'Tomorrow's Threat'

Bruce Hoffman has been studying terrorism for almost three decades. In the early 1990s, he was one of the first analysts to predict that religiously motivated groups might start using weapons of mass destruction. At the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos this week, he played a key role in panels on the topic, moderating discussions on setting the agenda for the war on terror and the resilience of groups like Al Qaeda. "Terrorism is constantly evolving," he says. "Our responses have to be equally innovative."

Hoffman, 49, is currently the director of the Washington office of the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit research institution. The founding director of the well-known center on terrorism at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, he is also the editor in chief of Studies in Conflict and Terrorism and the author of two books on the subject. He spoke to NEWSWEEK's Arlene Getz in the Swiss ski resort about the challenges ahead in fighting terrorism-and what groups like Al Qaeda could do next. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: You say that we have to develop innovative responses to terrorism. What kind of responses are you talking about?

Bruce Hoffman: The challenge is that terrorists are constantly monitoring what we're doing against them and therefore they're adjusting their tactics and targets [accordingly] . So we can't be preparing for yesterday's threat, but rather really for tomorrow's.

What is tomorrow's threat?

It's not impossible that terrorists would use some heinous weapon of mass destruction, although I think in practical terms they haven't yet come that close-at least this particular category of adversary that we face today. We know there's abundant evidence that they've planned and plotted, so our adjustments have to be to constantly find new ways to gather intelligence, to penetrate these groups, to staunch the supply of money going to them. They've adjusted since we outlawed the charities [that served as fronts for terror groups], for example. It [involves] applying technology and harnessing the benefits of our advantages in that sense. But it's also about not becoming complacent and not being lulled into a false sense of security just because there haven't been any attacks in the United States since September 11.

Why haven't there been any further attacks inside America?

Partly luck, but it may also be due to some of the measures we've adopted having a deterrent effect. The terrorists know that the United States is becoming a harder target.

Many people believe that the terrorists have also avoided American targets outside the country because Washington has ramped up security so much at places like embassies.

That does seem to be true. We've had captured terrorists tell us they didn't attack a particular U.S. target because the security was too tight. But remember, whichever target gets attacked in the end, innocent people end up dead.

How helpful are measures like the fingerprinting of foreign visitors to the U.S., which was introduced this month?

Again it's the deterrent effect. [Terrorists] know it's going to be harder to get in and out of the United States with false documentation, for example.

How effective are the tighter international banking disclosure laws aimed at stopping money laundering to terror groups?

It's impossible to say how effective they've been without knowing how much money they had to start with. But remember, the recent bombs in Turkey cost just $45,000. In the attack on the USS Cole, all it took was a plastic dinghy and some explosives to put a warship out of action for two years.

What about the cost of the September 11 attacks?

They were more expensive--they cost more than $400,000 dollars. But they caused more than $4 billion in lost business. That shows the asymmetric nature of what we're dealing with here.

What's the biggest threat we're facing now? A nuclear bomb? Chemical or biological weapons?

No, I think it derives from the lesson of September 11--it's harnessing a conventional weapon or a conventional attack in a different way that results in a record number of deaths.

Another attack involving commercial aviation?

Well, that was a success story for them, and nothing builds on success like success. Remember they did try to use Richard Reid as the shoe bomber on a plane after September 11. Also, it would be a huge victory for them if they could pull off something even after all the new security measures.

Can suicide attacks ever really be prevented?

It's hard, but not impossible. Israel managed to get its number of fatalities down enormously last year, because of countermeasures. Sri Lanka was able to do the same against the Tamil Tigers, a secular group.

Do you ever worry that your predictions could turn into self-fulfilling prophesies--that you're basically giving these groups ideas about what to do next?

My research is less about predicting and more about researching trends. In 1993, I wrote a paper that said the first use by a nonstate group of a chemical or biological weapon wouldn't be any of the stereotypical terrorist groups we were following [then]--mostly left-wing groups or even state-sponsored groups--[but] most likely a group motivated by religion or a religious cult. At that point we knew that the Aum Shinrikyo [the Japanese religious cult group that released sarin nerve gas into the Tokyo subway in 1995] had been looking into chemical and biological weapons. So it's really about what's unfolding rather than making blind predictions of the future. I don't think there's a symbiosis between experts saying something and terrorists following up. I [do] think there are dangers of doing that on op-ed pages, for example, when one is thinking more discursively, more out of the box perhaps, [then] you could give terrorists ideas. In the empirical research that we do at Rand, I think there's less of a case.

You've been studying terrorism a long time now.

Yes, I started [on] terrorism in 1976, when I was in graduate school. My thesis was [about] the Jewish terrorist groups in Palestine [before 1948] and their influence on the British decision to surrender the mandate--the events that led to the creation to the Israel.

Tactics have certainly changed a lot since then.

That's one of the problems. The things we thought were really fantasies in the 1970s and the 1980s--that terrorists were just more interested in the publicity than in killing people--became anachronistic by the end of the 1990s and certainly [after] the 9/11 attacks. At one time terrorists were like that, but they've changed dramatically. What I've written about for more than a decade now is the infusion of a religious motivation.

But as one of the panelists pointed out during the discussion you moderated on Wednesday, there are many different reasons behind terror attacks.

That's clear. But what I think is patently obvious is that the main threat we face today-especially in terms of weapons of mass destruction, but also in terms of the proliferation of the most serious and consequential forms of terrorism--are from groups motivated by religion. Not necessarily just Islamic groups, but certainly religion has become the most dangerous pre-eminent motivation of terrorists today.

Were you surprised by any of the views during your panel on setting the agenda for the war against terror?

The conclusions were exactly what I expected. I found myself being in agreement with almost every view expressed. Former [Israeli] prime minister Ehud Barak argued for a very activist policy against terrorism today, not least because the stakes have gotten so large because of WMD [weapons of mass destruction] terrorism. At the same time, Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, was enormously cogent in his defense of civil liberties and being able to provide security while still not tramping on freedom. The fundamental challenge in countering terrorism is striking a balance between those two, and that's precisely what we're trying to do.