Terrorist enemies a constant threat

August 11, 1998|By Andrew J. Glass

WASHINGTON -- In the wake of the bombs that exploded minutes apart in two East African capitals on Friday, it is clear why the terrorists chose U.S. embassies as their targets.

"Any site can be a target," said Vincent Farley, a retired top U.S. State Department official who has accompanied former President Jimmy Carter to East Africa. "But a U.S. embassy is symbolic. It is an attack on the U.S. government."

With the end of the Cold War -- and Russia's economy in shambles -- the United States remains the last remaining superpower. The nation's military forces serve in more than a dozen foreign lands. Its diplomatic thrusts reach into virtually every major political and ethnic controversy.

Such circumstances are bound to yield enemies.

"Terrorism has now become the weapon of choice of the weak," said former CIA Director James Schlesinger. "There are powerful incentives to make use of terrorism, most notably the belief that the United States might be induced to pull back and withdraw its forces," he added.

By definition, terrorists are unable to pose a direct military challenge to the United States. Attacks such as the one against the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania rely in large measure on successfully evading a full-scale American military response against the still-unknown assailants.

Thus, the murderers of 19 U.S. servicemen in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia have yet to be brought to justice, and perhaps never will, although the case is still being actively pursued.

"There was a hope at the time of the incident at the Khobar barracks that this one incident or perhaps one further incident might lead us to pull back into the United States," Mr. Schlesinger said.

That has not happened, although millions of dollars have been spent in an effort to harden official facilities in foreign lands against terrorist strikes.

"Every embassy in the world has done significant upgrades," said Mr. Farley. "But you cannot protect people against bombs of this size in a downtown area."

As recently as World War II, he recalled, diplomats could be reasonably sure of their personal security, even in the midst of the fiercest fighting. Even in that epic struggle, all of the combatant powers saw to it that enemy envoys within their ranks remained unharmed before they were safely exchanged on neutral ships.

But those rules no longer hold.

"These incidents . . . underscore the truism that our diplomatic corps, in this day and age, is as much on the front line as any of our military personnel," Rep. Benjamin Gilman, R-N.Y., chairman of the House International Relations Committee, told reporters.

Noting that the attacks were well-planned and coordinated, a consensus emerged among officials ruling out local groups in Kenya and Tanzania as being responsible for the blasts.

"These are very pro-American countries, reaching out engaging in aid, engaging in trade, good diplomatic relationships bilaterally -- so it seems that they were used at convenient sites," Jesse Jackson, the U.S. special envoy to Africa, told CNN.

The states that currently appear on a U.S. list of alleged state sponsors of terrorism are Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Cuba and North Korea. Within this group, speculation quickly focused on Muslim extremists.

On the home front

While there are ample reasons why such groups should be regarded as suspects, officials also recalled how news reports had initially pointed at Middle Eastern extremists as being responsible for the 1995 truck bomb that demolished the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Two Americans were arrested and convicted for that crime.

In a briefing, Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering said U.S. government agencies receive some 30,000 threats a year, suggesting a wide range of possible assailants.

"We are not there yet," Mr. Pickering warned.

However, it was known that the all-out official investigation which began on Friday will focus on a class of mercenaries who have the means, and the motivation, to attack U.S. targets.

Charles Engelhart, director of international investigations at Kroll Associates, a corporate intelligence firm, said: "We have kind of forgotten that there is a strata of people out there who do not like us, who will never like us and who view us as everything bad in their world."

Andrew J. Glass is a columnist for Cox Newspapers.

Pub Date: 8/11/98

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