Boston — In the fight against terrorism in the United States, state and local authorities are playing an increasingly important role. Last week, in the aftermath of the US military strike against Libya, New England officials moved closer to forming a squad to squelch domestic terrorism. The New England Terrorist Task Force -- a team of federal, state, and local authorities coordinated by the Boston field office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation -- will soon snare and share intelligence about potential terrorist activities in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Maine.
Officials hope such close coordination quells the import -- and export -- of terrorism. The significance of the latter problem was underscored last week in two separate gun-running indictments.
Last Thursday a federal grand jury in Brooklyn, N.Y., indicted two Italian businessmen and one Libyan for conspiring to smuggle over $30 million in military equipment to Libya between 1982 and 1984. The day before, a grand jury in Boston indicted five men for illegally transferring $1.2 million of weapons to the Irish Republican Army in 1984.
``We are talking about terrorism -- the shipment of arms,'' said US District Court Magistrate Laurence P. Cohen after the Boston indictment was reached. In both cases, the export of terrorism was stopped only after ``information-running'' between federal and local authorities.
New England's initiative, which only formalizes such cooperation, will be the nation's third terrorist task force. New York City formed the first squad in 1980 after repeated bombings by three terrorist groups, including a pernicious Puerto Rican nationalist organization. A wave of bombings by that same group, in fact, spurred Chicago officials to establish a task force of their own in 1982.
It's not that antiterrorist efforts are unknown to the rest of the country. In Los Angeles, a well-trained team of local and federal officers protected thousands of international athletes and dignitaries at the 1984 Olympics. And border states, especially in the South, have stepped up their cooperation with federal agencies to stop potential threats from incoming aliens. But neither of those pushes has created permanent, coordinated forces to deal specifically with terrorist threats.
``We definitely need that,'' says Neil C. Livingstone, president of the Institute on Terrorism and Subnational Conflict in Washington, D.C. ``Intelligence is the first line of defense against terrorism.''
Within US borders, at least, it may also be the last line. ``We shouldn't overreact,'' says Mr. Livingstone, explaining that the US mainland is too dangerous a target for terrorists. ``We don't need to put the military in the airports. . . . We simply have to make sure that local authorities are better prepared to deal with the problems that arise -- and that can only be done with the leadership of federal authorities.''
In New York, the FBI's expertise has helped local police detectives deterred two local terrorist operations, according to FBI spokesman Joseph Valiquette.
But the link-up hasn't been totally smooth. ``Like any marriage,'' says Mr. Valiquette, ``there is a period when you have to get to know each other.'' After a ``somewhat awkward beginning,'' however, the task force has become very close-knit, he says.
That's crucial in New York, where dignitaries from around the world flock to the United Nations. And like the Boston area, the site of Harvard University's 350th anniversary, the Big Apple will host an international event when it unveils the reconstructed Statue of Liberty on the Fourth of July.
In Chicago, the city's antiterrorist squad has already defused one potentially explosive situation, says Robert Long of the FBI's Chicago field office. In 1983, it secretly filmed leaders of a Puerto Rican nationalist group making bombs. Then, just two days before the bombs were to be set off, the force arrested them -- with the help of what Mr. Long calls ``probably everybody but the IRS.''
``We haven't had any terrorist problems with this group since then,'' says John P. Kennedy, coordinator of task force's sister program, the Hostage/Barricade Terrorist Unit.
``You can't deal with terrorism with just a municipal organization,'' Mr. Kennedy says. ``But at the same time . . . the local contacts and the knowledge of the immediate environment [are] necessary, too. So it's just a mutual thing -- and it's worked very successfully.''
Many civil libertarians, however, worry that increased intelligence could violate the rights of individual citizens. Arab-Americans, the group most likely to be targeted, feel that more intelligence only means more discrimination.
Livingstone concedes that discrimination is inherent in a tighter security atmosphere. But ``it is not a racist situation,'' he contends. ``The fact remains that if you are going to do something effective about Libyan terrorists or the potential of terrorism, you're going to look at Arabs. You've got to focus on the right groups.''
But Mohammed T. Mehdi, secretary general of the National Council on Islamic Affairs, says that Arab-Americans are precisely the wrong group. Dr. Mehdi says he received an assassination threat last week while taking calls on a radio talk show. ``If there is any need for more intelligence work, it has to be for the protection of Arab-Americans,'' he says.