US Efforts Leave Terrorists With Fewer Places to Hide
Series of extraditions shows how American pressure exerted on hide-out countries can pay off
WASHINGTON — Today's terrorists can run to the ends of the earth after exploding their bombs or expending their bullets. But once they get to their intended haven, they're finding it harder and harder to hide.
The long arm of Western law enforcement now extends into regions it had difficulty reaching a decade ago. In recent years American authorities have nabbed two suspects in Pakistan, for instance: Mir Aimal Kansi, the alleged killer of two CIA employees who was snatched on June 15; and Ramsi Yusuf, a World Trade Center bomb suspect similarly whisked away in 1995.
This doesn't mean there are no more places terrorists can disappear. Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi, for one, hasn't exactly become a junior G-man. It does mean that years of US nurturing have solidified global police relationships and made governments less willing to risk international censure for harboring known terrorists.
"Over the past decade the issue of international terrorism has certainly been thrust into the forefront," says Hillary Mann, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
US citizens might wonder why it has taken so long. Terrorism centers on murder and mayhem. Why would a suspect feel safe anywhere except in a desperado nation?
But the situation has long been more complicated than that. One person's terrorism is another's legitimate political struggle. And national pride is at stake. Allowing another country to finger someone within one's borders as a suspect for arrest is a sensitive decision for any government leader.
Consider Pakistan's domestic problems. The US hasn't officially acknowledged that officials of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government cooperated in Mr. Kansi's arrest, but it's clear they at least looked the other way while the FBI operated in their country.
Now Pakistani papers are full of attacks on the government, and critics have filed at least three lawsuits on the extradition. "Pakistan's sovereignty has been challenged," complained Hamid Gul, a former head of Pakistan's spy agency, in one such suit.
In 1985 similar complications combined to produce one of the era's worst anti-terror fiascoes: the aftermath of the Achille Lauro cruise-ship hijacking.
Terrorists who had seized control of the ship and murdered one of its passengers were flying to Tunisia on an Egyptian plane. They were intercepted by US warplanes and forced to land at a NATO base in Sicily. But Italian police then intervened and seized the suspects. Eventually Italy simply released Mohammed Abbas, a Palestinian who had negotiated an end to the hijacking from shore but whom US officials considered the operation's mastermind.
Today's international attitudes toward terrorism are arguably much different. The end of the cold war has made the fight against terrorism a higher security priority for many Western nations and has closed off former terror havens in the East Bloc. Israel's mid-1990s rapprochement with its neighbors made some Arab nations less eager to be linked to violent acts that could be labeled "terrorist." (The effect of growing Israel-Palestinian tension on this trend remains to be seen.)
Perhaps most important, US officials forced the issue onto international agendas whenever they could, making it clear they would consider going it alone and engaging in extraterritorial captures if denied cooperation.
President Clinton himself reportedly signed a classified directive allowing forcible international arrest in 1995.
"We are not a country that forgives.... We will track these terrorists down wherever they are," said State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns after Kansi was taken into custody.
Kansi - who appeared at a hearing in Fairfax, Va., July 7 and is scheduled to be tried Nov. 3 - is not the only terror suspect to recently come into US hands.
On June 17 Canada extradited Hani Abdel Rahim Hussein al-Sayegh, a Saudi dissident who US authorities believe has information about the 1996 bombing of a US barracks in Dhahran. Mr. Sayegh could have a hearing on a conspiracy charge as early as this week.
BUT it would be wrong to conclude that law enforcement's increased reach equals victory in the war against terrorism. It simply means the West has more weapons.
Arrests, and justice - if they lead to that - can be a long time coming. Kansi's alleged shootings occurred four years ago. And there are still places where Western influence does not reach. Libya still shelters two Libyan intelligence agents that the West accuses of bombing Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988.
The difficulty in combatting terrorism "is how easy it is for people to melt away in the dead of night," says Jerrold M. Post, associate director of the Institute for Crisis and Disaster Management at George Washington University here. To say terrorists no longer have anywhere to hide "is overly optimistic."