US goes on alert for New Year's terrorists

Security is widespread, intense as nation readies for trouble from

With just 10 days to go until calendars turn to 2000, law-enforcement agencies around the US are bracing for the possibility of terrorist attack.

Extra security can be expected at airline terminals, where some carriers have announced reduced schedules and a few others have said they will not fly at all over the New Year's weekend.

The FBI's 56 field offices reportedly will have command posts set up, and special teams at the agency's headquarters will be on the lookout for potential terrorists as well as for computer hackers trying to disrupt electronic infrastructures.

The country's 301 points of entry are on high alert, and 150 extra customs inspectors have been assigned to work through the New Year's period.

And Spokane, Wash., like many cities around the country, expects to have "more police officers on the streets than have ever been on the streets" before, according to acting police chief Roger Bragdon.

The heightened security comes against the backdrop of last week's arrest of an Algerian man trying to enter the United States from Canada with a load of bombmaking equipment in his car. Montreal police said he may be connected with a crime ring that gave money to terrorist groups from sale of stolen goods

"We're redoubling our awareness level throughout the entire agency," says US Customs Service spokesman Dennis Murphy.

But the special law-enforcement efforts have been months (if not years) in the making, and they focus not just on external threats but on those from within the country as well.

In a report to police agencies around the country, the FBI recently warned that some radical militias, hate groups, and apocalyptic religious sects were "clearly focusing on the millennium as a time of action." This includes acquiring weapons and other gear, preparing "safe houses," and "surveying potential targets."

Just how vulnerable is the US to terrorist attack, and how well prepared is it to cope? In the years after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, federal agencies conducted 201 counterterrorism exercises, more than half of them in the field. This tripled the number of such exercises per year.

But despite increased awareness and preparation, things have gotten more difficult in some ways. Domestic terrorists typically act in "lone wolf" style, as did convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Or they operate in "leaderless cells" of a few individuals.

And while the US has been able to pressure some countries into stopping their support for international terrorists, this also has meant an increase in private organizations and individuals engaging in terrorism directed at Americans here or overseas.

"Today's terrorist threat comes primarily from groups and loosely knit networks with fewer ties to government," Michael Sheehan, State Department coordinator for counterterrorism, told a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee last month.

For example, Ambassador Sheehan said, Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan "has created a truly transnational terrorist enterprise, drawing on recruits from areas across Asia, Africa, and Europe, as well as the Middle East."

US officials believe that Ahmed Ressam, the Algerian man arrested a week ago in Port Angeles, Wash., may have ties to Mr. Bin Laden, who is thought to have masterminded the bombings of US embassies in Africa last year.

While most terrorist attacks - either carried out or thwarted - involved conventional weapons, there also is concern that weapons of mass destruction may present a growing threat.

"As we stand on the threshold of the 21st century, the stark reality is that the face and character of terrorism are changing and that the previous beliefs about the restraint on terrorist use of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) devices may be disappearing," a federal advisory panel reported to the president and Congress last week.

The 18-member advisory group, headed by Virginia Gov. James Gilmore (R), was established by law to assess domestic response capabilities for terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction. While not wanting to overstate the danger, the panel also found that "despite ... many new legislative and programmatic initiatives and appreciably increased funding levels, valid concerns remain that the United States is still not appropriately organized and prepared to counter and respond to the threat of either mass-casualty or CBRN terrorism."

And it concluded that such threats "will require new ways of thinking throughout the entire spectrum of local, state, and federal agencies."

Meanwhile, State Department officials have issued travel warnings for 31 countries.

According to the State Department's "worldwide caution" issued earlier this month, "American citizens traveling or residing abroad during the period [through early January 2000] are urged to review their security practices, to remain alert to the changing situation, and to exercise caution. American citizens should avoid large crowds and gatherings, keep a low profile, and vary routes and times of all required travel."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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