Embassy bombings force U.S. to focus on terrorism threat Analysts are unsettled by fanaticism, but see other dangers to peace

August 23, 1998|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- It has been 12 years since the United States bombed Libya for ordering a terrorist attack that killed and injured Americans, leaving President Ronald Reagan to vow, "If necessary we shall do it again."

Now President Clinton has retaliated for terrorist bombings and launched a new War on Terrorism.

"We will not yield to this threat. We will meet it no matter how long it may take," said Clinton, while Secretary of State Madeline K. Albright held up a troubling future. "This is the biggest threat to our country and the world as we enter the 21st century," she said.

Some experts point to more insidious threats: evidence of North Korea developing a ballistic missile capability, the fear of nuclear weapons getting into the wrong hands after the collapse of the Soviet Union and bitter ethnic clashes that may blossom into regional wars.

"I'm just a little uncomfortable that this is the challenge of the 21st century," said Michael Moodie, who was the senior arms control official in the Bush administration. "We've got a range of challenges."

Richard H. Shultz, director of the International Security Studies Program at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said the more widespread problem of weapons of mass destruction -- chemical, biological and nuclear -- is the paramount threat.

The leading threat

But a growing number of experts argue that terrorism should be recognized as the leading threat. They are unsettled by the fanaticism of suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden and the increased carnage through synchronized bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Of paramount concern is the possibility that terrorists may possess chemical and other weapons of mass destruction.

Besides talking tough and launching some cruise missiles as it did against Afghanistan and Sudan on Thursday, they say, the Clinton administration must be willing to go the distance to combat terrorism: using commando units to capture terrorists, infiltrating terrorist groups with agents, freezing assets of leaders such as bin Laden and gaining greater cooperation from other countries in the fight against terrorism.

"By itself terrorism as it has been practiced to date is not a difficult national security problem," said Paul Bremer, the former counter-terrorism chief at the State Department during the Reagan administration. "If a terrorist group of the bin Laden variety can get their hands on nuclear, biological or chemical agents, terrorism has the capacity to inflict considerably higher casualties."

A dangerous marriage

Pentagon officials say that the Sudanese pharmaceutical company bombed Thursday was a so-called dual-use facility, creating precursor chemicals for the lethal nerve agent VX.

The marriage of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction "is the most threatening thing to Americans in America," said retired Army Lt. Gen. Terry Scott, who now runs the national security program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. The bombing of the World Trade Center would be "amateur hour" compared to such an attack with a chemical weapon, he said.

Clinton himself has become concerned about such a scenario after reading "The Cobra Event," a novel about a biological attack in New York City. To combat such a possibility, the administration is training police, firefighters and other so-called "first responders" in 120 cities, including Baltimore.

In addition, 10 National Guard units are being trained to assist in any type of chemical or biological attack. And the president has named Richard A. Clarke, an official with the National Security Council, as the new overseer of terrorism policy.

Inadequate preparation

But the administration has failed to provide those first responders with the needed equipment and medications that would be vital in the event of a catastrophic terrorist incident, said Matthew Meselson, a chemistry professor at Harvard University and an expert on chemical and biological weapons.

"There is still, on the domestic side, a whole series of questions that have to be answered," agreed Moodie, the former Bush official and now president of the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute. "Stockpiling vaccines, where and what amounts? What about continuing training and equipment priorities?"

Meanwhile, some say the Clinton administration must do more in the realm of diplomacy and also reach out to more moderate Arab and Muslim leaders who could offer a counterweight to anti-American fundamentalists. "We've done almost nothing to counteract the political struggle," said Roy Godson, a government professor at Georgetown University, who otherwise praised the Clinton administration for its work on terrorism.

Meselson and some colleagues are also pushing for the creation of a code of international criminal law for those who manufacture or use chemical or biological weapons.

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