BRIA 11 4 b Terrorism: How Have Other Countries Handled It? How Should We?

Bill of Right in Action
Fall 1995 (11:4)
Updated July 2000

This special edition of Bill of Rights in Action focuseson issues raised by the Oklahoma City bombing.

BRIA 11:4 Home | The Aftermath of Terror | Terrorism: How Have Other Countries Handled It? How Should We? | Conspiracy Theories: Attacks on Jefferson Set the Pattern | Talk Radio: Playground for Free Speech or a Forum for Hate?

Terrorism: How Have Other Countries Handled It? How Should We?

The bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, did more than end the lives of 168 persons. It also brought terrorism to the heartland of America.

For the past 25 years, terrorists have operated in many countries. Except for a few small violent leftist groups during the Vietnam War years, the United States has been relatively free of this plague. A sign of things to come, however, occurred in 1993 when a massive explosion destroyed the underground garage of the World Trade Center in New York City killing six. Those responsible belonged to a group of Arab extremists who viewed America as an evil force in the world. But the Oklahoma City bombing was apparently the work of one or more Americans angry at their own government. If this is true, the sort of home-grown violent groups other countries have been combating for years may be finally taking root in the United States.

What is terrorism? The British government, which has been fighting terrorism in Northern Ireland since the late 1960s, defines it as "the use of violence for political ends." This includes "any use of violence for the purpose of putting the public . . . in fear." Terrorist groups typically reject democratic means of change, like elections, and believe that only violence can bring about their political goals.

Terrorists often strike out at ordinary, innocent people—even children. They want to show that the government cannot protect its own citizens. When the government tries to increase public safety by restricting certain freedoms, the terrorists are likely to charge that it has become a dictatorship not worthy of public support. The aim of terrorists is to turn people against the government.

While most Americans may not know much about terrorists and how they behave, other nations have had a great deal of experience. Especially in Europe, democracies have shown that terrorism can be eliminated or at least greatly reduced. How have other countries fought terrorism within their borders? What should we do about it here?

West Germany: Red Army Faction

Since 1970, the most dangerous terrorists in Europe have been associated with Marxist and other left-wing revolutionary groups. One of the first of these violent groups to form was the Red Army Faction (RAF), also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang. Operating mostly in West Germany throughout the 1970s, the RAF directed its terrorist acts at "American imperialism." Targets included the U.S. military as well as German political and business leaders. The Red Army Faction carried out bombings, shootings, kidnappings, and bank robberies.

From 1970 to 1979, the RAF killed 31 persons, injured about 100, took 163 hostages, and was responsible for 25 bombings. Among those killed was the attorney general of West Germany, the head of a national employer association, and several American soldiers stationed in West Germany.

One of the early anti-terrorist measures taken by the West German government was to require all government employees to take a loyalty oath. But this measure was soon criticized as a pointless intrusion into people's lives and was virtually abandoned.

In 1976, West Germany made it a crime to establish a terrorist organization. Other changes in the law increased police powers. With court approval, the police could search entire apartment buildings for suspected terrorists. The police could also establish checkpoints on roadways to stop and inspect the identification of travelers.

The West Germans expanded their intelligence gathering agencies. They also organized a crack anti-terrorist reaction unit. This unit could reportedly assemble in 15 minutes and deploy anywhere in the country within an hour with high-speed helicopters, special land vehicles, and high-tech weapons.

At first, the West Germans granted concessions to the Red Army Faction terrorists in hostage situations. But this only prompted the RAF to take more hostages and demand that the government release RAF leaders in prison. In 1975, West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt reversed the policy of granting concessions to terrorists. When he refused to give in to RAF demands after it took over the West German embassy in Stockholm, Sweden, two diplomats died before the hostage-takers were killed or captured. But hostage-taking by the RAF dropped off after this incident. Most governments today say they do not negotiate or grant concessions to terrorists. But experts caution never to say never.

By the early 1980s, most Red Army Faction members were either dead or in prison. The success of this West German anti-terrorist effort was due mainly to good intelligence and police work that did not seriously threaten the civil liberties of the people.

Italy: Red Brigades

The Red Brigades began forming in Milan auto factories around 1970. These revolutionary groups were led by Marxist university students who believed that the workers were ready to rise up against their capitalist masters. Soon the Red Brigades started committing major terrorist acts throughout Italy. They participated in kidnappings, bombings, political assassinations, and shootings. A favorite tactic was "kneecapping," shooting victims in the legs to permanently cripple them.

During the 1970s and early 1980s, Red Brigade terrorists committed more than 10,000 acts of political violence and took the lives of over 400 persons. This group's most notorious act was the kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro, the former leader of Italy. His brutal killing ended whatever sympathy Italians had for the Red Brigades. Nearly four years later, Red Brigade terrorists kidnapped General James Lee Dozier, the American NATO commander. But, by this time, Italian anti-terrorist intelligence units were closing in and Dozier was rescued.

As Red Brigade violence grew during the 1970s, the Italian government increased the authority of police to stop, search, and detain terrorist suspects. Individuals who refused to identify themselves could be held and questioned for up to 24 hours without having a lawyer present. Restrictions on telephone wiretaps were eased. It became a crime to join, organize, or promote any group seeking to overthrow the democratic system through violence.

One of the most successful tactics used by the Italian government was to reduce the sentences of convicted terrorists if they volunteered information about Red Brigade leaders and activities. Many youthful Brigade members, facing decades behind bars, chose to cooperate with the authorities. Consequently, the Red Brigade movement began to collapse. Over 800 members were arrested following the rescue of Gen. Dozier in January 1982.

By the mid-1980s, the Red Brigades were nearly extinct. As in Germany, the Italian government managed to wipe out a dangerous terrorist threat with minimal disruption to the rights of ordinary citizens.

Northern Ireland: Protestants vs. Catholics

In the 1920s, the British Parliament divided Ireland into two parts. It granted independence to most of the island, whose inhabitants are over 90 percent Catholic. It retained, however, the northern six counties as part of Great Britain. Northern Ireland, also called Ulster, is about 60 percent Protestant and 40 percent Catholic.

Since the partition of Ireland, the Protestants and Catholics in Ulster have had different political goals. The Protestant majority, which dominate the Ulster government, want Northern Ireland to remain a part of Great Britain. The Catholic minority, which fears discrimination by the Protestants, wants Northern Ireland to unify with the independent nation of Ireland. If this were to happen, the Protestants would become an instant minority. They fear they would then be subject to Catholic discrimination. Because of these fears, religious and political hatreds fueled by terrorist violence have divided the Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland for more than half a century.

In 1969, rioting reached such a dangerous state that the British Army was sent to Northern Ireland to restore order. The army remains to this day due to continued violence by both Protestant and Catholic terrorist groups.

Over the past 25 years, terrorists have killed more than 3,000 persons in Northern Ireland. About 800 bombings have taken place. While most of the terrorism has occurred in Northern Ireland, bombings and other violent acts have also been carried out on the British mainland.

The Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act, passed by the British Parliament in 1978, granted significant powers to the army, police, and prosecutors. Under certain circumstances, police may conduct searches and arrests without warrants. Police may detain "suspected terrorists" for up to 72 hours before bringing them before a judge. Jury trials in criminal cases have been abolished because terrorist groups have intimidated jurors. During trial, prosecutors may submit evidence by affidavit instead of calling witnesses to testify in person. The burden of proof in illegal firearms possession cases is placed on the defendant.

Britain also has a Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act, which has been renewed annually since 1974. This act outlaws certain groups that have advocated violence, such as the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The act also authorizes the detention of suspects without charge for up to seven days.

Unlike West Germany and Italy, Great Britain has not put terrorist organizations out of action. One major reason for this is the widespread support and protection terrorists get from the Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland.

In 1994, the Irish Republican Army, long banned as a terrorist organization by the British government, announced a cease fire. This led the British to agree to talk with the IRA and others about a permanent political settlement for Northern Ireland. Disagreements at the peace talks led to a renewal of IRA’s military operations in 1996, although the organization claimed that it remained ready to develop a meaningful negotiations process. A year later, the peace talks resumed and the number of murders by the IRA as well as unionist terrorist organizations skyrocketed. As a result, the Ulster Democratic Party and Sinn Féin were expelled from the peace talks because of their affiliation with terrorist organizations. The remaining representatives from Great Britain and the Irish Republic produced a settlement called the Good Friday Agreement, which created the Northern Ireland Assembly.

In spite of this agreement, dissention and violence continue in Northern Ireland. Days after voters in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic approved the Good Friday Agreement, a splinter group from the IRA bombed Omagh. The bomb killed 29 people and wounded over 200, constituting the most deadly parliamentary attack in Northern Irish history.

The peace accords set May of 2000 as the deadline for the complete disarmament of Northern Irish terrorist groups, and many groups have complied. While the IRA has agreed to put their weapons "beyond use" in storage sites supervised by third parties, those who distrust the IRA are not comfortable with this compromise. Indeed, many members of the Northern Ireland Assembly continue to express doubts about the IRA enjoying any access to their weapons, however limited. They oppose the idea of seating Sinn Féin in the Northern Ireland Assembly until the IRA completely disarms.

United States: Security vs. Freedom

The United States undoubtedly needs to take steps to prevent terrorism at home, something other countries have done for decades. But should traditional American rights and freedoms be sacrificed in order to crack down on terrorist groups and suspects? Yale law professor Stephen Carter warns, "If terrorists can cause us to become a closed and fearful society, they win."

Since the World Trade Center bombing, owners of the New York City office complex are spending $25 million annually for security guards, surveillance cameras, and other anti-terrorist measures. Should the same sort of thing be done in government buildings? Should the police be given special powers to search and interrogate terrorist suspects? Should potentially violent organizations be outlawed? James Q. Wilson, professor of public policy at UCLA, thinks that the best way to control terrorists within the United States is to make use of informants and FBI undercover agents. In any case, Americans can no longer assume that the threat of terrorism is only a problem for other countries.

For Discussion and Writing

  1. Why do terrorists commit seemingly senseless acts of violence, like the Oklahoma City bombing?
  2. What differences and similarities do you see among the terrorists who have operated in West Germany, Italy, and Northern Ireland?
  3. Imagine that an airliner with men, women, and children aboard has been hijacked on an airport runway by terrorists. The terrorists demand $1 million, a helicopter to aid their escape, and that their "manifesto" be read over television. What do you think authorities should do in this situation? What do you think they should not do?

For Further Information

Compton’s Encyclopedia Online: Terrorism: An encyclopedia article focusing on the terrorist organizations that have emerged since the late 1960s around the world.

PBS Frontline: The IRA and Sinn Féin: This site provides press coverage and historical background about Northern Ireland.


Terrorism Prevention Act

Listed below are six hypothetical measures similar to those used by other countries to combat terrorism within their borders. In this activity, students will imagine that they are members of Congress considering whether or not the United States should adopt any of these measures.

  1. Form six congressional committees. Assign each committee one of the anti-terrorist measures to evaluate.
  2. Each committee should draw up a list of pros and cons for the measure it is evaluating. After doing this, the committee members should vote whether to recommend it to be included in a U.S. "Terrorism Prevention Act." Committee members may choose to change the wording of the measure they wish to recommend.
  3. Each committee should report its recommendation to the full Congress giving both majority and minority views. Other groups may then ask questions or argue points.
  4. After all committees have reported, the Congress as a whole will vote on each measure reported out of committee.

Anti-Terrorist Measures

  1. Additional security police will be hired to patrol inside and outside of all federal buildings with authority to inspect any bags, briefcases, packages, or vehicles.
  2. The U.S. attorney general will draw up a list of terrorist organizations seeking to cause political change by violent means. Membership in any of these groups will be a criminal offense.
  3. Each applicant for federal employment will be required to take a loyalty oath to the U.S. Constitution and affirm he or she is not, and has never been, a member of any terrorist organization.
  4. The FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies will be permitted to use court-approved warrants to search entire apartment buildings for terrorist suspects and evidence.
  5. The FBI will be authorized to form, equip, and train an elite strike force to combat terrorist groups and make rescues in hostage situations.
  6. Individuals convicted of terrorist acts may have their sentences reduced if they volunteer significant intelligence information to federal law enforcement authorities.