WILL a guilty verdict in the biggest terrorism trial in US history act as a deterrent or a catalyst for future terrorist activity in America?
This is the unanswered question now that a federal jury has found Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and nine other militant Muslims guilty of conspiring to orchestrate a series of terrorist bombings.
In the short term, federal officials are preparing for some kind of reaction from Middle East radicals. Security has been tightened at the nation's airports and outside the US District Court in lower Manhattan where the trial took place. US embassies around the world are also increasing their safety precautions.
Antiterrorism activity in New York is already in a high state because of the visit by Pope John Paul II, who arrives tomorrow. In addition, there are some 144 heads of state due in New York for the 50th anniversary of the United Nations.
Terrorism experts say the federal reaction is warranted. ''We're dealing with terrorists who are not approaching their actions rationally,'' says Michael Dobkowski, a terrorism expert at Hobart and William Smith College in Geneva, N.Y.
In fact, according to Khalid Duran of TranState Islam, an international report on Islamist movements, a special terrorist group was set up a year ago in Afghanistan just to avenge this conviction. ''I certainly expect a reaction from the Muslim community abroad,'' says Mr. Duran. He cites Egyptian and Algerian intelligence sources as saying the terrorist group is under the command of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a leader of an Afgan opposition faction.
''People always make the prediction'' that this is the event that will produce a wave of terrorism, says terrorism expert James Dempsey of the Center for National Security Studies in Washington. ''In fact, the wave never materializes.''
The Gulf war never brought the expected wave of terror in the US. In 1994, there were no Islamist terrorist acts in America. ''It is very hard for groups, foreign or domestic, to use a public jury trial that results in a conviction as a mobilizing event,'' says Mr. Dempsey.
Yet, even within the Muslim community, the Sheik is controversial. ''Some see him as a terrorist and others do not,'' says John Esposito, director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University.
Immediately after the sheik's conviction on Sunday, Mr. Esposito was talking to a liberal Muslim professional. ''His reaction was that if these people did it, it had nothing to do with Islam; it was a crime done in America,'' recalls Mr. Esposito, who is also the author of a book, ''The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?''
Khalid Saffuri of the American Muslim Council in Washington points out that Rahman was banned from speaking in most mosques in America.
''His opinions in no way represent the majority opinion,'' he says. James Zogby of the Arab-American Institute in Washington maintains that most people in the Muslim community did not pay much attention to the trial. ''Rahman was never part of the vast immigrant community,'' he says. ''This is the exile community playing out exile politics.''
In the long term, Middle East terrorism may decline. Israel recently signed an agreement for Palestinian self-rule on the West Bank. Although some radical Palestinian groups have denounced the agreement, Mr. Dobkowski says it will start to relieve pressure in the region.
In addition, there has been some progress towards peace in Bosnia. If it were to be established in that region, Islamic militants will feel less pressure. ''When the militants see some reverses and promise of victory, it releases some pressure,'' says Dobkowski.
Long-term terrorism impact
The Sheik was arrested at a time when the Middle East peace process was still in its infancy and the Serbians in Bosnia held the upper hand. It was also less than a year after a terrorist bomb exploded under the World Trade Center, killing six people and injuring more than 1,000.
Immediately after the World Trade Center bombing, the FBI stepped up its intelligence activities. It agreed to pay an informer, Emmad Salem, a former Egyptian intelligence agent, to infiltrate potential terrorist groups. Mr. Salem became a part of the group that plotted to plant bombs in such targets as the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels and the United Nations.
During the trial, Mr. Salem became the government's star witness. But he admitted he had lied in a case involving an automobile accident and that he was also working for Egyptian intelligence while getting paid by the US. Despite these credibility problems, the jury clearly believed his testimony.
In some ways the trial never actually lived up to its advance billings. Some newspapers had hypothesized that the trial would give Sheik Rahman the ''pulpit of a lifetime.''
But Federal District Judge Michael Mukasey never allowed the defense the opportunity to make bring in other Islamic clerics to define the meaning of the word ''jihad'' for the jury.
Genesis of the trial
Nor did he allow the defense to attempt to make the trial into a political forum about the Egyptian government. The defense said it will appeal the Sheik's conviction since it was limited from making these points during the trial.
The next major terrorism trial will take place when the US tries Ramzi Yousef, the so-called mastermind of the World Trade Center bombing.