Ordinary terrorism is brutal but simple: A building explodes and some organization proves it planted the bomb by notifying police before it explodes or revealing details afterwards which weren’t in news reports (e.g. the car bomb was in a red Volvo). But no organization has offered proof of responsibility for the recent U.S. embassy bombings in Africa. No one claimed responsibility for bombing the airplane over Lockerbie, the barracks in Saudi Arabia, and Atlanta’s Olympic Park, either. Why anonymity?
Anonymity is so perplexing because it would seem to defeat the point of terrorism. Bombing a public place is a threat: No peace until our demands are met. Bombing also publicizes an organization’s ideology and can gather recruits and support. But anonymity means no one knows what is being demanded and who to support. What is the point?
There is no easy answer. One explanation is that terrorist groups don’t want to identify themselves, for fear they’ll be caught. It is surely true that terrorists want to keep their organizations safe. But this explanation doesn’t say why anyone would undertake an anonymous bombing in the first place. A second idea is that terrorists are confident that investigators will learn the truth and publicize it. But if terrorists really want to claim responsibility, why leave this crucial task up to the enemy?
The best answer is that anonymous terrorism can undermine the authority and prestige of some institution (in this case the U.S.). Whether the culprits are radical U.S. militia men or Islamic fundamentalists, the message is: The U.S. government cannot protect its own employees. It is worth noting how blunt and indirect a tool is this brand of terrorism. Undermining an enemy’s prestige is generally only a proximate goal. The real goal is presumably a well-defined set of political or social policies.
Another explanation is that the motivation is not strategic at all, it is pure hatred (of the United States, or the western world in general). While anonymous bombing cannot garner financial or popular support, nor spotlight specific issues or grievances, it can serve as Old Testament retribution for perceived wrongs.
Explainer thanks Frank Ciluffo of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Jerry Green of RAND, and Ted Price of Kroll Associates.