred of other religions and the West. At times, those schools even have coordinated their sermons to deliver consistent anti-Western messages in far-distant locales. In a preliminary study during 2003, Borik Zadeh of the Battelle Institute found that mosques in Ohio, London, Frankfurt, and Paris were delivering virtually identical sermons, the key message of which was an endorsement of global war against the West. In Pakistan, where Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi movement supports thousands of madrassas, the call to jihad is even more enthusiastic. Those schools are recruiting extremists, sending money and fighters to Iraq, and systematically building an extremist cadre that will pursue the battle against the West for generations to come. 

They are most dangerous in their target countries: Saudi Arabia, Australia, Europe, and to a lesser extent the United States. Individuals from these countries are absorbing the extremist creed, going to Iraq and learning to fight, and returning to their own countries. France, Denmark, Saudi Arabia, and too many other lands are now home to revolutionaries with all the rights of citizens. Identifying these homegrown, foreign-trained terrorists will be one of the most difficult tasks for antiterrorist forces in the years ahead.


Terrorists will gain weapons of mass destruction. The elite among tomorrow's terrorists will have more than plastic explosives with which to make their point. They will have nuclear weapons. Pakistani engineer Abdul Qadeer Khan ensured that when he gave Pakistan what most extremists regard as an "Islamic bomb" and then spread the plans far and wide. If terrorists cannot lay hands on a stolen weapon from the former Soviet Union, they soon may be able to obtain them from either Islamabad or Tehran.


Terrorists will rise to power in governments. Rather than obtaining nuclear weapons from a sympathetic government, al-Qaeda or its spin-offs will likely become the government in any of perhaps a dozen countries. Wherever secular government is weak, it might easily be replaced by a much stronger and more virulently anti-American theocracy with leaders drawn straight from the terrorist movement. Candidates for a terrorist takeover include Iran (where the job already is half done), Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the "stans" of the former Soviet Union, and perhaps the Gulf states. 

However, our own choice for "most likely to undergo a religious revolution" is Saudi Arabia, where the royal family has supported the extremist Wahhabi sect for some 200 years. At FI, we will not be surprised if Osama bin Laden returns to his homeland and sets up an Islamist government in Riyadh, with dire consequences for the U.S. economy and for national security. 

There is precedent for the transformation from terrorist movement to legitimate government, even among Muslim extremist organizations. In Palestine and other parts of the Middle East, Fatah, Hamas, and Hezbollah provide the kind of social safety net that governments in the region do not. Food, clothing, education, shelter, jobs, and medical assistance all flow from these organizations, bringing them a kind of legitimacy that violent action, however widely admired, never could. This service, combined with the corruption of the Fatah government, was the primary reason Palestinians voted Hamas into power, not the organization's intransigent rejection of Israel's existence. 

If the terrorists do manage to gain control of a functional country, the nature of the game changes radically. When terrorists become the government, all terrorism is state sponsored. The budget available to fund terrorist activities grows manifold. The nation's laboratories and scientists become available to develop chemical, biological, and even nuclear weapons for the cause. If the country is Pakistan, where Pervez Musharraf enjoys the support of virtually none of his citizens, nuclear devices already are available. Preventing terrorists from gaining control over those weapons is one of the most pressing necessities now facing the counterterrorist community.

Countering the Terrorist Threats

Unlike any government in the Muslim world, Osama bin Laden already has the allegiance of between 60% and 90% of the people in each country. Equal numbers consider the United States to be a menace intent upon returning the Muslim lands to Western domination. There was a time when that would not have mattered, because most Muslims were so impressed by American wealth and power that the United States seemed invincible. The attacks of September 11 destroyed that useful illusion and told extremists everywhere that the United States could be hurt. U.S. problems in Afghanistan and Iraq have reinforced this lesson. From an antiterrorist perspective, this has probably been the single most dangerous result of the events of the last few years. 

As we have seen, the hatred of the West in the Muslim world runs deep. It grows more inflamed with each incident in which terrorists strike effectively at the West. It is further nurtured by the Muslim religious schools sponsored by Saudi Arabia throughout the world. The sight of Osama bin Laden or one of his successors as a head of state could unite the Muslim world in a way that nothing thus far has even approached. It is likely to happen quickly. At FI, we expect to see major changes within the next three to four years. 

A nation like the United States might try to expel its Islamic community and wall itself off from Muslim lands, but such measures will not eliminate the danger. For one thing, it wouldn't prevent infiltration of tactical nuclear weapons, which are becoming increasingly portable. Also, for the foreseeable future, the United States will need oil much too badly to cut off all contact with Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and even Iran unless there is no other choice. 

Alternatively, the United States could attempt to strike preemptively against the terrorists and their sympathizers. But the number and breadth of targets required to eliminate the terrorist infrastructure and deter its reconstruction could involve so many deaths, and such a horrific level of guilt, that the United States would be unlikely to survive intact. Despite this, FI believes that the Pentagon should plan for this possibility. In case of need, however improbable, the plan must be ready to go with as little notice as possible. 

Short of draconian measures, there are a few steps that can be taken to delay the ultimate crisis, perhaps giving enough time to find a permanent and acceptable solution to the problem. 

Whatever else American counterterrorism and diplomatic efforts accomplish, the "Muslim bomb" issue -- with Pakistan currently possessing nuclear weapons and Iran moving to acquire them -- must be addressed. The alternative eventually might be to witness the detonation of an atomic bomb in a major population and financial center. 

Nuclear material abandoned around the world must be secured. In 1992, the United States agreed to help Russia secure some 600 metric tons of nuclear material so that it would not fall into the hands of terrorists. A dozen years later, only 135 tons are properly secure, and at least 340 tons remain untouched. 

The West also needs to keep track of nuclear scientists in the Muslim world, where jihadist terrorists could gain control. It should not have been possible for Abdul Qadeer Khan to develop key nuclear technologies, let alone to transfer them to Iran unnoticed. Preventing any repetition of this incident is a task for a greatly expanded human intelligence program. 

Saudi Arabia must be discouraged from supporting the madrassas and their virulent anti-American, anti-West message. If this cannot be accomplished diplomatically, then other, more stringent methods must be considered. Some way must be found to keep Iran from producing nuclear weapons. Iran may not be the most certain source of nuclear devices for tomorrow's terrorists, much less the only one, but it is a clearly identifiable threat. 

The United States and other target nations must devise more effective, and less intrusive, methods of securing obvious targets against terrorist attack. According to a survey FI carried out among futurists, security specialists, and serving and retired military officers of flag rank, these include schools (as in the hostage-taking at Beslan, Chechnya), churches and synagogues, and shopping malls. 

Finally, and most importantly, we need to search for more options. This list of antiterrorist measures is no more than a first attempt to identify the most immediate problem areas and suggest counter measures. None of these efforts will eliminate the terrorist threat. So we need a comprehensive program of research designed to help us better understand the mind-set of jihadists and to identify pressure points that can be used to interrupt the spread of terrorism. The alternatives are too grim to contemplate. 

About the Author

Marvin J. Cetron is president of Forecasting International Ltd. In Virginia. His e-mail address is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. The author welcomes feedback on this article, which will also be the topic for a session at the World Future Society's conference "World Future 2007: Fostering Hope and Vision for the 21st Century." 

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