U.S. Wins a Few : Upping the Stakes on Terrorism

Times Staff Writer

In basement offices where a hand-lettered sign says “The Bullet Stops Here” and conference rooms where government lawyers gather, in California think tanks and training facilities from Oklahoma to Georgia, the United States is shaping the course of its undeclared war on international terrorism.

It is a shadowy war that perhaps no one can win. Advances are measured in inches and may not last. The ammunition is often only snippets of intelligence or pleas for international cooperation, and the soldiers are as often lawyers and bureaucrats as undercover agents or counterterrorism squads awaiting secret deployment orders at U.S. military bases.

Treated as Criminals

In the FBI headquarters and the Justice Department, across the street from each other on Pennsylvania Avenue, lawyers and investigators for the first time have started building cases against individual terrorists as though they were domestic criminals--which, in fact, they are under new U.S. laws. About a dozen cases are under investigation and 17 arrest warrants have been issued for known terrorists, FBI agents said.


“I don’t want to call Fawaz Younis’ arrest a message,” Victoria Toensing, U.S. deputy assistant attorney general, said after the accused Lebanese hijacker was arrested by FBI agents Sept. 13 on a yacht in the Mediterranean and flown here to stand trial. “But I think some people got confused over the Iranian arms sale. Now they will know what our commitment is, that we will get terrorists whenever they become available to us.”

Across town, in what was once the South Vietnamese Embassy, the cellar billiards room, replete with pine-paneled walls and large fireplace, has been turned into a command post for seven State Department agents. They are processing requests from foreign governments for counterterrorism training in everything from airport security to bomb detection. In the last three years about 6,000 foreigners from 40 countries have been trained under the $10-million-a-year program at various facilities throughout the United States.

Disarming a Terrorist

One anti-terrorism instructor, P. C. Knowles, a deputy sheriff from Alachua County, Fla., stood the other day among a group of 30 Bolivian policemen and security officers at one of those facilities, a Transportation Department complex in Oklahoma City. One of the Bolivians held a simulated pistol at Knowles’ back and the others crowded around attentively.

“First thing to know is where the weapon is,” Knowles said, his head turning toward the assailant. “You have to look. Now, from this position, it’s hopeless . . . but from here,” and his feet spun, his arm swung back and in a flash he had the gun and his student had been flipped gently onto the canvas mat, “from here, it’s easy.”

These efforts may represent only a footnote in a larger campaign, but CIA statistics indicate that they are paying dividends. They also imply that the Reagan Administration’s sale of arms to Iran--which the State Department lists along with Syria, South Yemen, Libya and Cuba as a state sponsor of political violence--may not have been as harmful to U.S. interests as many had believed.

Terrorist incidents leveled off last year, after climbing more than 30% in 1984 and peaking in 1985 when 785 attacks claimed more than 2,000 casualties, including 38 Americans killed and 157 wounded. In Europe, international terrorism of Middle East origin dropped 70% in 1986. For the first time, Latin America became the region where the most attacks against U.S. property or personnel were carried out. Preliminary figures for 1987 indicate that the trends continue.


Not since September, 1986, when five Palestinians hijacked a Pan American jetliner in Karachi, has the State Department’s operations center--a windowless, seventh-floor room full of telephones, computers and maps--been used for a terrorist crisis. Suddenly terrorism has slipped from the daily vocabulary, and the fears of 1985 have given way to the notion that terrorism is ebbing.

That notion is not justified, say experts on political violence in the United States and Europe, although virtually all agree that the West has made significant progress in combatting terrorism. The impetus for that progress goes back to a single military operation that even former skeptics now view as being highly successful, at least in the short term--the U.S. bombing of Libya in April, 1986.

“Clearly the bombing of Libya changed the equation,” said Brian Jenkins, director of research on political violence at the RAND Corp. in Santa Monica. “It suggested to nations that use terrorism as an instrument of policy that they risk retaliation. They may choose to dismiss that risk or to accept it, but they’re going to have to take it into account.”

The unilateral U.S. action succeeded in two ways, experts now say: First, it stunned Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi, who had come to expect more rhetoric than action from the United States. More important, it jarred European nations that previously had been unwilling to cooperate with the United States into taking collective steps against Syria and Libya.

“You raised the stakes, and we feared that if we didn’t do something, the United States would try something even crazier on its own the next time,” a European diplomat said.

Inhibited Movement

What his and other European governments did was to inhibit the terrorists’ freedom of movement across international borders, denying them the “safehouses” they had once enjoyed and leading to arrests, extraditions and convictions. In short, a common front against terrorism emerged.


“Historically the past two years may stand out as decisive ones in the effort against terrorism, because we are seeing the first real steps in international cooperation,” said Parker Borg, senior foreign affairs fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “The cooperation is still in its preliminary stages, but the recent successes have been auspicious.”

More than 500 Libyan “diplomats,” students and officials have been expelled from Europe or had their stays cut short in the last 18 months. France and Italy have toughened their visa policies, in effect closing what had been essentially open borders. Western counterterrorism intelligence networks were strengthened, airport security was improved, trade and diplomatic relations with Libya were reduced.

Said a pleased Hosni Mubarak, the president of Egypt: “The actions are suffocating Kadafi.”

The justice and interior ministers of the seven industrial democracies and a delegation from the European Communities achieved what U.S. officials called a 180-degree European turnaround in Paris last May when they agreed to take a united effort against terrorism. In 1985, France had rejected a similar attempt at bilateral cooperation proposed by Germany. This time France was an active supporter.

Syrian President Hafez Assad, a clever man who had left few fingerprints on his sponsorship of terrorism, was the first target of the European alliance when British and German courts proved Syrian complicity in planning terrorist attacks. The United States and Europe invoked limited sanctions against the Assad regime and as a result, intelligence sources said, Assad has at least temporarily curtailed his sponsorship of international terrorism and closed the office of the lethal Abu Nidal terrorist organization.

Status of Suspects

The alleged mastermind of the Achille Lauro hijacking, Mohammed Abul Abbas, is restricted under a form of house arrest in Iraq. A hijacker of Trans World Airlines Flight 847, Mohammed Ali Hamadi, is awaiting trial in Germany. George Ibrahim Abdullah is serving a life sentence in France after a Paris lawyer, representing U.S. interests, won a conviction last March on charges that he was involved in the murder of Americans. Five Palestinians suspected of hijacking the Pan American plane in Karachi are on trial in Pakistan.


But at the same time that the West has been talking and acting tough, it also has been making concessions to terrorists. Clearly, it has been asking whether it can afford not to deal with states that sponsor terrorism if by doing so it can get back its hostages and reach agreements that can’t be achieved through normal diplomatic channels.

Three U.S. arms shipments to Iran, for instance, were followed by the release of three American hostages. France expelled the head of the Iranian opposition in January, 1986, and two French hostages from Lebanon were freed shortly thereafter. Later last year France agreed to release $330 million from a previous Iranian investment in France and within a week two more French hostages were set free. Between 1968 and 1982, a State Department report says, kidnapers collected ransoms in 70% of the cases in which money was an issue.

“Everyone agrees that it’s disastrous to make concessions to terrorists,” a European diplomat said. “It only leads to more terrorism and more demands with higher stakes. Yet we all do it, because hostages are like stolen merchandise in a bazaar, and the only way we’ve been successful in getting them back is to barter. They are traded and sold among different groups in Beirut. For terrorists, hostages have become an investment.”

Americans have traditionally viewed the taking of hostages and terrorism in general as an American problem--even though 80 nations last year were the victims of terrorism and at least five different groups in Lebanon today are holding 25 hostages from nine nations. The first foreigners, in fact, taken captive in Beirut in 1982, were three Iranian diplomats and an Iranian journalist, all presumed killed by Christian militiamen.

New Laws Provide Rewards

At the foundation of Washington’s new anti-terrorist efforts are three laws passed by Congress in 1984 and 1986 that provide rewards for information leading to the conviction of terrorists, permit the Federal Aviation Administration to inspect foreign airports for security and issue travel advisories, and make the murder or assault of an American overseas a U.S. crime. The law giving the United States jurisdiction in foreign cases enables Washington to demand that governments try or extradite terrorist suspects.

The United States also has allocated $2.4 billion over five years to improve security at its 257 missions abroad and has upgraded the State Department’s Office of Counterterrorism. The FBI has increased the number of its legal attaches abroad to 14, and its arrest of Younis indicates that the United States’ Middle East intelligence network--shattered when Israel forced the PLO out of Lebanon--has been strengthened, officials said.


But students of political violence believe the West remains on the defensive, often fighting the last war instead of the next one. Retaliatory military options are important, although not decisive. International cooperation is essential but not conclusive as long as some countries use terrorism as an instrument of foreign policy. Better intelligence leads to arrests but does not address the causes of terrorism. The terrorist still writes the script, striking when and where he chooses. He persists for the simple reason that he has had an impact and has achieved some of his goals.

Terrorism made the PLO a household term, thus calling global attention to the plight of the Palestinian people. It won concessions as well as arms and money from governments around the world. It gained the release of the 766 Lebanese and Palestinians held by Israel after 39 Americans aboard TWA Flight 847 were set free. It caused 1.8 million U.S. travelers to cancel European vacations in 1985 and 1986, costing the European tourist industries billions of dollars. It chased the Americans and Europeans out of Lebanon, and, through the taking of hostages, may have cost President Jimmy Carter the 1980 election and has clouded President Reagan’s place in history as an effective chief executive.

In many ways, experts say, terrorism today is merely symptomatic of the world’s state of health. It is a world where 40 wars of varying intensity are being fought, where one of every 1,000 people is a doctor and one of every 43 a soldier, where the United States spends $21 billion annually on security services, and the technology of death is available to anyone who can afford it. Terrorism, they say, has become a permanent part of the political landscape. We can contain it but not eradicate it.

Wants Broader Vision

“Terrorism, in the long term, will probably get worse, partly because our framework for policy-making is obsolete,” said Robin Wright, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “We’re not taking into account the role of religion in politics, political imbalances in Lebanon, the grievances of minority groups or what psychologists call the rage of children”--a generation or two of children who have grown up in an environment of violence and who have come to accept terrorism as a spontaneous and normal expression.