Target: haunted by the hunted

'Blowback': Assassination of terrorist leaders may have a short-term impact, but rogue splinter groups left behind are more dangerous, experts say.

March 28, 2004|By David Wood | David Wood,NEWHOUSE NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Shouldering aside legal and moral niceties, the United States has assassinated senior terrorists in the past. It has others in its sights today.

But last week's events, from Israel's assassination in Gaza of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, to the contentious hearings of the Sept. 11 commission in Washington, suggest there is no easy answer to a key question: Does killing terrorist leaders work?

The question will grow more critical as the United States struggles against an expanding global terrorist threat that seems impervious to conventional military tactics - and as America tries to win friends in a global community where objections to U.S. actions seem to grow daily.

Beyond the moral and philosophical issues surrounding state-sanctioned killing, does assassination reduce terrorism by disrupting terrorist cells and thwarting plots? Or do such killings only accelerate a lethal cycle of violence? And what's the damage if - as has happened so often - the wrong guy is killed, or the plot is foiled and exposed to public ridicule, as in the CIA's 1960s attempts to kill Fidel Castro?

Experts here and in Israel caution that carefully targeted, successful assassination might have short-term benefits, but the potential for murderous "blowback" - a term for uncontrollable repercussions - carries significant risks.

"We can't kill them faster than they can be made," says Kenneth Brower, a military and security consultant in Washington and in Israel. "What stopped polio wasn't better iron lungs but a vaccine. Our vaccine for Islamic fundamentalism is democratic reform and economic advancement so there aren't a lot of angry young men becoming crazies out there."

In a briefing on terrorism late in 2000, President-elect George W. Bush asked the CIA whether killing Osama bin Laden would take care of things. The CIA's top operations officer, James Pavitt, answered, "Killing bin Laden would have an impact but not stop the threat," according to a report released Wednesday by the Sept. 11 commission chaired by Thomas Kean.

"No one I know," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told the commission last week, "believes it would necessarily have prevented Sept. 11" had bin Laden been killed. Al-Qaida sleeper cells, Rumsfeld said, "were already in the United States months before the attacks."

Decades ago, Israel scored solid if short-lived victories when it tracked down and killed 11 Black September terrorists involved in the killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany, and again when Israeli agents killed Islamic Jihad founder Fathi Shikaki in Malta in 1995. It took years for both Arab terror groups to recover. Eventually, however, they did.

Today's loosely organized networks of terrorist cells, even those inspired and financed by bin Laden, react differently to the loss of their leaders: They fragment, rather than collapse, often with chilling effect.

Fragmentation "empowers leaders of small cells who are not necessarily restrained by the larger strategic and political concerns - and that often leads to more radical attacks," says Matthew Levitt, a former FBI counterterrorism official. When terrorist leadership is blown away, the field is left to "loners and rogue cells, perhaps the most radical and dangerous elements."

Levitt adds: "It is among these groups that the threat, targeting the United States, is increasing."

That warning seems particularly acute as the United States attempts to locate and track the al-Qaida splinters and cells and devotees who fled Afghanistan after the U.S. launched airstrikes against al-Qaida and the Taliban regime in October 2001. Al-Qaida cells have since turned up across Asia and in Europe - most recently in this month's vicious railway bombings in Madrid, Spain.

Israel's assassination Monday of Yassin, the 67-year-old leader of the Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas, ignited sustained and angry street protests across the Arab world, a chilling sight to many Israelis.

"Obviously there is a certain amount of rage, but this passes," says Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli embassy in Washington. He says targeted assassinations of terrorist leaders have a deterrent effect and "disrupt their ability to operate. We see almost immediate positive effects."

Immediate benefits

U.S. officials claim immediate benefits as well.

In November 2002, a U.S. drone aircraft fired Hellfire missiles at a fleeing car in Yemen, killing six al-Qaida terrorists implicated in the bombing of the USS Cole two years earlier. At least six other high-level al-Qaida terrorists have been killed or captured, CIA Director George J. Tenet told a Senate committee this month.

"Unquestionably, bringing these key operators to ground disrupted plots that would otherwise have killed Americans," Tenet said.

To be effective in strategic terms, however, such strikes must be sustained for decades, in the "generational" effort that National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice has outlined.

"No matter what we do, they are coming after us - so we're much better off eliminating their leaders and reducing their capacity to hit us," says Ralph Peters, a retired Army intelligence officer and strategist. "But like the war on organized crime, this has to be sustained or it comes back."

Targeting hatred

In the long run, experts acknowledge, anti-U.S. terrorism is driven by an ideology of hatred that must be the key target.

"You cannot kill a vision," says Yonah Alexander, director of the International Center for Terrorism Studies in Washington.

Strategies also are needed to tackle ethnic and racial intolerance and violence, the merger of terrorism and organized crime, weapons proliferation and other issues, Alexander says.

"You must do all of it," he says.

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