Though Terrorists Attacks Have Been Few, the US Remains Alert and Cautious
WASHINGTON — AT the White House, extra sharpshooters are poised on the roof. In Congress, the sergeant-at-arms has instructed members how to open mail to protect against a letter bomb. In Los Angeles, they're posting additional guards along Rodeo Drive. As the war in the Persian Gulf moves through its second week, security across the nation remains as tight as a gas mask.
The vigilance is probably good.
Experts contend that, even though there have been relatively few successful terrorism attacks around the world so far, the chances of more assaults rise each day the war goes on.
While authorities caution against alarm, they believe that terrorist activity will increase if the conflict starts to turn against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
``The costlier the war for Hussein, the more his constraints will lower and the more desperate he will become,'' says Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism specialist at the RAND Corporation.
Some analysts believe Iraqi-sponsored terrorists are waiting for the countries they have targeted to lower their guard. After all, says David Silverstein, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation, many airports, military installations, and other facilities around the world likely to be hit are already on the highest state of alert. ``How long can they sustain that?''
A few observers think Baghdad may be restraining from immediate major attacks for political reasons. The rationale: A large terrorist strike would enrage the US and its allies and lessen the Iraqi leader's leverage, should he decide to quit Kuwait.
``His political game plan is to hope for some cease-fire that leaves him intact as leader in Iraq and allows him to proclaim'' to the Arab world that he stood up to America, says Ronald Hatchett, deputy director of the Mosher Institute for Defense Studies at Texas A&M University. ``If he wants to survive, he has got to avoid outraging the American people.''
Still, there has been terrorist activity. Bombs have either gone off or been discovered by authorities in recent days in the Philippines, France, and Malaysia.
The Jan. 19 incident in Manila, in which one Iraqi was killed and another injured while trying to plant a bomb at a US cultural center, was the first attack publicly linked to the Iraqi government since the war began. But, says a US official, there have been ``a number of incidents in other countries handled quietly where Iraqis also have been involved in planning terrorist operations.''
He adds: ``I think they are trying. It's just that they aren't succeeding.''
Other explosion activity linked to local extremists, some with anti-American overtones, has been carried out recently in Greece, Turkey, Brazil, and Chile.
``I think these are only the tip of the iceberg,'' a US official says.
In the wake of the Manila bombing, reports have surfaced suggesting that Iraq may be behind a terrorist network in Asia, using some of its embassies in the region to smuggle weapons and explosives.
Israel's ambassador to the United States, Zalman Shoval, said last week that his government was aware of 20 recent terrorist incidents traceable to Iraqi sponsorship. The State Department expressed similar sentiments, saying there was clear evidence of Iraqi backing of an international network, though it declined to specify in how many countries the groups are operating. One US official says there is activity ``on every continent.''
Domestically, the threat of a major terrorist attack is considered more remote but not out of the question. Some analysts say that if there is to be one, it will be carried out by an aggrieved individual rather than a state-sponsored group. Extensive terrorist networks don't exist in the US, and overseas organizations have targets they could hit closer to home.
Even so, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said last week it had identified the ``infrastructures'' of several international terrorist groups in the US. Among the groups it says have supporters here: the Abu Nidal organization, Hizbullah, the Palestine Liberation Front, and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Still, FBI Director William Sessions told the US Conference of Mayors that Americans should go about their business as usual. He considers the threat of terrorism low in this country.
Despite the reassurances, many Americans remain concerned. Sales of gas masks have surged in some US cities. If one aim of terrorist groups is to instill fear, they have had success. ``Terrorism has succeeded without a shot being fired,'' says Robert Kupperman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Other people are taking the threat in stride, though inconveniences arise. The White House has been closed to public tours. Security checks lag at airports. Businesses are holding video-conferences in place of conventions.