International offensive against terrorism urged

Threats too widespread, flexible for one nation to defeat, experts say

Terrorism Strikes America

The Response

September 12, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- As it responds to yesterday's series of catastrophic terrorist attacks, the United States will be forced to step up its war against an elusive and adaptable enemy, with weapons that have so far proved inadequate.

In its more than two-decade struggle against international terrorism, the United States has deployed sophisticated law enforcement, diplomacy, missiles and all the intelligence capability at its disposal. But those steps failed to provide clear warning of a Pearl Harbor-like escalation in the war or to prepare the nation for the destruction and carnage it wreaked.

And so a variety of analysts and former officials cautioned yesterday that the nation must go beyond retaliation to build a new international offensive against terror.

"It's not possible to have only one nation deal with international terror," said Gen. Wesley K. Clark, retired supreme commander of NATO.

As the Navy dispatched aircraft carriers and guided-missile destroyers toward New York and Washington to guard against a still-obscure, unnamed threat, U.S. intelligence agencies opened the painstaking task of determining who was responsible.

"It's too early to tell, but there are indications that people with links to Osama bin Laden and [his] al Qaeda organization may have been responsible," a U.S. official said.

Even from his remote hideouts in Afghanistan, bin Laden commands a worldwide terror network with the resources and infrastructure able to "pull something like this off," the official said -- even commandeering aircraft from diverse locations thousands of miles away. CIA Director George J. Tenet, testifying to Congress in February, asserted that bin Laden was "capable of planning multiple attacks with little or no warning."

John Pike, an intelligence analyst in Washington, said, "It is possible that [the terrorists] could have hatched the plan with trusted reliable people who infiltrated into the U.S. one at a time, waiting for a prearranged signal," and staying away from traditional communication devices, he said.

In recent years, the United States and its allies have been relatively successful in preventing attacks sponsored by rogue states such as Libya, Iran and North Korea, whose actions are easier to monitor and who know they risk severe retaliation.

"State-sponsored terror activity has almost vanished in recent years," said Philip C. Wilcox, Jr., former ambassador-at-large for counterterrorism. "It's easier for non-state actors to conspire and coordinate without drawing attention."

But pinning the attack conclusively on bin Laden might be difficult, because, as Tenet said, he develops surrogates to commit crimes so as to avoid detection himself. Intelligence agencies will be sifting through and analyzing previously gathered information for clues.

As President Bush decides what steps to take, his first priority must be "information -- good information," said Anthony Lake, President Bill Clinton's first national security adviser.

Then, Lake said, "you need to step back a bit and think strategically as well as spasmodically."

"It reminds us how much we are part of the world," he said. "The response must clearly be American, but we must use it as part of a way of building a global response to terrorism."

In the past, presidents have responded legally and militarily, sometimes pursuing both routes.

"America's capabilities to defend itself against the threat of terrorism and to pre-empt or respond to such attacks arguably still remain inchoate and unfocused," Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism specialist at the RAND Corp., told Congress this year.

Tempting as a quick, severe military response might be for Bush -- particularly given a likely public clamor for revenge -- "the use of a military response is fraught with difficulty," Wilcox said. "Unless you have a clear identity of the enemy, you shouldn't use it. And there is a danger that innocent civilians will be killed."

Analysts are still debating whether the United States was justified in attacking a suspected poison gas factory in Sudan in 1998.

Bush vowed last night to punish not only the perpetrators but also those who harbor them. But going after the Taliban, the zealous Islamic conservatives ruling most of Afghanistan, might not be enough to rein in bin Laden. The Taliban have defied international pressure for years.

This problem "can't be dealt with one retaliatory blow," former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger said yesterday. A "systemic attack" is needed, he said, but he acknowledged in a TV interview: "I don't know what that means."

Intelligence-gathering is a vital weapon in that fight, and a question reverberating through Washington yesterday was whether U.S. agencies are responsible for a colossal failure in this case.

"I have no doubt there will be an orgy of finger-pointing," Lake said. "Terror groups are aware of our intelligence methods and are getting better at evading them." But other U.S. agencies not usually associated with a war effort, including the U.S. Customs Service and the Coast Guard, might need strengthening against this shadowy threat, he said.

Several analysts said yesterday that this is a fight the nation can't win alone.

"We're going to need the Europeans, Russians, Chinese -- any country that in the past has flirted with both sides of the street," said Richard C. Holbrooke, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Sun staff writer Laura Sullivan contributed to this article.

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