Forgetting Lessons of Terrorism

President George W. Bush announcing the start of his invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003.

Paul R. Pillar

International terrorism has evolved in significant ways even just in what could be called its modern era, over the past 45 years or so. Policies and practices in responding to it also have evolved during the same period. Useful lessons have been learned and applied.

Enough time has gone by, however, and there have been enough discontinuities both in preferred terrorist methods and in official responses, that some of the lessons have been forgotten. This has been especially true in the United States, where much of the public appears to believe that the whole problem of international terrorism began on a September day 13 years ago.

In the 1960s, 1970s, and on into the 1980s, international terrorists – including Middle Easterners, as well as Western leftist radicals who were still active then – periodically seized headlines and public attention, in the United States as well as Europe. They most often did so by seizing hostages and threatening to kill or otherwise harm them if certain demands, often relating to release of previously captured terrorists, were not met.

Sometimes the hostage-taking occurred on the ground, such as with the takeover of a meeting of OPEC leaders in Vienna in 1975. Sometimes it was accomplished by hijacking a commercial airliner along with its passengers and crew. Some of the hostage-taking incidents became extended dramas that played out over days.

One that involved Americans, for example, was the hijacking by members of Lebanese Hezbollah of TWA Flight 847 in 1985. The hostages were held (and one of them killed) during three days in the plane while it crisscrossed the Mediterranean and then for another two weeks in Lebanon before they were released.

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