Does U.S. Intervention Overseas
Breed Terrorism?
The Historical Record

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 simplicity theories put forward by our President, 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. Thereby catapulting the American people into further foreign adventures, which can only result in even more act of terror against our country and it's citizens.

This document and it's conclusions are of the utmost importance. It points out that our government, while been 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 Americas 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.


Does U.S. Intervention Overseas
Breed Terrorism?
The Historical Record

by Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute.

Click Here For The Original Document In PDF Format 


No. 50 December 17, 1998


The Historical Record

by Ivan Eland

Executive Summary

According to Secretary of State Madeleine Al-bright,

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 De-fense

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 acknowl-edged

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 cata-loged

suggest that the United States could reduce the

chances of such devastating--and potentially cata-strophic--

terrorist attacks by adopting a policy of

military restraint overseas.

Ivan Eland is director of defense policy studies at the

Cato Institute.


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 Afghani-stan

and Sudan have once again focused international atten-tion

on the problem of terrorism. Secretary of State Made-leine

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."


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, presi-dent

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.


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. in-volvement

in international situations and an in-crease

in terrorist attacks against the United States.


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

Page 2

admitted as much but put a positive spin on it with politi-cal


Americans are targets of terrorism in part because

we have unique leadership responsibilities in the

world, because we act to advance peace and democ-racy,

and because we stand united against terror-ism.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."


Attempts to Obfuscate the Link between

U.S. Foreign Policy and Terrorism

There are analysts who try to obfuscate the link be-tween

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 pres-ence

around the world attracts frustration from many terror-ist



Other analysts include American "cultural

dominance" as a lightning rod for terrorist attacks against

the United States.


President Clinton, in a speech to the UN General Assem-bly,

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 ac-tive

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 prob-lems

with deep roots elsewhere.


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 inevita-ble

clash of civilizations. . . . Specifically,

many believe there is an inevitable clash between

Western civilization and Western values, and Is-lamic

civilizations and values. I believe this

view is terribly wrong.


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



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 na-tions--

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.



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 inter-

ventionist 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 interven-tionist

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 situa-tions

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 empir-ical


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 inde-pendently--

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 super-power

no longer exists to threaten vital U.S. interests by

taking advantage of "instability" in the world. The over-whelming

majority of the conflicts in the post-Cold War

world--95 of 101 from 1989 to 1996--involved disputes be-tween

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 con-flicts,

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, ef-fect.

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.


If the U.S. government adopted a policy of military

restraint overseas, in the long term the number of devastat-ing,

and potentially catastrophic, terrorist attacks against

the United States--attacks like those described in this

paper--could be reduced significantly. Even if some remain-ing

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 fundamental-ists

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


There is a new and ominous trend to these threats:

a proclivity towards much greater levels of vio-lence.

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 casu-alties.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 headquar-ters,

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, mem-bers

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 perpe-trate

the attack. Aum Shinrikyo believes in a final Arma-geddon

between the United States and Japan near the millen-nium

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 Hez-bollah

of the U.S. embassy and the Marine barracks in Bei-rut.

Those Hezbollah attacks were launched in retaliation

for U.S. military support of the Lebanese Christian govern-ment

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 Moham-med

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 sup-port

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 Tanza-nia

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 adminis-tration

to provoke Qaddafi by entering claimed Libyan terri-torial

waters and air space during war games in the Mediter-ranean.

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 Qad-dafi

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 sever-al

years Qaddafi began a series of secret attacks on Ameri-can

targets in revenge for the air strikes.


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 effec-tive

in helping to garner an increase in U.S. defense spend-ing

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 attempt-ed

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 re-garded

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

· 1915: The Senate reception room in the U.S. Capitol was

damaged by a homemade bomb built by Erich Muenter, a former

Harvard professor who was upset by sales of U.S. munitions

to the Allies in World War I.


· June 5, 1968: Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, former attorney

general and senior policy adviser to President John F.

Kennedy, was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan. Sirhan had

grown up on the West Bank and regarded Kennedy as a collabo-rator

with Israel.

· March 1971: A bomb exploded in a U.S. Senate restroom,

causing extensive damage. The bombing came at a time of

rising opposition to U.S. policies in Vietnam.

· November 4, 1979: Supporters of the Ayatollah Khomeini

seized the U.S. embassy in Teheran to protest long-time U.S.

support for the shah. The hostages were not freed until

January 1981.

· December 1979: Iranians sacked and burned the U.S. embassy

in Tripoli, Libya. Iranian-sponsored terrorism against the

United States was a result of U.S. support for the shah and


· July 22, 1980: Ali Akbar Tabatabai, a former press coun-selor

at the Iranian embassy in the United States during the

shah's reign, was assassinated by the Islamic Guerrillas of

America (IGA) at his home in Bethesda, Maryland. He had

supplied U.S. officials with a manifesto of the IGA that

advocated strategically planned terrorism on U.S. soil and

assassinations of U.S. officials and Iranian dissidents.

The manifesto stated, "Any American can be targeted . . . no

American is innocent . . . as long as U.S. foreign policies

are to the detriment of the Islamic community." The docu-ment

was especially critical of U.S. support for Israel.

Tabatabai knew that the IGA had 230 members operating in the

United States. Tabatabai's assassin fled to Iran and became

part of an Islamic assassination squad.

· April 8, 1983: The anti-American, Iranian-sponsored Hez-bollah

(some sources also implicate the Islamic Jihad)

bombed the U.S. embassy in Beirut, Lebanon. Information

gathered by the American, French, and Israeli intelligence

agencies indicated that the Iranian government funded and

provided the explosives for the attack that killed 17 Ameri-cans.

Intelligence information also showed that Syrian

military experts directed the assembly and emplacement of

the bombs that Hezbollah used. All attacks by Hezbollah in

Lebanon around that time were in retaliation for the U.S.

military presence there. The Americans were supporting the

Christian government against the Muslim militias by training

and arming the Lebanese National Army (LNA). Later, the

U.S. Marines even began patrolling with the Christian LNA,

and the Navy and Marines began shelling the Muslims to

support the LNA.

· October 23, 1983: A suicide truck bomber from Hezbollah

(some sources also implicate the Islamic Jihad) attacked the

U.S. embassy and destroyed the U.S. Marine barracks in

Beirut (killing 290 people and wounding 200 more). Intelli-gence

information gathered by the American, French, and

Israeli intelligence agencies indicated that Iran funded the

attack and provided the explosives used. Apparently, Syrian

military experts directed the assembly and emplacement of

the bombs that Hezbollah used. The U.S. Marines were later

withdrawn from Beirut. A terrorist spokesman bragged that

two "martyrs" had forced the Marines out of Lebanon: one who

died to blow up the embassy and the other who drove the

truck that destroyed the Marine barracks.

· September 1984: Hezbollah (some sources also implicate the

Islamic Jihad) bombed the U.S. embassy annex in East Beirut.

Twenty-three people were killed and four Marine guards were


During the 1980s: Hezbollah kidnapped 19 American diplo-mats,

educators, businessmen, clergy, journalists, and mili-tary

personnel and killed at least 4.

· Mid-1980s: Lebanese Revolutionary Army Faction leader

Georges Ibrahim Abdallah was accused of complicity in the

deaths of American military attaché Lt. Col. Charles Ray and

Israeli diplomat Yacov Barsimantov. The suspect was held by

the French government. The most likely reason for the

attack was the U.S. military presence in Lebanon.

· April 5, 1986: Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi sponsored the

bombing of the La Belle nightclub in West Berlin, which was

frequented by U.S. servicemen. The bombing killed an Ameri-can

soldier and a Turkish woman. The bombing seemed to be

in retaliation for two specific prior incidents: (1) Ronald

Reagan had accused Libya of aiding Palestinian Abu Nidal in

bombing the Rome and Vienna airports (those incidents did

not occur within the jurisdiction of the United States).

(2) In late March 1986 the largest peacetime American naval

armada ever had sailed across the "line of death" that, ac-cording

to Qaddafi, marked Libyan territorial waters in the

Gulf of Sidra. Qaddafi had threatened to attack any invad-er.

Fulfilling the predictions of American defense ana-lysts,

he shot missiles at the armada. The U.S. forces

destroyed a missile site and three Libyan naval craft.

The La Belle bombing was part of a more general "war"

between the Reagan administration and Qaddafi that started

after a Reagan administration review of U.S. policy toward

Libya in the summer of 1981, shortly after Reagan took

office. The Reagan administration pursued ways to get rid

of Qaddafi or, failing that, to isolate him politically and

economically. Reagan believed Qaddafi acted as a Soviet

agent and was heavily involved in terrorism against the

West. Some analysts argue that the Reagan administration

inflated the threat that Qaddafi posed to gain support for

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.

On April 15, 1986 (two weeks after the "line of death"

incident in late March), the United States retaliated for

the La Belle bombing with air strikes--from air bases in the

United Kingdom and from U.S. aircraft carriers in the Medi-terranean--

against Tripoli and Benghazi, Libya. The air


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