Justice vs. preventing terrorism

As evidence piles up in the Cole bombing, US officials weigh the two competing goals.

Two months after the suicide bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, investigators say they are narrowing their probe, and that several leads point in the direction of Osama bin Laden, the Saudi exile living in Afghanistan.

But the question of how to respond - and whether to retaliate - remains as puzzling as ever, tangled somewhere between a desire for justice and the need for pragmatism.

On one hand, US officials feel a strong urge to finger a bad guy, and maybe even lob a cruise missile at him, analysts say. But doing so could disrupt ongoing antiterrorism efforts, and perhaps make the US vulnerable to a future attack.

"Even if we catch a person and throw them in jail for the rest of their life, we're not going to be able to bring the victims back," says Yossef Bodansky, director of a congressional task force on terrorism. "The most important thing right now is that we prevent another attack."

The Oct. 12 attack on the Cole, a guided missile destroyer, killed 17 US sailors as the ship was refueling in the port of Aden. The Cole, with a massive hole in its side, is expected to arrive home in the US this week.

Yemeni officials, who are working closely with US investigators, say they have apprehended six people who were allegedly involved with the bombing, though they seem to be bit players. Prosecution - with the possibility of a death sentence - is expected to begin soon.

Yemeni officials also say they have discovered the identity of a ringleader, Muhammed Omar al-Harazi, who remains at large.

Mr. Harazi, furthermore, is believed to have links to Mr. Bin Laden through the 1998 bombing of two US embassies in East Africa that killed more than 220 people.

"We think the Cole terrorists have links with Afghanistan and we can say, yes, there are some links with Bin Laden," said Hussein Arab, the Yemeni interior minister, in an interview last week with Newsweek.

While US officials are likely to be pleased with the progress of the investigation - "so far it has yielded a great deal of information," says one official - they are for the moment left in a quagmire.

Channels of information

US officials need to be careful that retaliation does not burn established sources in the region, analysts say.

Human intelligence is considered the key to fighting terrorism, and without it, investigators are trapped in a role of reaction rather than prevention.

A source familiar with the Cole investigation says US officials should resist the temptation to publicly declare victory and instead "make sure there are no other attacks - or at least to reduce the risk."

"That you do by learning about the event," he says, "by cultivating sources who can tell you when the next operation will take place."

A military response, especially if it is misdirected, can make that kind of information dry up, the source says. He points to the airstrikes the US launched in Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998, after the embassy bombings in Africa, as an example.

At least one of those strikes may have been fired in error. And there are some who have argued that the retaliation only boosted Bin Laden's reputation.

In addition, Washington wants to be absolutely sure that Bin Laden is their man before they take any retaliatory measures. But Bin Laden remains a mystery, as does his group, al Qaeda.

"Is he just an impresario - or is he the brains behind the operation?" asks Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corp. in Virginia. "We just don't know."

Even if US officials are sure Bin Laden is the culprit, they still have to find the correct pressure points that can disrupt his ring.

"Military responses to terrorist attacks have mostly succeeded on a tactical level," says Mr. Hoffman. "But they haven't helped sustain a counterterrorism strategy that marshals international opinion against the terrorists."

Regardless, evidence against Bin Laden appears to be piling up in separate investigative tracks, according to Mr. Bremer.

Compiling evidence

One, spearheaded by the FBI, has the intent of gathering enough evidence to make a criminal case against the organizers of the suicide bombing.

The other track, run by the US intelligence agencies, has the less-rigid standard of painting an accurate picture for US leadership.

"The president needs to be able to act on the basis of either of these channels," says Bremer.

"He does not need to prove [guilt] in a court of law."

Finally, US officials, when making a decision on whether to retaliate, need to calculate the overall volatility of the Middle East, where fighting continues to flare between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

"When we determine who's responsible, we'll do everything we can to bring them to justice," says National Security Council spokesman, P.J. Crowley, "and we'll also take into account what effect that will have on our interests in [and outside] the US."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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