War on terrorism is hard slog Frustrations: No total victories, perception is everything, and few rules apply.

August 30, 1998

WHISKING Mohamed Rashed Daoud Al-'Owhali and Mohammed Saddiq Odeh to the United States to stand trial for the Nairobi bombing does more to deter terrorism than the 79 cruise missiles fired at targets in Sudan and Afghanistan.

Terrorism and the fight against it are called low-intensity operations in military jargon. Terrorism is about perception. It is, at bottom, public relations stunts.

The disputed report that Egypt arrested terrorist Abu Nidal helps shed understanding on U.S. proclamations against Osama bin Laden. Abu Nidal has been wanted for a quarter-century. Now that they may have him, it's not clear they know what to do with him.

Expect no quick knockouts in this fight. Terrorists need not win in a tactical sense. They appear to win by surviving, then emerging to strike again. A government can win every battle and test of strength, yet be undermined. Usually, however, governments win and terrorists lose -- not by being destroyed, but by petering out.

Nearly as many U.S. citizens are fatally struck by lightning in one year as have died from international terrorism in ten years. Three times as many Baltimoreans are murdered in one year as Americans have been murdered by international terrorists in ten. But an act of terrorism frightens people.

Making a pariah of Osama bin Laden does not defeat him. Targeting him for assassination would violate U.S. values -- and possibly boomerang. Declaring him a fugitive and then not catching him would heighten his legend. Snatching him to the United States for public trial, while inviting reprisal, would be a spectacular success.

Defeating terrorism means winning the public relations battle, discouraging its recruitment, isolating it from its constituency, sticking for the long haul. Governments are often inept at this, with too short an attention span. With terrorists declaring war on the United States, however, Washington had to respond.

Pub Date: 8/30/98

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