March 1993, Bombay, India : car, motorcycle and suitcase-bombs explode at noon in the business district. An unprecedented massacre, worldwide : 320 dead, 1200 injured within an hour. The perpetrators of the carnage are not “conventional” terrorists, but local gangsters following the orders of a muslim “godfather” on the Bombay criminal scene, recruited by Pakistani agents to avenge the massacres of muslims in Kashmir. In a world where the line between terrorism and gangsterism is increasingly blurred, a striking proof of the existence of new hybrid entities, midway between crime and terror – little known to western polices and intelligence agencies.

1) Genuinely new terrorist threats?

Yes indeed. This can be easily demonstrated using an image from Karl Marx, who compared the revolution with heating water on a fire. Until it reaches boiling point, it only experiences a change of degree. Once it turns to steam at 100°, it changes character. In contrast to political unrest, insurrection or riot, a revolution marks a change of character and no longer of degree, in the socio-political reality of a country.

The same applies to the new terrorist threats. None of them is either original or recent in their own right. To take but one example: there have always been Islamists, smugglers and delinquents in Algeria. But for a hybrid/symbiotic fundamentalist-outlaw-thug entity (the islamic Armed Group, or GIA) to wage an armed struggle, resisting – despite what optimists might say – the most radical repression, summary executions etc., and within three years being able to :

  • Put Algeria to the sword and the torch,
  • Hijack a French airliner,
  • And carry out a wave of bomb attacks in France through recruitment from within French territory in a similarly fertile soil – that is without precedence.

He who fails to understand this will fail to recognise the warrior’s figure of the next century, nor the shape that warfare will adopt.

2) Radically different hybrid terrorist movements

At the end of the 1960s, the IRA re-launched its armed struggle against the British; at about the same time, the Palestinian extremists started hijacking aircraft. Simultaneously, the Red Brigades and the Red Army Fraction waged urban guerrilla warfare in the imperialist heartland (Western Europe). That was thirty years ago. Terrorists made the headlines in the papers, as they do now, but – this is the major difference – they posed only a minor challenge to national security in the west : airport surveillance, maintaining order in Ulster, the work of the anti-terrorist police. Sensational perhaps, and a gift to the media, but terrorism was of little concern to those responsible for national defence.

Thirty years on, terrorism is everywhere. Examining all current conflicts one by one immediately shows that terrorism has become a major ingredient of war. As we approach the XXIst century, terrorism is therefore no longer a marginal, localised, problem for our governments, but has become a major security priority. Over the last thirty years, terrorism has slowly but surely infected warfare and, by contagion, has ended up by becoming the war. It now therefore concerns the Ministry of Defence as much as it does the Ministry of the Interior.

Terrorism today is all-invasive – every day, throughout the world, bombs are set off for a thousand different reasons; it has also changed so dramatically that a terrorism expert, awakening from a coma begun in 1989, would be bewildered by the terrorist scene in 1996. As we had predicted for many years, the cold war’s state terrorism, essentially political or ideological in nature, has virtually disappeared as such. What remains of it may be outwardly similar, but has experienced such a mutation that it must now be seen as part of the new terrorist reality.

Major difference : the new world disorder has seen a dramatic increase in the number of non-ideological entities making widespread use of terrorist methods – millenarians, criminals – even those ready to kill for the environment or animal “liberation”. Let us look again briefly at some general distinguishing features of these neo-terrorist groupings:

  • Trans-national criminal organisations

February 1995, Cali, Colombia : an “Aerolinas Americanas” Boeing 727 (120-seat tri-jet), capable of transporting 12 tons of cocaïne per trip to a site near the United States is seized. The airline belonged to the Cali cartel. Today, Italian, Turkish, ans Russian mafias, Colombian and Mexican cartels, Japanese yakuzas and chinese triads control financial and “military” assets of a clearly strategic nature. Some of them have already engaged in the most murderous forms of terrorism. Capable of lightning-quick changes – today trafficking in narcotics, tomorrow in human organs or toxic waistes – these mafias are now entrenched in chaotic areas of the sprawling cities in the third world and in the dangerous suburbs of the major metropolises of Europe.

  • Violent irrational groups, and religion-oriented fanatics,
  • Degenerate guerrilla movements (cf. “Democracy & Security”, N°5, december 1995)

Highly diverse they may be, but these “virtual powers” have nonetheless some common characteristics :

  • De-territorialisation, and/or location in inaccessible areas,
  • Usually, a total absence of state sponsorship, which makes them even more unpredictable and uncontrollable,
  • A hybrid character, partly “political” partly criminal,
  • The ability to change configuration rapidly as a function of the now allmighty dollar,
  • A pragmatic approach, following the old Maoist doctrine of waging guerrilla to learn about warfare (hence the bombs cobbled together by the GIA in France between July and November 1995).
  • Enormous killing power, compared with a cold-war terrorism which was usually little more than symbolic. The Aum sect only failed to kill 40,000 in the Tokyo Metro last April because an aerosol blocked ..

3) Sanctuaries and new battlefields.

These will be the battlefields of the XXIst century:

The gray areas from which the nation-state has disappeared for good and where the real power is exercised by coalitions between guerrillas or militia and the drug-traffickers, with their millions of dollars from heroin and cocaine,

The lawless suburbs of the major third world megalopoles – or even those of certain cities in the developped world – which have completely escaped from any police or local armed forces control (Karachi, Rio, Lagos, Lima, Mexico etc.). In jungles or shanty towns alike, you find the same joint presence of gangsters, terrorists and drug-traffickers, with the same trade in human beings, arms and illegal substances.

The electronic flow of information and of money, the cybernetic networks specialising in financial transfers, or the “information superhighway”. According to the latest official American information, between 300 and 500 billion “criminal dollars” went through the US banking system in 1995. This in the country with the world’s most severe anti-laundering laws – which gives some idea of what must be happening elsewhere…