US government warnings about possible terrorist action against Americans in the early days of 2000 amount to a "Condition Yellow" alert.
That means that no one needs to stay at home on New Year's Eve simply because of fear of terror attack. From Times Square to Tokyo, US citizens should still feel free to go out and have a good time, say experts.
But arrests of three terror suspects at the lightly policed US border with Canada, coupled with a recent roundup of a terrorist cell in Jordan, are troubling indications of a possible surge in anti-US activity linked to the arrival of the year 2000. (The view from Canada, page 6.)
The bottom line: People who feel they might be in an area that is at risk, such as a large public gathering, should stay alert to the condition of their surroundings.
"I would go [celebrate]," says Bob Taubert, an antiterrorism expert and former FBI official. "It's like being struck by lightning. The chances of being hit are slim. But you should be at a high state of awareness."
On Dec. 21, the State Department renewed its warning that Americans could be the target of terrorist attacks in the next few weeks, especially abroad.
At the same time, domestic US law-enforcement agencies began redeploying assets to control the nation's borders, including expansion of security at airports.
The warning was the fifth such announcement by the State Department since October.
"My sense is that on a scale of one to 10, we are talking about a six or seven when it comes to being concerned," says William Daly, managing director of the security firm Kroll Associates.
The State Department often issues travel warnings for particular nations or regions. To issue a generalized warning is more unusual, and indicates a higher degree of evidence, experts say.
The cautions "make sense because of the millennium. Terrorists always focus on the spectacular, and what better time to gain publicity?" says Richard Shultz, director of the international security studies program at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass.
US authorities likely have specific intelligence about a possible operation, but no specific knowledge of a target.
Anti-American attacks have become widespread in the 1990s, experts say. Recent bombings at US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were particularly surprising. "Those were out-of-the-way places," says Mr. Shultz.
That makes it very difficult for US law-enforcement authorities to focus their actions on a specific place or event.
The year 2000 terrorist warnings come against a backdrop of a changed overall terrorist threat, experts note. The state-supported terrorism of the 1970s and 1980s has declined in importance. In its place has arisen a loose network of Islamic radicals, within which small groups coalesce, break up, and combine with others according to their own purposes.
Many members are veterans of the Islamic resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Osama bin Ladin, a wealthy Saudi living in Afghanistan, is a leader of this network but not its only controlling authority.
"Bin Ladin's organization operates on its own.... He possesses financial resources and means of raising funds - often through narcotrafficking, legitimate 'front' companies, and local financial support," said Ambassador Michael Sheehan, US coordinator for counterterrorism, at a recent congressional hearing.
Whether this organization has now penetrated the US through its porous border to the north is a key question for US authorities.
Algerian Ahmed Ressam was arrested in Port Angeles, Wash., on Dec. 14, after he arrived on a ferry from Canada with a carload of bombmaking materials.
Another Algerian, Bouabide Chamchi, and his Canadian companion, Lucia Garofalo, were arrested in Beecher Falls, Vt., Dec. 19. Dogs found what may have been traces of explosives in their car. Mr. Chamchi was found to be carrying a false French passport.
Experts see two particularly troubling aspects to these arrests. One is their locations - sleepy crossings that may now have become terrorist entry points.
The director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service himself said earlier this year that Canada is "particularly vulnerable" to terrorists because of its open immigration policies.
The second warning signal is the relative sophistication of the explosives and bomb parts turned up in the arrests so far.
"The thing I'm most concerned about is that these guys they arrested seem to be competent," says Mr. Taubert. "If they are part of a larger effort, I'm concerned that they are cannon fodder - the ones that were essentially fed to the authorities."
The US may not be the only - or even the primary - terror target for Y2K. Russia might actually face more a more acute threat, says Shultz, because of its brutal crackdown on Chechen rebels.
"The main Chechen fighters ... are headed by some of these Islamist radicals," he says. "We know some financial assistance has gone to Chechnya from bin Ladin."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society