An American terrorist network?

Steven Emerson

April 08, 1993|By Steven Emerson

NEW York police and FBI officials say the World Trade Center bombing was not a job of professional terrorists but the work of local amateurs.

The FBI has used this assessment in not classifying the bombing as terrorism. Indeed, it announced last month that it had found no evidence of any link between the "local individuals" arrested and an "international terrorist conspiracy." This apparently was intended to ease public fears.

If anything, the bombing is evidence of a more frightening development: Hundreds of radical operatives live in the United States, making up a possible loose terrorist network that includes highly trained Islamic mercenaries.

It would be reassuring to learn that, in their talks about the bombing, President Clinton and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt have grasped this fundamental change in global terrorism.

The potential terrorists are dangerous precisely because they are not hit men dispatched from the Middle East. The new breed has communal and family roots in the United States and elsewhere in the West. They are not full-time operatives and answer to no one but themselves.

The arrest last week in the Midwest of Abu Nidal operatives on charges of plotting to kill American Jews was significant because those arrested had settled in the United States and established legitimate businesses.

For law enforcement and counter-terrorist officials, such a network is the worst possible nightmare. And like the Trade Center bombers, the people who might make it up are virtually impervious to pre-emptive law enforcement detection.

FBI, CIA and State Department officials say that beyond the presence of the fundamentalist Egyptian Jihad group, there are hundreds of other Islamic radicals and members of Middle Eastern terrorist groups, including Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, the Algerian Islamic Front and the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, who use the United States as a base to coordinate attacks in their home countries.

In its letter to the New York Times, the terrorist cell evidently responsible for the blast called itself the Liberation Army Fifth Battalion. The letter said the bombing was in response to "American political, economical and military support for Israel the state of terrorism and to the rest of the dictator countries."

Although the group's roots are murky, the bombing could be the result of a new joint venture between secularist and fundamentalist terrorists. Several U.S. intelligence analysts, citing the combination of demands put forth in the letter, believe the bombing may be the first time an Egyptian fundamentalist-Palestinian terrorist operation has been carried

out.

Another factor is the demise of the communist regime in Afghanistan and the pool of thousands of demobilized Islamic resistance fighters. (Mahmud Abouhalima, the alleged ringleader of the bombing, was an activist in the Afghan resistance.)

The Afghan conflict mobilized tens of thousands of recruits from the Middle East for a holy war. In Pakistan, the mujahadeen were trained in guerrilla warfare for the Afghan conflict. Their primary benefactors included the United States, Saudi Arabia and Iran -- each of which provided billions of dollars in weapons and training.

Although there is no indication that the Egyptian Jihad, headed by Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, ever received U.S. assistance, it was one of many to fight along with mujahadeen. "I am sure that Abdel Rahman received Saudi and Iranian money," said Robert Oakley, a former ambassador to Pakistan.

Former CIA officials say these groups openly recruited Muslim students and residents in mosques and on college campuses to fight in Afghanistan. When the war was over, U.S. officials say, Iranian and other fundamentalist leaders helped redirect the rage of these warriors against the West.

They "figured out that the great potential of this force would be used against Western regimes in the Middle East," said Oakley.

Though many of these Islamic Rambos moved to the Sudan to continue the jihad, thousands of others were dispersed, particularly to Britain, Germany, France and the United States. In the New York-New Jersey area alone, one FBI official told me, there are some 200 former Afghan activists and fighters.

The FBI's experience with the these groups shows the difficulty in preventing terrorist acts by the newly transplanted groups. Although Sheik Abdel Rahman and several followers, including two arrested in the bombing, had been under surveillance for more than a year, investigators were unable to find any hint of the coming attack.

Similarly, the killings outside the CIA in January appear to have been another free-lance act. The gunman, who fled to Pakistan, said before the shootings that he was angered by the treatment of Muslims in Bosnia and planned to "make a big statement." FBI officials still refuse to classify the killings a terrorist act.

Mr. Clinton announced Tuesday that he would order a review of what U.S. intelligence knew about terrorist activities in the United States prior to the trade center attack. If his investigation is to have any meaning, it must acknowledge the emergence of the frightening new brand of terrorism growing up on U.S. soil.

Steven Emerson, co-author of "Terrorist," writes frequently on the Middle East and national security.

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