Terrorism & Terrorists: Introduction
By Brian M. Jenkins, 1985
THE GROWTH OF TERRORISM
Terrorism, although not a new phenomenon, has grown enormously since the late 1960s. Despite
the success of a number of governments in combating terrorists, for the last 16 years the
total volume of such violence has continued a ragged course upward. Statistics vary
according to collection criteria and procedures, but the long-range trend is indisputable.
Terrorism in our era has become an increasingly sophisticated � and for many, an
increasingly accepted � political instrument.
Political and religious extremists regularly resort to terrorist tactics. A small but
increasing number of governments are also using terrorist tactics, employing terrorist
groups, or exploiting terrorist incidents as a mode of surrogate warfare against their
opponents. Diplomats have come to accept terrorism as a part of diplomatic life.
Corporations accept the terrorist threat as a price of doing business in certain areas of
the world. The public is beginning to accept terrorism as part of the normal news diet;
indeed, except for the spectacular episode, terrorist acts no longer make headlines.
How quickly this acceptance has come about! In the mid-1960s, no one had heard of
kneecappings, car bombs, or people's prisons. Private sector bodyguards, defensive driving
courses, body armor, kidnap insurance, ransom negotiations, hostage recovery consultants,
and many other concepts and services discussed in this book did not exist. Passengers
boarded airplanes without passing through metal detectors or being frisked in the presence
of armed guards, concrete barriers did not surround government buildings, embassies had not
yet become fortresses. Dawson Field, Lod, Munich, Khartoum, Maalot, Entebbe, Mogadishu,
Desert One, and Beirut were simply the names of places � exotic places, obscure places,
but just places, not battlefields in the hundred wars of terrorism.
Terrorism also has become bloodier. In part, this change reflects the crossing of a major
threshold: Terrorists are now more willing to attack persons instead of property. The
increased security around facilities has also encouraged them to attack a soft target �
Incidents involving hostages, such as kidnappings, hijackings, and takeovers of buildings
with hostages, comprise about 17 percent of all incidents of international terrorism.
Kidnappings account for between 6 and 8 percent of the total. For all incidents of local
as well as international terrorism, the percentage of kidnappings is lower, reflecting the
greater number of little bombings carried out by less sophisticated organizations that
operate only at the local level.
Terrorists seize hostages in order to create human dramas by putting lives in the balance,
thereby guaranteeing intense interest in the event and heavy news coverage. They seize
hostages to increase their leverage over governments reluctant to see life sacrificed.
Terrorists kidnap businessmen � the most frequent targets � to demonstrate their opposition
to the capitalist system and to protest economic exploitation by foreign firms, but above
all, to finance their operations.
A MAJOR INNOVATION
Kidnapping corporate executives to finance terrorist operations must be seen as one of the
major terrorist innovations of our era � an ingenious scheme in which the targets of
terrorism are compelled to finance a war directed against themselves. The first terrorist
group to carry out a major operation of this type had some reservations. Until that time,
most terrorists got their money the old-fashioned way: They robbed banks. Ransom kidnappings
by bandits from Sardinia to Shanghai provided numerous but unappealing precedents to
high-minded revolutionaries for whom kidnappings were purely political affairs. Indeed, in
the early 1970s, Cuban officials were quietly advising guerrilla groups in Latin America
not to engage in ransom kidnappings until their reputations as something other than common
criminals were well established.
Once the line was crossed, however, the tactic quickly spread throughout Latin America and
the rest of the world. Ransom kidnappings gave terrorists access to huge sums of money;
multimillion dollar ransoms, which soon became common, provided terrorists with far more
funds than they could get by robbing banks. Guerrilla and terrorist groups in Argentina,
Colombia, El Salvador, Spain, and Italy began to obtain a large share of their operational
funds from these kidnappings.
In large measure, the proliferation of ransom kidnappings by guerrilla and terrorist groups
in the 1970s reflected changes in guerrilla strategy and in the world's economic environment.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, guerrilla groups had shifted their theater of operations
from the countryside to the cities, the hubs of commercial activity. There the presence of
large foreign business communities provided suitable targets. In this sense, the growth of
terrorist kidnappings reflected the spread of multinational corporations? As a price of
doing business, these corporations had to be � and were � willing to pay large ransoms.
Having tapped such a good source for funds, the terrorists needed access to arms traders
who would sell them weapons. In this respect, terrorist kidnappings have been encouraged by
the growth of the international arms market, where government credentials or ideological
affinity are not issues in the making of a deal. One former diplomat who dealt with
Nicaragua's Sandinistas before they came to power recalls a guerrilla commander paying arms
traders with wads of bills taken from a shopping bag sitting at the side of his desk. Much
of this money came from ransoms collected by Marxist guerrillas in El Salvador, which
incidentally later obliged the Sandinistas to assist these groups in their own struggle.
Many observers lament the support given terrorists by the (former) Soviet Union and
its Communist allies. While these countries certainly do provide certain kinds of valuable
support, the use of ransom kidnappings by terrorists to buy arms actually represents a
triumph of free trade. It seems likely that future guerrilla groups who lack state backers
will continue to finance their struggles, at least in the initial stages, through
We seldom hear of ransom kidnappings by right-wing terrorists. Often less structured than
their counterparts on the left, right-wing terrorist groups are popularly believed to
receive secret financial support from wealthy figures in the local political establishment,
draw their weapons from sympathizers in the army or police, or make withdrawals from hidden
caches of Nazi gold, but they too rely on crime � bank robberies and extortion � to obtain
THE CRIMINAL CONNECTION
Terrorist kidnappings represent only a small portion of the total number of ransom
kidnappings. Ordinary criminals carry out the vast majority, though sometimes the two
categories overlap. Members of terrorist groups have occasionally carried out kidnappings
for purely personal profit, or in some cases have collected the ransom paid to the terrorist
group and run off on their own. Ordinary criminal kidnappers sometimes pretend to be terrorist
groups, hoping thereby to collect a higher ransom and throw authorities off their trail. In
other instances, terrorists and ordinary criminals have cooperated in kidnappings or in
The Cirillo kidnapping in Italy in 1981 provides a splendid example of cooperation between
terrorist kidnappers and criminals. Italian authorities paid several million dollars in
ransom for the return of Ciro Cirillo, a prominent Naples politician who had been kidnapped
by the Red Brigades. A million and a half went to the Red Brigades, while $3 million went
to a Naples crime syndicate whose imprisoned leader had negotiated the settlement.
While sometimes difficult to distinguish, a group's identity can be crucial in ransom
negotiations. In Argentina, for example, a high level of political kidnappings inspired
numerous criminal imitators. These criminal gangs were smaller and not as well organized
as the terrorist groups. They did not have the hideouts or logistical support to hold a
hostage for a lengthy period of time and therefore were under pressure to settle quickly.
According to one corporate official, determining whether the kidnappers were genuine
terrorists or criminals posing as terrorists meant the difference between a million-dollar
and a hundred-thousand-dollar ransom. This distinction, however, does not apply to
well-organized criminal gangs, such as those operating in Italy.
Ransom kidnappings have become a large and well-ordered business. Kidnappers launder huge
ransoms through legitimate banks and sometimes even invest in the stock market to provide
themselves with a steady cash flow. They have become increasingly sophisticated in their
abductions and in their negotiations: They have developed an arsenal of techniques to
intensify the psychological pressure on their targets. This success, ironically, is making
the payment of multimillion-dollar ransoms less frequent. Because large corporations have
increased the security surrounding their executives, kidnappers have been forced to go after
less-protected executives of local firms who are less able to pay huge ransoms.
The decline in ransom size is also due to the employment of professional negotiators and
hostage recovery consultants, people whose considerable experience with kidnappers' methods
has given them a reputation of getting captives back alive at the lowest possible price.
Increasingly, ransoms are paid by insurance policies that cover ransom, the salary of
abducted executives, and other kinds of related losses. Despite this institutionalization
of kidnapping as a business with its own peculiar support industry, the act itself remains
a commerce in human life.
The next stage in the industry could be the gradual elimination of physical abduction, with
extortion based on the threat of kidnapping or assassination becoming an effective
substitute. Although figures are not available � extortion is a notoriously unreported
crime � in numerous instances corporations have quietly paid protection money to avoid
kidnappings. Argentina's terrorist groups seemed to be moving in this direction before they
were destroyed in the mid-1970s.
Extortion offers advantages to both sides. For the kidnappers, it eliminates the risks
incurred during an actual kidnapping as well as the dangers and costs of keeping a hostage
for a lengthy period. Corporations are attracted by the reduction of risk to personnel, who
are in great danger both at the moment of capture and if the kidnappers' hideout is
discovered and assaulted by the authorities. Giving in to extortion reduces the losses they
would sustain from the lengthy absence of a hostage. For potential victims, of course,
extortion reduces their chances of suffering the dangers and discomfort of capture and
Extortion without credibility, however, is an empty threat. Kidnappers have a live hostage
whom they can kill if their demands are not met. Extortionists must persuade the target of
their demands that they can and will take someone's life. Psychological factors may enter
in here as well. A corporation is under considerable pressure to yield in the case of a
kidnapping. The threat in an extortion is more remote, more diffuse, easier to resist. An
extortionist solution might be to demonstrate capability by an actual murder. An economist's
solution might be for the extortionists to lower their demands � in effect, offering a
discount for corporate uncertainty.
HOW MANY? HOW MUCH?
How big is the kidnapping problem? Risks International, a private research organization that
has maintained statistics on terrorist activity worldwide since 1970, lists nearly a
thousand terrorist kidnappings from 1970 to the end of 1983. This figure excludes the
greater number of ransom kidnappings carried out by ordinary criminals and, of course, does
not include the numerous unreported kidnappings by political or criminal elements. On the
basis of my own conversations with government security officials in various parts of the
world, I suspect that the Risks International total comprises something like one-tenth of
the real total of all kidnappings, political and criminal. As mentioned later in this book,
Vittorfranco Pisano reports that between 1970 and 1982, political terrorism in Italy carried
out 25 kidnappings, while during the same period criminal gangs carried out 487. This is a
better than 15-to-l ratio, but Italy is a country with a well-developed kidnapping industry.
A recent report by Geoffrey Williams concludes that about 200 major ransom kidnappings
occur every year. Other experts have estimated that several kidnappings occur every day,
which would mean that more than 1,000 kidnappings take place each year. Altogether, we are
looking at perhaps 10,000 terrorist and criminal kidnappings during the last 12 to 15 years.
How much money have kidnappers collected since the tactic became fashionable in the 1970s?
Precise figures are hard to come by. While ransom demands are often reported in the press,
the amounts paid are usually closely guarded secrets. It has been estimated that, during the
1970s, corporations paid between $150 and $250 million dollars in ransom to terrorists. In
his 1982 study of ransom kidnappings, which probably recorded the best-known cases with the
largest ransom payments, Geoffrey Williams estimated that corporations paid out $500 million
in ransom to terrorists and criminals between 1972 and 1978. Adding six years and the other,
unreported cases could put the total ransoms at close to a billion dollars.
To a terrorist, a billion dollars would represent a million submachine guns plus ammunition.
The Red Brigades at their peak, with over a hundred full-time members and several hundred
part-time terrorists, operated with an annual budget estimated by intelligence authorities
to be between $3 and $5 million, $8 to $10 million at the very outside. A billion dollars
would have kept them going for several centuries. From the sketchy information available
about the cash flow of terrorist organizations, you could assume that a billion dollars
would fund just about all the major terrorist groups of Western Europe for 30 years and
would also pay for the annual renewal of a $9.5 million subsidy reportedly given in 1982 by
Colonel Qadaffi to the four most militant Palestinian terrorist organizations in return for
their promise to continue the armed struggle. Or it could also support several thousand
full-time terrorists for a decade.