Response to Terror

June 30, 1993

The efficient FBI dismantling of a conspiracy to sow bombs and terror in New York should reassure Americans that the nation is protecting itself and its citizens. The operation came at a time of increased likely terrorism by groups and countries too weak to conduct military operations.

It attests to the professionalism at a time of disarray in FBI leadership, though not necessarily to the efficacy of its titular director, William S. Sessions, who was away from his desk much of the key period making speeches to build public support for retention of his job.

The Feb. 26 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York did immense damage and caused greater anxiety, not least that the relative amateurism of the bombers did not prevent their doing such harm. The relation of that event to the newly suppressed conspiracy, with its staggering list of bombing and assassination targets, is clear.

The nation's immigration laws, tough on their face, are no barrier to violent people who mask political extremism with religious fundamentalism. It is their secular ambition -- in this case to destroy the government of Egypt -- not their professed Islamic piety that should have waved the warning flags.

The international dimensions require exhaustive investigation. Clearly, money and direction come from abroad. Will a government be found at one end of a pipeline that has Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the Egyptian cleric with an extreme political agenda, at the other? It is easy to suspect, quite another thing to know.

The chickens that may be coming home to roost are those suspects with experience among Afghan rebels operating from Pakistan. U.S. aid supported violent Islamic extremism through the 1980s in its effort to overthrow the communist government of Afghanistan. U.S. agencies must not now shirk from pursuing these leads as far as they go. The only thing worse than finding that U.S. policy boomeranged would be failing to find that out if it is the case.

The enforcement response in the New York area is not different from the military strike against Iraqi military intelligence in Baghdad. Both involve international conspiracies to destroy American vital interests. Both may lead to foreign governments. Both are being watched by other regimes and groups.

The need is to convince potential terrorists that the effort is not worth the risk, that the prospect of success is too little and the pain of failure too great. To all appearances, this is being accomplished. Of course, Americans cannot know what other terrorists are out there, watching. But the vigilance just demonstrated should be reassuring to Americans and distressing to terrorists still at large.

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