How US is preparing for retaliatory strikes

It puts Iraqis under watch and issues warnings about Al Qaeda, other terrorists.

A war with Iraq now will be vastly different from the one 12 years ago. So, too, is the likelihood of retaliatory strikes.

To be sure, Saddam Hussein threatened to make the US pay then, much as he is doing now. But in 1991, it was expected that any attacks would be launched at US embassies abroad, or diplomats, or traveling US citizens.

Indeed, Iraq executed at least six plots overseas that are known about, although none was successful. But Sept. 11 has changed expectations all around, exposing America's vulnerabilities and raising the likelihood of hits on US targets from a wide range of terrorist groups.

To prepare for the threat, the US is moving swiftly to take precautions at home and abroad:

• It is ordering diplomats out of Kuwait, Israel, Syria, and possibly other countries in the region.

• It has informed 60 nations that intelligence officials have identified Iraqis living in their countries who may launch strikes against them or US interests there.

• Two Iraqi officials have been expelled from their mission to the UN, and the FBI is asking all Iraqis in the US to "voluntarily" register with the government. It is trying to find at least 1,000 Iraqis whose visas have expired, and is putting a number of Iraqis under surveillance.

• The US has issued a warning that Al Qaeda or other terrorists may try to attack US military forces abroad, while the FBI is telling its branches to be alert for "lone wolf" type strikes in the US.

"[Retaliatory strikes] certainly will occur," says Rohan Gunaratna, an expert on terror and author of "Inside Al Qaeda." "What we can expect to see are more medium- and small-scale attacks."

Multiple threats

The threats come from many directions. Terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda, may try to take advantage of whatever lapses might occur while the US is engaged in a full-scale war - both abroad and at home. And there is an abundance of sympathy worldwide for what many Arabs and Muslims believe is an attack on Islam.

That could impel individuals to act alone or in small groups, such as the Egyptian who opened fire on travelers at an El Al airlines counter in Los Angeles last July 4.

Still, the US is better prepared to prevent retaliatory strikes than it was just a few months ago. For one thing, Washington has made great inroads in disrupting the Al Qaeda network.

But a hallmark of terrorist organizations is their ability to adapt, to quickly reconstitute and to continually identify gaps in their adversaries' defenses.

And even though intelligence officials and terror experts don't think Osama bin Laden has aligned himself with Mr. Hussein, he has long trumpeted the plight of Iraqi children and women, suffering from US-led sanctions.

In his most recent audiotape, released last month, Mr. bin Laden not only revisited that subject, he called on like-minded people worldwide to rise up against "the Crusaders," meaning the US and its allies.

What war means for Al Qaeda

A war with Iraq, experts say, provides fertile ground for the rejuvenation of Al Qaeda's network - both in terms of regrouping its far-flung network of fighters and in publicity that could lead to new members and additional support.

"For [bin Laden] to have any relevance, he must demonstrate the veracity of his claims," says Bruce Hoffman, an expert on terror at the Rand Corp. "Here is an ideal opportunity for him to make good."

That's one of the reasons (besides the increased intelligence "chatter") that the CIA raised the possibility of terrorist strikes against military forces overseas.

One of bin Laden's goals had been to get the US involved in a ground war in Afghanistan; he thought his network would be able to perpetrate punishing strikes against US soldiers.

That obviously didn't work. But now he may think he has another opportunity - with US forces deployed in another country in the region and with US forces about to fight a war that no one expects will be as easy as the nine-week rout of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The importance of prevention

Still, with the recent arrest of one of Al Qaeda's high-level members, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, it may be some time before the organization can regroup and regain some of its pre-9/11 prowess, if it can at all.

In the meantime, experts say what the US is trying to do to disrupt attacks in advance - sending diplomats home, raising the alert levels, and putting people under surveillance - is the right mix of measures.

"To disrupt a network immediately before the US intervenes in Iraq is a good plan," says Mr. Gunaratna. "If you do it too early, they can rebuild. If you do it too late, they will operationalize their plans."

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