WASHINGTON — The State Department's counterterrorism mission did not begin on Sept. 11. In fact, since the end of the cold war, fighting terrorism has been one of the main goals of all United States embassies abroad. Now it is job No. 1.
The American people may wonder what US diplomats abroad do to fight terrorism. An instructive example was our effort at the US Embassy in Rome in 1996 to help recapture an Achille Lauro terrorist.
The 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro was a cowardly and brutal act. During the takeover of the vessel, Palestinian Liberation Front (PLF) terrorist Magied al-Molqi shot and killed wheelchair-bound American citizen Leon Klinghoffer. The terrorists then pushed Mr. Klinghoffer's body and wheelchair overboard.
Mr. Molqi and other terrorists aboard the Achille Lauro were captured and convicted by an Italian court. However, in February 1996, Molqi escaped from an Italian jail after failing to return from a prison furlough. The Klinghoffer family protested to US Secretary of State Warren Christopher that the Italian government had treated a terrorist murderer in "a negligently careless fashion and permitted [him] to walk free."
At the time, I was the State Department's "drugs and thugs" officer at the US Embassy in Rome. My full-time job was fostering cooperation with the Italians against narcotics, organized crime, and terrorism.
With the Molqi escape, the Embassy went into high gear. Its Law Enforcement Coordination Group convened an emergency meeting. (At the time, there were more representatives of US law-enforcement agencies at Embassy Rome than there were State Department diplomats.)
We needed to reach out to all our Italian contacts to get the facts, prepare a plan for approaching top Italian officials, and coordinate US law-enforcement efforts to support the Italians' investigation.
In short order, the ambassador called on Prime Minister Lamberto Dini and several other Italian ministers. His message: The American people would not accept anything less than the maximum effort to recapture the escaped terrorist.
Representatives of State Department Diplomatic Security then visited senior contacts at the Ministries of Justice and Interior. They told the Italians the State Department was putting up a substantial reward for information leading to the capture of Molqi. We expected Italy to do the same. The Italians did.
(We are using the same program today to offer rewards for information leading to the arrest of Sept. 11 terrorists.)
I subsequently accompanied members of the Klinghoffer family to meet senior Italian officials. Here our message was also simple: Terrorism is not an amorphous political issue it is criminal action against innocent, human victims.
Molqi was recaptured in Spain on March 23, 1996, as he was presumably preparing an escape to North Africa. He was extradited to Italy and now is serving out his 30-year prison term, the maximum penalty under Italian law. Our work on the Achille Lauro incident is not over yet, though, because several Achille Lauro accomplices, including PLF chief Abu Abbas, remain at large.
The most important lesson from the Molqi case is that military action, intelligence, and police work are essential but not sufficient in the fight against terrorism; we also need effective diplomacy. The US cannot do everything alone. In the end, the difference between security for Americans and more terrorist attacks will depend on whether American diplomacy succeeds in ensuring that foreign governments make the fight against terrorism their own.
For years, we have had diplomats working the "drugs and thugs" beat both overseas and at the State Department. The Law Enforcement Coordinating Group at the Embassy in Rome has been copied at most major United States embassies.
And in capitals around the world today, US diplomats are gathering information, developing local contacts, and bringing American influence to bear to try to bring Al Qaeda terrorists to justice and stop future terrorist attacks.
If you visit Rome today and walk past the beautiful US Embassy on the Via Veneto, you may notice a strange red indentation on the embassy's majestic facade.
It was left by the impact of a rocket fired by Japanese Red Army terrorists in 1987. In that case, the rocket failed to explode. But the red mark remains as yet another reminder of the deadly threat the United States faces around the world.
Mark C. Storella, a US Foreign Service officer since 1985, is currently a dean and Virginia Rusk Fellow at Georgetown University. This article represents his opinion and is not necessarily the view of the Department of State.