Calmly taking terror’s measure
Brian Jenkins knows terror. It’s personal.
As a university student in Guatemala, he endured harrowing military interrogations because his friends and classmates included anti-government guerrillas. As a member of the U.S. Army’s Green Berets, he served in Vietnam and witnessed terrorism up close as a tactic of the Viet Cong.
And as a young analyst for Santa Monica-based Rand Corp., he launched the think tank’s terrorism research program nearly 40 years ago, tracking attacks around the world on 3-by-5 index cards. Today his database fills hard drives, and he has become one of the world’s top authorities on the subject.
In some ways, Jenkins knows too much. He is immersed routinely in risk assessments and intelligence reports brimming with the stuff of nightmares. His assessment: “We are not going to end terrorism, not in any future I see.”
Yet he exudes calm. His Southern California home -- neither fortress nor bunker -- is in a leafy, accessible neighborhood. He is a relaxed frequent flier, traveling more than 200,000 miles a year, much of it to terrorism conferences or briefings around the world.
And he thinks the country can cope as well.
“During the Cold War both the U.S. and Soviet Union spent a great deal of time and money understanding each other. To a great extent, that spared us from mutual annihilation,” Jenkins says.
Similarly, he says, in the war on terrorism “we have to have a better understanding of what we’re up against.” Demonizing terrorists as “wicked and evil” plays into their hands, while learning about “their quantifiable goals and understandable motives” demystifies them.
Knowledge, he says, is the antidote to anxiety.
The challenge is complicated, however, by evolution. Terrorist methods, motives and members keep changing.
So he remains a full-time student of terrorism. For that, Brian Michael Jenkins, 65, relies not only on the latest classified reports but on his lifetime experience.
Guatemala City, 1965
As a 23-year-old student, Jenkins knew he was in trouble when Guatemalan authorities insisted that he answer a few questions about some of his anti-government classmates at the University of San Carlos.
Though not an activist himself, the young American knew many who opposed the military dictatorship. Some were political demonstrators, some were considered terrorists.
He was ushered into an interrogation room, spare -- furnished with a single table -- and claustrophobically small. Military men asked the questions -- harsh, intimidating, endless questions. They suspected Jenkins was in league with their enemies.
“It was scary, and I was nervous,” he recalls.
At some point, his questioners abruptly walked out. No explanation. Hours went by. Jenkins contemplated the table, the walls, the silence.
“At least with an interrogation, you are talking to someone,” he says. “But alone, you have no idea what will happen . . . and your mind imagines all sorts of horrific outcomes.
“If [they] had wanted to make me disappear, I would certainly have disappeared, and no one would have ever known. And that was a stunning realization.”
The experience taught Jenkins that a government should never be allowed to wield power arbitrarily. It came rushing back after the Sept. 11 attacks, amid the national debate over “extraordinary renditions,” a CIA program under which terrorism suspects have been transferred to countries known to use torture.
“I thought about . . . being sent off to a dungeon,” Jenkins says.
“It doesn’t matter if you sometimes get the right people. That sort of capriciousness is completely incompatible with what I think we are as a nation.”
With the 5th Special Forces Group in Vietnam, Jenkins had a tough assignment. He lived in the countryside among villagers, trying to recruit as many as possible into a pro-U.S. counter-guerrilla force.
The locals felt threatened by all sides of the conflict.
“When looking at the war, from the perspective of the peasants, we were not providing security,” Jenkins says. Villagers too often were the luckless bystanders victimized by violence or crop damage inflicted by both U.S. and Viet Cong forces.
That first combat tour would provide a valuable lesson, he says, in how not to fight terrorism.
“If in the process of going after terrorists you create terror, then you are going to be in conflict forever,” he says. And accepting high levels of “collateral casualties” among the local population is sure to be “a losing strategy.”
Jenkins would return to Vietnam repeatedly over the next three years as part of a special military advisory group for Gen. Creighton Abrams, commander of U.S. forces in Southeast Asia. He was assigned to long-range planning and ended up warning in a classified report about “the danger that . . . we will fail in Vietnam.”
He also recognized changes foreshadowing a new day in global terrorism.
With American foreign policy focused on Cold War rivalries, Jenkins filed reports drawing attention to increased incidents stemming from political extremism in Europe, including terrorist bombings and political kidnappings.
“In the coming decade . . . [we] must not overlook both the possibilities and the potential threat raised by urban guerrilla warfare,” he told the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. It was 1970.
Santa Monica, 1972
Out of the military and into a think tank, Jenkins took up tracking urban guerrilla and terrorist groups from an office at the Rand Corp. He had worked there between Vietnam tours but was now settled into a new full-time career. He also was a newlywed.
His database of index cards was growing rapidly as he recorded incidents around the globe, including the shooting death of the U.S. ambassador in Guatemala, bombings of various United Nations missions in New York City by anti-Castro Cubans, and the hijacking of an Israeli jetliner on a Tel Aviv-bound flight from Rome to force the release of Palestinian prisoners.
“Hijackers making political demands, . . . that was an innovation,” Jenkins realized, and “a signal moment in terrorism tactics.”
In May 1972, the database added a particularly bloody entry. Three members of a group calling itself the Japanese Red Army shot up Lod Airport in Tel Aviv. The 26 dead were mostly Puerto Ricans on a pilgrimage.
“The intelligence people said, ‘How is it that some Japanese come to Israel on behalf of Palestinians and kill Puerto Ricans?’ ” Jenkins remembers. “It wasn’t simply the bloodshed, but the incident had this international quality to it.”
Then came the Munich Olympics in September, and the shocking murder of nine Israeli athletes by Palestinian kidnappers.
Jenkins says it introduced a new reality.
“There are no innocent bystanders. No one is safe. And that is a form of [conflict] that is equivalent to the concept of total war.”
Suddenly Jenkins and his database were in public demand. He was summoned to Washington by the Nixon administration and asked to help set up a Cabinet-level committee to deal with the terrorism threat. He prepared a background report for Congress and was called to testify.
In his first appearance before Congress, Jenkins was asked what the U.S. could do to rid the world of terrorism. He stumbled, unsure at the time how to answer.
Looking back at the 1970s, most of the recorded terrorist attacks -- with notably vicious exceptions -- seem relatively tame. Some bombers called ahead to warn potential victims. Suicide missions were rare.
Jenkins told a meeting at Los Alamos, N.M., in 1975 that “terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead.”
But times were changing. And Jenkins still had much to learn.
Jenkins was among a small group of advisors gathered on the 7th floor of the State Department for a Saturday morning breakfast with Secretary of State George P. Schultz. It was April 5, 1986, and terrorism was more than an agenda item -- it was breaking news.
Overnight reports from Berlin included the latest casualty figures from a disco club bombing that killed two American soldiers and wounded or maimed more than 200 other patrons, many of them GIs. Jenkins recalls that the already grim mood worsened after an aide handed Schultz a note.
“He got visibly upset,” Jenkins says. “I saw him grit his teeth, and he said something like, ‘Well, that’s it.’ Then he left the room.”
Jenkins learned later that the note relayed fresh intelligence linking the bombing to the Libyan government. The information would add to pressure for an aggressive national response.
Earlier, after a pair of 1983 suicide attacks in Beirut -- one aimed at the U.S. Embassy that killed 63 and the other at a U.S. Marine barracks that killed 242 -- President Reagan had reacted by pulling American troops out of Lebanon.
But those deadly assaults also set off high-level debate over how to respond in the future. Jenkins was invited to contribute to what he calls “no-holds-barred” discussions. His trips to Washington became more frequent. He also spent time with CIA Director William J. Casey, Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and other administration advisors.
Those sessions resulted in a new national security directive: In the event of future terrorist attacks, a U.S. military response would be among the options.
On April 14, 1986, two dozen F-111 Air Force fighter jets put that directive into action, raining down tons of bombs and laser-guided missiles on various Libyan targets. Reagan said it was “to ensure that terrorists have no sanctuary.”
Of that period in the 1980s, Jenkins says, “we were definitely seeing terrorists escalate their violence.” But, most significantly, overseas terrorism had begun to shape American foreign and defense policy.
Could it be, Jenkins mused, that the country was now engaged “in a war without end”?
New York, 1993
Repair work was just underway in the devastated underground garage of the World Trade Center complex when Jenkins and an advisory group entered the dank cavern left by a massive truck bomb that killed six, injured about 1,000 and forced evacuation of the towers.
The advisors were seeking lessons in the rubble. Jenkins recalls the acrid odor of burnt explosives that still hung in the damp underground air. He peered into the six-story crater and could barely see the bottom.
It was, he thought, like something out of “Dante and the rings of hell.”
Jenkins at the time was an executive with the international security firm Kroll Associates, assigned in the aftermath of the truck bombing to help the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey assess all potential threats against the Manhattan skyscrapers.
An airplane flying into one of the twin towers was offered as one potentially disastrous event -- its very mention provoked gasps of disbelief from project managers, Jenkins recalls.
“It was an alarming idea and one that could easily have been dismissed as the crazy product of someone’s fevered imagination, of someone who thought too much about terrorism.”
In the end, however, the threat was addressed in the group’s final report.
“We . . . knew there was no realistic way to protect the skyscrapers from a suicide mission. We couldn’t very well mount missile batteries above the Windows on the World restaurant,” Jenkins says, but in treating the imagined risk as real, Port Authority management installed a number of safety improvements to speed emergency evacuations.
Those improvements would play an important role in the next attack there.
Los Angeles, Sept. 11, 2001
A ringing telephone woke Jenkins from a sound sleep. Troubling news in New York, he was told. Bleary-eyed, he joined a nation transfixed by televised images of what some first reported to be a terrible accident -- a jetliner crash into a World Trade Center building.
Jenkins already had guessed it was terrorists. Then the south tower exploded from the impact of a second jetliner.
While millions mourned, Jenkins turned his attention to what was next. “I thought, ‘Yes, this is terrible. But what we have to do now is start thinking about where we go from here.’ ”
The fact is, Jenkins says, there is nothing the terrorists are doing today -- truck bombings, subway attacks, suicide missions -- that they could not have done 30 years ago. The big difference is motivation, shifting from political to religious zealotry, and marked by increasingly indiscriminate violence.
“However God speaks to you -- through a wild imam or a crazy rabbi or a Christian cult leader -- once you get otherworldly constituencies,” Jenkins says, the constraints on random attacks seem to disappear.
Today, “fangs rather than brains” often drive terrorist strategies.
In briefings to government officials since Sept. 11, Jenkins has urged relentless efforts to destroy Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda organization. To that end, he also has been a critic of the war in Iraq, calling it “a dangerous distraction” from the war on terrorists.
“Have we made some progress in fighting terrorists? Yes,” he says. “Is it going to get rough in some areas in the future? Most likely. Have we seen the last terrorist catastrophe? Not a chance.”
In the back seat of a BMW racing along the Black Sea coast at up to 120 mph, Jenkins seemed oblivious to the harrowing pace and twisting turns, distracted by a nagging question: Was he missing something?
For two days, in a freewheeling series of closed-door meetings in Varna, some of the world’s best-known experts on terrorists, extremists and international crime syndicates met with Jenkins to talk global trends and possible solutions.
One of the European experts reported intelligence indicating that Al Qaeda had “penetrated Asia, from Istanbul to Japan.” Others disagreed. The potentially ominous intelligence was left unresolved and in dispute.
In Jenkins’ world, such loose ends are unacceptable. He puzzled over the disagreement of fellow experts, each of them highly experienced and well-informed. “We can all be looking at the same information and not see the same thing. . . . How the hell can that happen?”
Finally, a break in the calm veneer of the man who knows too much. What bothers him most, it turns out, is what he doesn’t know.
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