Once again, the US government may soon face one of the most difficult security questions of the modern age: whether - and how - to retaliate for an act of terrorism.
That's because investigators have gotten a fast start in their effort to determine who blew a hole in the side of the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen, on Oct. 12. Yemeni and US officials have located houses, a car, even ID cards believed to have been used by bomb conspirators.
White House officials have said they might strike back if they feel they have fingered a perpetrator. But some complicating factors might make them think twice before pulling the trigger in this case.
For one thing, the coming election could make the timing for retaliation difficult. For another, the last time President Clinton loosed cruise missiles, following the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Africa, he was criticized for hitting at least one target that may have had no terrorist link. Then there's the smoldering Israeli-Palestinian situation.
The US does not want to do anything to heighten tensions in the Middle East. Yet a military response against a militant Islamic group, if one proves to be connected to the bombing, could well do just that.
"The bombing that is intended to scare them in fact incites them and their friends or ... the whole Muslim community ... to come back at you," says former CIA director Stansfield Turner. "And they feel totally justified for doing it."
At time of writing, the White House remained insistent that the case is not concluded. The chain of responsibility for the attack on the Cole has yet to be determined, officials said.
The US received no specific threat of an imminent attack prior to the bombing, the head of US military forces in the Gulf region told Congress yesterday.
"We are determined to get to the bottom of this. We will put the events that led up to the bombing of the Cole under a microscope," Army Gen. Tommy Franks, head of Central Command, said in an appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
But a number of experts outside government said that much of what has been disclosed so far points a finger toward terrorist groups controlled or influenced by Osama bin Laden, a Saudi financier living in Afghanistan.
Mr. Bin Laden recently married a woman of Yemeni extraction. His family has ties to Hadhramaut, a remote province in eastern Yemen where at least one bomb suspect apparently spent some time.
A video of Bin Laden making threats against the US and wearing a traditional Yemeni dagger was broadcast on a Qatar-based satellite TV station in September.
US officials only go so far as to say that their prime suspect remains the "jihad movement" of Islamic groups committed to confrontation with the West.
"The evidence is almost overwhelming that it is one group associated with [Bin Laden]," says Stanley Bedlington, a former senior analyst at the CIA counter-terrorism center.
Bin Laden has been the target of US military strikes before. After the US determined that he was behind the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa, President Clinton loosed cruise missiles against Bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan, and against a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan thought to be connected to him and to be producing chemical weapons.
But the US attracted a wave of international criticism after it became clear that the pharmaceutical plant may have been only that, and not a terror plant at all.
And that shows one of the most difficult aspects of retaliation against terrorism. "The decision to retaliate is not difficult," says Mr. Bedlington. "The difficulty is finding [targets]."
Some US strikes have undoubtedly had an effect, says Mr. Turner. President Reagan's air strikes against Libya may well have lessened its state sponsorship of terrorists.
But he says that, in general, it does not actually damage their capability and just hardens their resolve.
"The way you deal with terrorism ... is track these people down and take them through the legal process," Turner says. "We've done it with Lockerbie and the World Trade Center [attacks]."
The November presidential election could be a further complicating factor. Mr. Clinton does not want to be seen as having launched an attack simply to appear muscular and increase Al Gore's chances. Yet neither does he want to appear to be holding off so as to avoid the issue.
"I don't see the administration doing anything unless they are absolutely certain who did this," says Arthur Hulnick, an associate professor of international relations at Boston University.
But others feel that no matter how long it takes, the US must track down the culprits and do something to retaliate. To let the deed go unpunished, they say, could put US troops and embassies in greater danger around the world.
"It puts people on the alert that if they think they are in a war with us, indeed they are," says Michael Corgan, a retired Naval officer and Boston University professor of the history of war.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society