Does U.S. Intervention Overseas
Breed Terrorism?

--- The Historical Record ---


by Ivan Eland


December 17, 1998


(Ivan Eland is Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute.)


The following note [in brackets] was contributed  by the Information Clearing House at the time of the run-up to the 2003 attack on Iraq:

[The following document explores the relationship between American Foreign Policy and acts of terrorism committed against the United States. It corrects the distorted perceptions that America has been the victim of terrorism, purely because “They hate our freedoms - our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other,” or simply because they are evil!

Those juvenile and simplistic theories put forward by our President and his administration - and parroted by commercial media - are an attempt to dumb down the discussion and prevent investigation as to the real cause of terrorism. As a result, the American people are catapulted into further foreign adventures which can only result in even more acts of terror against our country and its citizens.

This document and its conclusions are of the utmost importance. The document points out that our government, while being aware of the facts, chooses to ignore them and lie to its citizens. These lies and simplifications place our nation in great peril. The upcoming invasion of Iraq and reordering of the Middle East according to America's interests will cause such blowback that future discussion on these points will not be able to arise again for some time.

Reading this document and understanding its conclusions will convince you of the depth of disregard our government has for the welfare of its own people.]






The Historical Record


by Ivan Eland



Executive Summary


According to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, terrorism is the most important threat the United States and the world face as the 21st century begins. High-level U.S. officials have acknowledged that terrorists are now more likely to be able to obtain and use nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons than ever before.


Yet most attention has been focused on combating terrorism by deterring and disrupting it beforehand and retaliating against it after the fact. Less attention has been paid to what motivates terrorists to launch attacks. According to the Pentagon's Defense Science Board, a strong correlation exists between U.S. involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the United States. President Clinton has also acknowledged that link. The board, however, has provided no empirical data to support its conclusion. This paper fills that gap by citing many examples of terrorist attacks on the United States in retaliation for U.S. intervention overseas. The numerous incidents cataloged suggest that the United States could reduce the chances of such devastating - and potentially catastrophic - terrorist attacks by adopting a policy of military restraint overseas.





The terrorist bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and retaliation by the United States with cruise missile strikes against Afghanistan and Sudan have once again focused international attention on the problem of terrorism. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright noted the importance of the issue to the Clinton administration: "We have said over and over again that [terrorism] is the biggest threat to our country and the world as we enter the 21st century."1


Many analysts agree with Albright, especially in light of the possibility that terrorists may be able to buy, steal, or develop and produce weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons).


Considerable attention, both in and out of government, focuses on combating terrorism by deterring and disrupting attacks before they occur or retaliating after the fact.


Less attention has been paid to investigating the motives of terrorists or their backers. Charles William Maynes, president of the Eurasia Foundation and former editor of Foreign Policy, advocates examining the motives of those who support terrorism in order to lessen their grievances.2


If more emphasis were placed on exploring why terrorists launch attacks against the United States, innovative policy changes might be made that would reduce the number of such attacks and lower their cost - both in money and in lost lives.



Activist Foreign Policy and Terrorism


The Defense Science Board's 1997 Summer Study Task Force on DoD Responses to Transnational Threats notes a relationship between an activist American foreign policy and terrorism against the United States:


As part of its global power position, the United States is called upon frequently to respond to international causes and deploy forces around the world. America's position in the world invites attack simply because of its presence. Historical data show a strong correlation between U.S. involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the United States.3


In an August 8, 1998, radio address justifying cruise missile attacks on Afghanistan and Sudan in response to terrorist bombings of two U.S. embassies, President Clinton admitted as much but put a positive spin on it with political hyperbole:


"Americans are targets of terrorism in part because we have unique leadership responsibilities in the world, because we act to advance peace and democracy, and because we stand united against terrorism."4


Richard Betts, an influential authority on American foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, has written about the connection between U.S. activism overseas and possible attacks on the United States with nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons: "American activism to guarantee international stability is, paradoxically, the prime source of American vulnerability." Elaborating, he notes, "Today, as the only nation acting to police areas outside its own region, the United States makes itself a target for states or groups whose aspirations are frustrated by U.S. power."5



Attempts to Obfuscate the Link between

U.S. Foreign Policy and Terrorism


There are analysts who try to obfuscate the link between U.S. intervention and terrorism against American targets by arguing that a multitude of factors leads to such attacks. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), introducing legislation that would establish a national commission on terrorism, argued that "our military, industrial, and commercial presence around the world attracts frustration from many terrorist groups."6


Other analysts include American "cultural dominance" as a lightning rod for terrorist attacks against the United States.7


President Clinton, in a speech to the UN General Assembly, also attempted to diffuse the link between U.S. foreign policy and terrorist incidents:


Because we are blessed to be a wealthy nation with a powerful military and a worldwide presence active in promoting peace and security, we are often a target. We love our country for its dedication to political and religious freedom, to economic opportunity, to respect for the rights of the individual. But we know many people see us as a symbol of a system and values they reject, and often they find it expedient to blame us for problems with deep roots elsewhere.8


Curiously, however, later in the same speech, President Clinton seemed to reject the "clash of values" origin of terrorism that he had propounded earlier:


"Some people believe that terrorism's principal fault line centers on what they see as an inevitable clash of civilizations. . . . Specifically, many believe there is an inevitable clash between Western civilization and Western values, and Islamic civilizations and values. I believe this view is terribly wrong."9


Yet the perception that the United States is targeted because of "what it is" rather than "what it does" endures. Gerald Seib, writing in the Wall Street Journal, admits that Islamic militants see the United States as propping up the secular government of Egypt and desecrating the Islamic holy sites by the presence of its troops in Saudi Arabia. At the same time, he observes that Islamic militants also see the United States as a political and cultural enemy, standing for everything they abhor - secularism, debauchery, and liberty. He concludes, "The U.S. is a target not because of something it has or hasn't done, but simply because it exists."10


Seib's conclusion underestimates the offense caused by propping up undemocratic regimes with dubious human rights records through aid or the presence of troops.



Logic and Empirical Data Support the Link


The logic behind the claim that there are other primary causes for terrorism against the United States needs to be examined. Many other Western nations are wealthy; have an extensive industrial and commercial presence overseas; export their culture along with their products and services; and believe in religious freedom, economic opportunity, and respect for the rights of the individual. Yet those nations - Switzerland and Australia, for example - seem to have much less of a problem with worldwide terrorism than does the United States.


According to the U.S. State Department's Patterns of Global Terrorism: 1997, one-third of all terrorist attacks worldwide were perpetrated against U.S. targets.11


The percentage of terrorism targeted at the United States is very high considering that the United States - unlike nations such as Algeria, Turkey, and the United Kingdom - has no internal civil war or quarrels with its neighbors that spawn terrorism. The major difference between the United States and other wealthy democratic nations is that it is an interventionist superpower. As Betts notes, the United States is the only nation in the world that intervenes regularly outside its own region.


The motives for some terrorist attacks are not easy to discern. They may be protests against U.S. culture or overseas business presence. Two incidents in 1995 – the deadly attack by two gunmen on a van from the U.S. consulate in Karachi, Pakistan, and the bombing of a "Dunkin Donuts" in Bogotá, Colombia - could fit into those categories. But with no statement of motives by the terrorists, such attacks could just as easily have been responses to the perceived foreign policies of a global superpower.


Even if some terrorist attacks against the United States are a reaction to "what it is" rather than "what it does," the list of incidents later in this paper shows how many terrorist attacks can be traced back to an interventionist American foreign policy. A conservative approach was taken in cataloging those incidents. To be added to the list, a planned or actual attack first had to be targeted against U.S. citizens, property, or facilities - either at home or abroad. Then there had to be either an indication from the terrorist group that the attack was a response to U.S. foreign policy or strong circumstantial evidence that the location, timing, or target of the attack coincided with a specific U.S. intervention overseas.


Although the Defense Science Board noted a historical correlation between U.S. involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the United States, the board apparently believed the conclusion to be so obvious that it did not publish detailed data to support it. Some analysts apparently remain unconvinced of the relationship. The data in this paper provide the empirical evidence.



Recognizing the Link Is Even More Important Now


The large number of terrorist attacks that occurred in retaliation for an interventionist American foreign policy implicitly demonstrates that terrorism against U.S. targets could be significantly reduced if the United States adopted a policy of military restraint overseas. That policy change has become even more critical now that ostensibly "weak" terrorists - whether sponsored by states or operating independently - might have both the means and the motive to inflict enormous devastation on the U.S. homeland with weapons of mass destruction.


In the post-Cold War world, rampant U.S. military intervention overseas is no longer needed. A rival superpower no longer exists to threaten vital U.S. interests by taking advantage of "instability" in the world. The overwhelming majority of the conflicts in the post-Cold War world - 95 of 101 from 1989 to 1996 - involved disputes between parties within states, the outcomes of which are far less likely to be dangerous to U.S. security than are cross-border wars between states. Yet it is those intrastate wars, many of which are volatile ethnic or religious conflicts, that could spawn the terrorist groups that might attack the United States with weapons of mass destruction. Intervention in such conflicts does little to enhance U.S. security, but it may have the opposite, catastrophic, effect. Betts, referring to the threat of terrorists' using weapons of mass destruction, argues that the "danger is that some angry group that blames the United States for its problems may decide to coerce Americans, or simply exact vengeance, by inflicting devastation on them where they live." He continues:


"If steps to deal with the problem in terms of capabilities are limited, can anything be done to address intentions - the incentives of any foreign power or group to lash out at the United States? There are few answers to this question that do not compromise the fundamental strategic activism and internationalist thrust of U.S. foreign policy over the past half-century. That is because the best way to keep people from believing that the United States is responsible for their problems is to avoid involvement in their conflicts."12


If the U.S. government adopted a policy of military restraint overseas, in the long term the number of devastating, and potentially catastrophic, terrorist attacks against the United States - attacks like those described in this paper - could be reduced significantly. Even if some remaining terrorist incidents can be attributed to a hatred of U.S. economic power, individual freedom, or culture, those national attributes are much harder and more costly to alter, and it would be undesirable to do so. It is much easier (and after the Cold War, relatively painless) to change U.S. foreign policy than it is to change the American way of life. In fact, the interventionist foreign policy currently pursued by the United States is an aberration in its history. Adopting a policy of military restraint would return the United States to the traditional foreign policy it pursued for the first century and a half of its existence before the Cold War distorted it. Such a foreign policy is more compatible with the individual freedoms and economic prosperity that define the American way of life.



Highlights of the List of Terrorist Incidents


Terrorism against American targets has changed over time. As the Cold War ended and the influence of Islamic radicalism grew, terrorism by leftist groups in the 1970s and 1980s was eclipsed by terrorism by Muslim fundamentalists in the 1980s and 1990s. As state-sponsored terrorism has declined, independent terrorist groups with loose ties among members have arisen. Finally and most important, terrorists now seem more willing to inflict mass casualties and can more readily obtain the weapons of mass destruction needed to do so.



Attempts at Catastrophic Terrorism


The Defense Science Board commented on the increased capability and willingness of terrorists to inflict mass casualties:


"There is a new and ominous trend to these threats: a proclivity towards much greater levels of violence. Transnational groups have the means, through access to weapons of mass destruction and other instruments of terror and disruption, and the motives to cause great harm to our society. For example, the perpetrators of the World Trade Center bombing and the Tokyo Subway nerve gas attack were aiming for tens of thousands of casualties."13


Although the fundamentalist Islamic perpetrators of the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 were unsuccessful at mass slaughter, the mastermind of the plot said he was attempting to kill 250,000 people by collapsing the towers to punish the United States for its policies in the Middle East. (In a follow-on attack, the group planned to blow up buildings and key transportation nodes in New York City - UN headquarters, a U.S. government building, two tunnels underneath the Hudson River, and the George Washington Bridge - which would have inflicted substantial casualties.)


Plans for another such catastrophic attack on the United States were also uncovered. In a little-noticed incident with potentially catastrophic ramifications, members of the Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth) religious cult - the same group that released poison gas on the Tokyo subway - planned a nerve gas attack at Disneyland when it was most crowded, during a fireworks display. Fortunately, U.S. law enforcement officials, tipped off by Japanese police, apprehended members of the group before they could perpetrate the attack. Aum Shinrikyo believes in a final Armageddon between the United States and Japan near the millennium and that acts of mass terror will hasten it. It is interesting that the cult perceived an allied nation - the United States - as Japan's enemy rather than Japan's regional neighbors that are now or are much more likely to become rivals - for example, China, Russia, and North and South Korea. The U.S. role as a global superpower and the U.S. military presence in Japan most likely had something to do with the group's choice of the United States as a target.



U.S. Military Presence Overseas:

Lightning Rod for Terrorism


The U.S. military presence in Lebanon in the early 1980s and in Somalia and Saudi Arabia in the 1990s also spawned terrorist attacks. Beginning in 1979, with the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iranians or Iranian-sponsored groups - such as Hezbollah in Lebanon - perpetrated many terrorist attacks against the United States. Two of the best known incidents were the suicide bombings by Hezbollah of the U.S. embassy and the Marine barracks in Beirut. Those Hezbollah attacks were launched in retaliation for U.S. military support of the Lebanese Christian government against the Muslim militias. The Iranians hated the United States for its long-time support of the shah and resented the U.S. presence in Lebanon.


In Somalia in 1993 the now-infamous Osama bin Laden trained the Somali tribesmen who conducted ambushes of U.S. peacekeeping forces in support of Somali clan leader Mohammed Farah Aideed. The result of the attack was 18 dead U.S. Army Rangers and U.S. withdrawal from Somalia. Osama bin Laden, a Saudi, did not merely object to U.S. intervention in Somalia. His main reason for attacking U.S. targets was the American presence in Saudi Arabia and Washington's support for Israel. Bin Laden was allegedly linked to the 1996 truck bombing of the U.S. military apartment complex, Khobar Towers, in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. airmen and wounded 515 others. He was also allegedly linked to the simultaneous bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and other attacks.



Public Wars against Terrorism Have Been Tried Before


President Clinton is not the first president to launch a public war against terrorism. In the summer of 1981 Ronald Reagan began a very public "war" against Moammar Qaddafi, the ruler of Libya, shortly after taking office. Reagan believed that Qaddafi was a Soviet agent and was heavily involved in terrorism against the West. The Reagan administration pursued ways of getting rid of Qaddafi or, failing that, of isolating him politically and economically. (Some analysts assert that Reagan inflated the threat posed by Qaddafi to justify increased defense spending.)


The "war" began with an attempt by the Reagan administration to provoke Qaddafi by entering claimed Libyan territorial waters and air space during war games in the Mediterranean. In August 1981 U.S. jets - to challenge Libya's extension of its territorial waters and air space over the Gulf of Sidra - entered the gulf and shot down two Libyan aircraft that intercepted them. Reagan later accused Qaddafi of aiding the perpetrators of the bombings at the Rome and Vienna airports. In March 1986 Reagan sent a naval armada across the "line of death" that marked Libya's claimed territorial waters in the gulf, and another military altercation ensued. In April 1986 Qaddafi retaliated by sponsoring the bombing of the La Belle disco in West Berlin, which was frequented by U.S. servicemen. (Before 1986 there was little evidence that Qaddafi was targeting Americans. Reagan interpreted Qaddafi's terrorism as anti-American, but Western European nations had been Libya's major target.) The United States retaliated for the La Belle bombing with air strikes against Tripoli and Benghazi that apparently were meant to kill Qaddafi.


Contrary to popular belief, the air strikes did not cause Qaddafi to desist from terrorist acts. In fact, according to the Defense Science Board, over the next several years Qaddafi began a series of secret attacks on American targets in revenge for the air strikes.14


The most famous attack was the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people (200 of whom were Americans).


Reagan's public war on terrorism may have been effective in helping to garner an increase in U.S. defense spending but not in curbing Qaddafi's terrorist activities. In fact, Qaddafi's secret activities seemed to accelerate in retaliation for Reagan's public military actions.



Assassinations and Attempted Assassinations


Independent or state-sponsored terrorists have attempted to assassinate prominent U.S. citizens in retaliation for perceived American meddling overseas. Sirhan Sirhan, Robert Kennedy's assassin, had grown up on the West Bank and regarded Kennedy as a collaborator with Israel. U.S. support for Israel and Kennedy's role in that policy were implicated in the assassination.


In 1993, 17 Iraqis were arrested trying to infiltrate Kuwait with a large car bomb and were accused of being part of an Iraqi government plot to kill former president Bush on his visit to Kuwait. According to the U.S. government, Saddam Hussein tried to assassinate Bush in retaliation for Bush's direction of the Gulf War (a threat Saddam had made during the war).



Terrorist Incidents Caused by an Activist

U.S. Foreign Policy




























Mid-January to late February 1991 (during the Persian Gulf War): A sharply increased number of terrorist attacks hit American targets all over the world (120 compared with 17 over the same period in 1990). Terrorism analysts labeled those incidents "spontaneous" or "freelance" Iraqi-inspired terrorism. The following are examples of such terrorism:























The cult chose the United States - a friendly nation - as Japan's adversary rather than other regional nations that are much more likely to be future rivals of Japan in East Asia - China, Russia, and North and South Korea. That indicates how easily an interventionist superpower can be vilified by conspiratorially minded groups, even in a friendly nation.


The Aum Shinrikyo cult had assets of $1.2 billion and the capability to produce sarin and VX gas, the agents that cause anthrax and botulism, and radiological weapons. The group is still active.






















All of the examples of terrorist attacks on the United States can be explained as retaliation for U.S. intervention abroad. Empirically validating the connection between an interventionist foreign policy and such attacks is more critical than ever now that terrorists can more readily obtain weapons of mass destruction and seem to be more willing to use them. The extensive number of incidents of terrorism linked to U.S. foreign policy implies that the United States could substantially reduce the chance of catastrophic terrorist attacks if it lowered its military profile overseas.16


The United States needs to adopt a new policy that would use military force only as a last resort in the defense of truly vital national interests.


The Cold War has ended, yet the United States continues to use its worldwide military dominance to intervene anywhere and everywhere in an effort to maintain its defense perimeter far forward. In a changed strategic environment in which ostensibly weak terrorist groups might acquire weapons of mass destruction, such an extended defense perimeter may actually increase the catastrophic threat to the American homeland. Even the U.S. Department of Defense admits the problem:


"Indeed, a paradox of the new strategic environment is that American military superiority actually increases the threat of nuclear, biological, and chemical attack against us by creating incentives for adversaries to challenge us asymmetrically. These weapons may be used as tools of terrorism against the American people."17


"But proponents of America's current interventionist foreign policy, such as the National Review, ignore the new strategic realities and criticize the proposed policy of military restraint as "preemptively capitulating to the terrorists."18


Adopting a restrained foreign policy has nothing to do with appeasing terrorists. Terrorist acts are morally outrageous and should be punished whenever possible. Reducing the motive for terrorists to attack the United States with weapons of mass destruction is not the only reason to adopt a policy of military restraint overseas, although it is a sensible one. In the more benign environment of a post-Cold War world, promiscuous military intervention by the United States - which can result in lost lives, high financial costs, and open-ended commitments - is no longer needed. It is common sense,, rather than appeasement, for the United States to adapt its activist Cold War foreign policy to the new strategic environment that requires more restraint overseas.




1. Quoted in John Carey, "Missile Defense vs. Terror: New Terrorism Has Many Faces, Including Ballistic," Defense News, August 31-September 6, 1998, p. 27.


2. Charles William Maynes, "Fighting Dirty Won't Work," Washington Post, August 31, 1998, p. A21.


3. Defense Science Board, The Defense Science Board 1997 Summer Study Task Force on DoD Responses to Transnational Threats (Washington: U.S. Department of Defense, October 1997), vol. 1, Final Report, p. 15. Emphasis added. Cited hereafter as Transnational Threats.


4. White House, "Radio Address by the President to the Nation," August 8, 1998.


5. Richard Betts, "The New Threat of Mass Destruction," Foreign Affairs 77, no. 1 (January-February 1998): 28.


6. Quoted in Dan Smith, "The Great Terrorism Scare," Defense Monitor, October 1, 1998, p. 3.


7. Ibid., p. 4.


8. White House, "Remarks by the President to the Opening Session of the 53rd United Nations General Assembly," September 21, 1998.


9. Ibid.


10. Gerald Seib, "Why Terror Inc. Puts Americans in the Cross Hairs," Wall Street Journal, August 28, 1998, p. A24.


11. U.S. Department of State, Patterns of Global Terrorism: 1997 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1997), p. 2.


12. Betts, p. 40.


13. Transnational Threats, p. ix.


14. Ibid., pp. 15-16.


15. The list shows only the most prominent acts of terrorism against the United States in retaliation for its interventionist foreign policy. It is by no means exhaustive. The sources for the list are as follows:

International Policy Institute for Counterterrorism database ( /inter _ter/attackresults.cfm); Louis Mizell Jr., Target USA: The Inside Story of the New Terrorist War (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998), pp. 179-200; Beau Grosscup, The Newest Explosions of Terrorism: Latest Sites of Terrorism in 90's and Beyond (Far Hills, N.J.: New Horizon, 1998), pp. 1-34, 123-45, 263-319, 363-410; Leroy Thompson, Ragged War: The Story of Unconventional and Counter-Revolutionary Warfare (London: Arms and Armor, 1996), pp. 156-75;

Transnational Threats, pp. 13-20; Edwin P. Hoyt, America's Wars and Military Excursions (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1987), pp. 525-29; and J. Robert Moskin, The U.S. Marine Corps Story (Boston: Little, Brown, 1992), pp. 727-41.


16. For a more comprehensive discussion of that thesis, see Ivan Eland, "Protecting the Homeland: The Best Defense Is to Give No Offense," Cato Institute Policy Analysis no. 306, May 5, 1998. See also Betts, pp. 27-28, 40-41; and Oscar Lurie, "Does 'Superior Power' Abroad Risk Terror at

Home?" Weekly Defense Monitor, October 15, 1998, p. 5.


17. U.S. Department of Defense, Proliferation: Threat and Response (Washington: Government Printing Office, November 1997), p. iii. Emphasis in the original.


18. "The Right Blames America First," National Review, August 28, 1998.