American security officials are taking Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi's latest threats against the United States seriously. Customs Service inspectors and immigration agents along US borders and at international airports have been alerted to maintain a careful watch for possible Libyan terrorists trying to enter the US. But Customs Service and Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) spokesmen stress that special counter-terrorism measures have already been put into effect as a result of last year's hijackings and attacks in the Middle East.
The most recent caution comes in the aftermath of the US-Libyan military clash in the Gulf of Sidra off the Libyan coast.
American officials have expressed concern that the unpredictable Libyan leader may strike out against the US with retaliatory commando or suicide attacks almost anywhere. US embassies and diplomatic personnel are considered particularly vulnerable, and the State Department has urged American diplomats throughout the world to take ``prudent precautions.''
[According to an Associated Press report, Libya's official radio yesterday called for Arab suicide squads to attack US embassies and other interests worldwide following the Gulf of Sidra clashes.
The radio exhorted the ``Arab nation'' to be transformed ``in its entirety into suicide squads and into human bombs, missiles and aircraft to deter and resist terrorism and destroy it for good.'' The radio commentary went on, ``Oh heroes of our Arab nation, let your missiles and suicide cells pursue American terrorist embassies and interests wherever they may be.'']
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has intensified its surveillance of groups and individuals that could play a role in, or be targets of, terrorist attacks in America.
``We are monitoring the situation and are doing all we can possibly do to see to it that a [terrorist] incident does not occur in the US,'' says an FBI spokesman.
Last year, the FBI says it thwarted 23 planned terrorist attacks by various groups in the United States, including a Sikh plot in New Orleans to assassinate Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
At a time when international terrorism against Americans is sharply increasing overseas, terrorist attacks within US borders are on the decline. Last year there were only seven terrorist bombings and shootings carried out in the US, as compared with more than 100 attacks in the late 1970s.
To date, despite occasional rumors about ``Libyan hit squads,'' Libyan plots within the US have been confined to attempts to intimidate or assassinate Libyan dissidents living in America. (INS estimates that there are roughly 3,600 Libyans currently residing in the US, including some 1,600 students attending colleges and universities in California, Texas, Florida, and other states.)
In 1980, a hired gunman attempted to kill a Libyan student at Colorado State University. Last May, an official with the Libyan Mission to the United Nations was expelled from the US after he was linked by the FBI to a plot to assassinate Libyan dissidents living in America.
Much of the FBI's success in fighting terrorism has come as a result of using the same investigative tools that have helped the FBI battle powerful organized-crime and drug-trafficking groups. Beefed-up racketeering statutes and wider use of electronic surveillance have given federal agents the edge they've needed to identify terrorists and put them behind bars.
Law-enforcement officials note that it is considerably more difficult for foreign terrorist groups to establish a support and supply network within US borders than in, for example, Lebanon or Syria.
At the same time, immigration officials are concerned that America's porous southern border with Mexico may be offering a wide-open door to the Libyans and other potential terrorist groups.
A recent four-month survey of non-Mexican aliens trying to sneak into the US from Mexico indicated that the border has become a major entry point for illegal immigrants from around the world.