Al-Qaida battle likened to mob fight

Officials say strategy used against Mafia could work on terrorists

War On Terrorism

An Elusive Foe

October 29, 2001|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - To crystallize for the American public just how crafty and dangerous Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network is, President Bush and other top U.S. officials have turned to a familiar comparison: the mob.

It is a fitting analogy in many ways, with bin Laden presiding as the wealthy godfather and law enforcement turning to the same tactics of surveillance and infiltration that helped to crumble Cosa Nostra over the past three decades.

But there are crucial differences. Investigators tracking terrorism must act far more quickly to try to detect terrorist operations before they strike, say authorities who have spent years studying and investigating the Mafia crime families in the United States.

And in the al-Qaida network, law enforcement officials are up against a criminal enterprise with a code of conduct much darker than the Mafia's, one in which civilians are fair targets and where instead of profiting by corrupting the system, the group's foot soldiers are working to collapse the system altogether.

"It just seems to me it's the difference between playing chess and playing three-dimensional chess," said I. Michael Greenberger, a University of Maryland law professor who served as a top counter-terrorism adviser to former Attorney General Janet Reno.

President Bush first drew the comparison between organized terrorism and organized crime in his speech to Congress nine days after the attacks on New York and Washington. In a line crafted to connect with the vast number of Americans who had paid little attention to bin Laden's ruthless network before Sept. 11, Bush explained: "Al-Qaida is to terror what the Mafia is to crime."

The president acknowledged the limitations of the pairing, saying that while the mob was motivated largely by money, al-Qaida is "intent on remaking the world and imposing its radical beliefs on people everywhere."

Officials overseas have at times used Mafia argot to demonize their nation's attackers. British leaders have long denounced the "godfathers" of the Irish Republican Army.

In the United States, it is also a way to explain and defend expanded new police powers signed into law Friday by President Bush and to justify the arrest and detention of hundreds of people during the 6-week-old criminal probe triggered by the Sept. 11 attacks. As of Friday, 977 people across the country had been taken into custody.

On Thursday, Attorney General John Ashcroft likened the Justice Department's fight against terrorism to Robert F. Kennedy's crusade against organized crime when he had Ashcroft's job in the early 1960s.

Ashcroft said federal prosecutors and FBI agents would use the new anti-terrorism measures to launch broad telephone and Internet surveillance on suspected terrorists and would not hesitate to detain or deport them on relatively minor offenses.

"Robert Kennedy's Justice Department, it is said, would arrest mobsters for spitting on the sidewalk if it would help in the battle against organized crime," Ashcroft said in a speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors. "It has been and will be the policy of this Department of Justice to use the same aggressive arrest and detention tactics in the war on terror."

The same day, Deputy Treasury Secretary Kenneth Dam used his own Mafia analogy in announcing the creation of a law enforcement team to track the money trail of suspected terrorists.

"The same talent pool and expertise that brought down Al Capone will now be dedicated to investigating Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network," Dam said.

Longtime Mafia watchers and investigators said there are crucial differences in the two operations, but the comparisons are in turns accurate and useful.

"I think the parallel works a little bit - in a way, these guys are the gangsters of the 21st century," said George Anastasia, a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who has covered organized crime for 15 years and written three books about the Mafia.

Anastasia noted that like the Italian immigrant gangsters who came to America at the turn of the last century, modern-day terrorists to varying degrees have been able to hide behind cultural and language barriers and to blend into ethnic communities.

Also, many of the law enforcement tools used to break up those crime families are the same as the ones that will now be turned on suspected terrorists, authorities said. Those include sophisticated intelligence analysis, electronic surveillance, undercover agents and informants.

Still, investigators acknowledge that it took years for FBI agents to get inside the mob, and finding a way to penetrate al-Qaida could prove far more complicated because of language and cultural barriers.

"Who is the Sammy Gravano of the bin Laden organization?" Anastasia asked, referring to Mafia turncoat Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano, who helped prosecutors win convictions against the notorious New York mob boss John Gotti. "That is kind of simplistic, but it's relevant. How do you flip these guys?"

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