The Scariest Terrorists


March 13, 1993|By DANIEL BERGER

The Branch Davidian insurrection in Texas is scarier than the bombing of the New York World Trade Center. So is the murder of Dr. David Gunn in Pensacola, Florida.

The alleged terrorist group being rounded up in New York and New Jersey is an alien presence with probable motives that are easily understood, while the Christian gun-nut cult in Texas is home-grown, all-American and mysterious. The first we know how to combat; the second, we are producing.

The same is true of the assassination of the physician, an act of terrorism that appears designed to stop legal abortions throughout the country by striking fear into physicians, and is likely to succeed.

This is not to minimize what may have been one of the most spectacular acts of terrorism of modern times (in terms of publicity, economic damage and numbers of people discommoded) at the World Trade Center. But the wave of terrorism that swept this country in the late 1960s and 1970s (the Weather Underground, Black Panthers, etc.) threatened more harm to the United States than the apparent conspiracy among some few Arab immigrants does now.

Some of the current alleged conspirators attended services conducted by a Muslim cleric who foments revolution in Egypt. Some of the American terrorists of the '70s were ''trained,'' if that is the word, in Seven Sisters colleges and Ivy League universities.

James Fox of the FBI said the New York bombing was carried out by a large and highly professional terrorist group. The professionalism is not apparent but reassuring to hear. It would be more frightening if amateurs could bring this off, as an apparent amateur managed the CIA murders in Virginia.

International terrorism is diminishing, not increasing. That is because of the dismantling of Soviet schools for terrorists, the ending of Soviet-bloc sanctuary for terrorists and supplies for terrorism. Other host countries, deprived of Soviet support against American reprisal, have kept tighter lids on terrorists. This has certainly been true of Libya and Syria and Iraq, though perhaps not of Iran and its new client, Sudan.

The investigation of the World Trade Center bombing needs to focus on the extent of the conspiracy, and any borders crossed. The most sensitive question is whether any state supported this terrorism. For prevention, it is essential to know whether great knowledge and rare materials were needed, or if almost anyone could have done it.

To call someone a fundamentalist Muslim explains nothing. It would be as silly to explain the Branch Davidian phenomenon as fundamentalist Christian. There are millions of Muslims and hundreds of thousands of fundamentalist Muslims in the United States who would never do such a thing.

The association of the suspects with Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman suggests a motive, to punish the United States for supporting the Egyptian regime of Hosni Mubarak. The Palestinian origins of suspects suggest anger at U.S. support for Israel. Other causes floating around the Middle East include Iraq against Kuwait, Iran against free speech, Bosnian and Albanian Muslims against Serbian Christians, Azerbaijan against Armenia and rebellion in Tajikistan. All these count as political, not religious, motives. But we can't know unless the perpetrators say.

Because terrorism almost never topples a regime, it is almost always a public-relations stunt in the fullest sense. A perfect crime serves no purpose. It must be known to have happened.

Hence the extraordinary number of claimants to the World Trade Center atrocity. Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, exulted. But as the torturer of Muslims he is the least likely man to have been conspiring with terrorists from the Muslim-fundamentalist community of New Jersey. It is safe to say he didn't do it.

The IRA in Ireland and England always identifies its acts of terror, even botched jobs. After 20 years, it has established credibility. What the IRA says it did, it did, and what it denies, it did not do.

So make no assumptions. We won't know till we know.

But in terms of havoc, foreign terrorists are not as big a threat to the republic as American terrorists can be, and professionals are not the worst kind.

Gavrilo Princip and John Wilkes Booth were amateurs, but they got the job done.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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