Back to basics in fight against terrorism

As CIA hunts USS Cole culprits, critics call for greater focus on conventional risks.

In the wake of last week's attack that killed 17 Navy sailors, US agents are methodically sifting through the wreckage of the USS Cole, looking for any clue that will lead them to the alleged terrorist behind the explosion.

But the more telling challenge for the US could come in the next few years, as officials weigh the latest horror and consider how it should affect their strategy in the ongoing war against terrorism.

In essence, the disaster with the Cole is likely to point counter-terrorism efforts back to basics, analysts say - to conventional weapons, and to American targets outside the United States.

"Terrorist groups continue to use whatever [weapon] is easiest to use," says L. Paul Bremer, a former State Department official who this year chaired the National Commission on Terrorism. "They also know that it's easier to go after American targets overseas than it is in the US."

In the case of the USS Cole, a guided missile destroyer, investigators are looking into numerous terrorist groups located in and around Yemen, where the blast occurred. The probe took a major step forward this week when the Yemeni government acknowledged the explosion was indeed the product of terrorism. Officials also said they had found bomb-making materials in an apartment near Aden, the attack site.

While experts say that it would have been difficult to prevent the attack on the Cole under almost any circumstances, they also say the bombing points to areas where the US could improve its antiterrorism efforts - ranging from better intelligence gathering to redirecting resources toward conventional-weapons risks.

To be sure, fighting terrorism is an inexact science, and the US record has been solid since the threat expanded at the cold war's end.

Spending on counterterrorism programs is up dramatically in recent years, to a high of $11.1 billion for fiscal year 2001. The number of US victims, meanwhile, dropped to just five in 1999. And no reported incidents darkened the Y2K calendar rollover, when law-enforcement officials said they prevented suspected terrorists from entering the US from Canada.

Unsavory informants?

Still, experts say better intelligence gathering will hold the key to preventing future disasters like the one involving the Cole.

Analysts complain that efforts have been hampered by a 1995 CIA directive that prevents agents from using informants who have been involved in human rights abuses - a condition that could apply to almost any informant within a terrorist ring.

"We are doing pretty well across a broad spectrum," says Mike Wermuth, a terrorism expert at the RAND Corp. in Washington. But "We've tended to hamstring ourselves ... by preventing [the use of] unsavory characters as insiders to infiltrate foreign terrorism organizations."

CIA officials say the new conditions yield sufficient - and higher quality - information.

Another area of debate is how money is allocated between preventing conventional attacks and preventing attacks with weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which include chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons.

WMD were brought to the world's attention by the March 1995 sarin gas attack in a Japanese subway - but since then have not come into play as much as some planners expected. "We spend too much on WMD terrorism," says John Parachini of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. "While the threat probably is not zero, it's low."

He says WMD terrorism spending has doubled in the past three years, while resources for conventional threats are flat.

US concern about WMD increased after the Soviet Union fell, with the discovery of a larger-than-expected biological weapons program and heightened worry that Russia would lose control of its nuclear materials.

Yet, as the Cole proves, conventional explosives can do plenty of damage and are easy to use.

New Middle East dynamic

Experts also warn that as America becomes more powerful, and exerts its will more often, it will attract greater resentment.

"The most immediate problem is with Israel," says Mr. Bremer. "For the first time in 50 years, they are not facing a serious Arab military threat. We're seen as Israel's closest ally, and that could lead Israel's enemies to conclude that the only way to inflict damage [on Israel] is to use [terrorism] against the US."

Jim Phillips of the Heritage Foundation adds that, as the US improves security at embassies and other stationary objects, terrorists will look toward targets that are harder to defend. The Cole, in Yemen for a four-hour refueling stop, was a case in point.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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