U.S. Hoping to Turn Corner in Terrorism War


With the nine-year hostage saga in Lebanon apparently inching toward a conclusion, the Bush Administration is hopeful that freedom for the remaining Western hostages also will mark a turning point in the international campaign against terrorism.

The last decade has been marred by the most spectacular terrorism incidents in history: aircraft exploding in flight and scattering bodies over countrysides, deserts and oceans; mass hostage abductions traumatizing whole nations and converting the yellow ribbon into an international symbol, and suicide bombings leaving embassies and military facilities in charred ruins.

But over the last two years, prosecutions of international terrorists in the United States, the successful cooperative, counterterrorism effort during the Persian Gulf War and the current hostage mediation have spawned new hopes that terrorism can be defeated as an instrument of modern warfare.


“Ten years ago . . . the fight against terrorism was hobbled by a conceptual misunderstanding and by international and interagency jealousies,” former State Department counterterrorism chief L. Paul Bremer III conceded before a Senate committee last month.

The United States, in fact, appeared almost helpless to combat the rapid growth of international terrorism during suicide bombings and hostage abductions in the early and mid-1980s.

But by this year, Bremer said, “the fight against terrorism has come a long way.”

No acts of international terrorism have been carried out in the United States since 1983, FBI counterterrorism chief Neil Gallagher reported last month. And the 64 domestic terrorism incidents between 1985 and 1990, mainly by Puerto Rican groups, resulted in only three deaths and 29 injuries. The FBI thwarted another 52 terrorist schemes over the same period.

Since 1985, the United States has convicted more than 460 people on domestic terrorism charges and more than 60 on international terrorism charges, Gallagher reported.

Among them are Yu Kikomoro, a suspected Japanese Red Army terrorist who carried bombs that he apparently planned to plant in New York installations on behalf of Libya, and Fawaz Younis, who hijacked a Jordanian aircraft on which two Americans were passengers.

Yet, even optimists predict that indiscriminate violence against innocents will remain a tool of choice in the world’s hot spots and in unstable countries.

Bombings, kidnapings and assassinations will be as much a part of the future as the past, as “spoilers” try to derail peace efforts, such as the impending Arab-Israeli peace talks, or elements on the political fringe attempt to undermine democratic openings, notably in Eastern Europe, U.S. officials and experts concede.

“It may take some new forms and happen in some new places, but terrorism is too easy and too effective to be totally eliminated,” a Bush Administration official said with a sigh.

The Administration is already concerned that Palestinian renegade groups, such as Abu Nidal’s Fatah Revolutionary Council, may attempt a new wave of attacks against American, Israeli and even Arab regimes that have promised to participate in upcoming talks. Their aim would be to intimidate participants or “spoil” the new political climate.

Terrorism specialists also predict new forms of extremist violence in the constantly evolving tactic, ranging from ethnic terrorism to “eco-terrorism” and high-tech terrorism.

“We are almost certain to see an increase in ethnic-based terrorism in the next decade,” Bremer, who is now managing director of Kissinger Associates in New York, said in his testimony to the Senate Government Affairs Committee. “Already, Sri Lanka, India and Spain are suffering from it. Probably, ethnic groups in Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union will use violence as these countries disintegrate over the next decade.”

Eco-terrorists, according to former CIA counterterrorism operations chief Vincent Cannistraro, advocate “violent acts in order to contain man’s domination of nature.” They support sabotage of nuclear facilities, hydroelectric generating stations, lumber mills and other activities that exploit nature.

High-tech terrorism has featured lasers to trigger bombs and sophisticated, shoulder-fired missiles to bring down aircraft. Experts fear future use of chemical or biological agents and, potentially, even nuclear devices by extremist groups.

The good news and bad news on the state of terrorism in 1991 are reflected in changes in Eastern Europe. Democratic revolutions throughout the former Warsaw Pact region beginning in 1989 have eliminated financial, logistic and political support, as well as a source of arms for terrorist groups worldwide.

“The supportive and tolerant environment to international terrorists has evaporated. There are now fewer . . . havens” for groups ranging from Abu Nidal and the Japanese Red Army to Germany’s Red Army faction, Cannistraro stated in the first project report of the National Strategy Information Center’s Counterterrorism Study Group, a private group of specialists from around the world.

At the same time, however, “the susceptibility of newly democratic European states to attacks by terrorism may have increased,” he stated.

Further, the diminished effectiveness of East European security services means a lessened ability to control the movements of international terrorists in their territory. Success in specific campaigns also does not preclude future attacks, as evident in the Persian Gulf crisis, which U.S. counterterrorism officials consider a new benchmark in internationally coordinated efforts.

U.S. officials counted about 200 attacks worldwide during the six-week-long war, marking a fourfold increase for that period of time. But all were small incidents, and only about half a dozen people were killed, including two Iraqis who blew themselves up as they prepared to attack the American Cultural Center in Manila.

A ranking counterterrorism official said international coordination uncovered and prevented several major plots during the crisis, although he refused to be specific. And both the five-month run-up to the war after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the aftermath were most notable for the absence of terrorism.

Yet, that success offers no guarantees about the future, according to Gallagher.

“While we have not yet seen a Middle Eastern terrorist attack in response to the crisis in the Persian Gulf, the potential for anti-U.S. attacks by members of these groups remains. Retaliatory acts by Middle Eastern terrorists and state sponsors of terrorism historically have not been spontaneous,” he told the Senate committee.

That pattern has been underscored by new evidence linking Libya with the 1988 explosion aboard Pan American World Airways Flight 103, which U.S. officials now suggest was at least partly in retaliation for the 1986 U.S. bombing of Libya.

But, overall, Bremer reflected the thinking of U.S. officials and private analysts when he told the committee: “We are (now) conceptually, intellectually and physically much better equipped to meet the terrorist threat.”

New channels of communication have been crucial in converting former adversaries into allies. Over the last two years, former State Department counterterrorism chief Morris Busby, who was appointed this summer to be ambassador to Colombia, has initiated quiet dialogues with the Soviet Union, East European governments and Syria.

“Clearly, the success we have had to date in engaging the Soviets and Eastern Europeans, taking advantage of the opportunity that is presented by change, has had a positive effect,” he said in an interview. “These governments unanimously see themselves as part of the anti-terrorism coalition. They are willing and anxious to cooperate and to embrace the policies that we and others have.”

He described the cooperation as “very useful.”

In the first talks with a country still on the State Department’s list of those nations that sponsor terrorism, Busby and a team of U.S. experts, including some from the CIA, met in April with their counterparts in Damascus, Syria.

A senior U.S. counterterrorism official said Washington still has “serious and significant problems” with Syria on the terrorism issue. But he credited President Hafez Assad with using his influence during the Gulf War to prevent terrorism against American and other Western targets.

Reflecting the broader geopolitical changes in Damascus, a ranking Syrian envoy said in an interview: “It’s important that the dialogue between the U.S. and Syria continue. There were good results during the Gulf War. It should not be just for one time. It should be a continuous effort. We want to cooperate.”

Private analysts predict that resolution of the hostage crisis could lead the Bush Administration to remove Syria from the terrorism list, although Washington would like to see Assad expel several groups still represented in Damascus.

New laws in the mid-1980s also have provided the United States with powers to hunt down terrorists involved in hijackings, hostage abductions and bombings outside U.S. territorial frontiers.

“The FBI intends to make it clear that we will pursue terrorists worldwide to bring them to justice,” Gallagher told the Senate committee. Added a government counterterrorism official: “The day of reckoning is approaching” for several suspects.

Yet, the new international cooperation still has holes, even between the United States and its closest allies.

In 1988, Washington pressed Germany to extradite Mohammed Ali Hamadi for trial in the United States on charges related to the 1985 hijacking of Trans World Airlines Flight 847, during which 39 Americans were held captive in Beirut for 17 days. Germany refused, in part to appease Hamadi’s allies who were then holding German hostages in Beirut, U.S. officials said.

Instead, Hamadi was tried and convicted in Germany, and one German hostage was subsequently freed.

But another German was then abducted. And, not unexpectedly, one of the obstacles in the current U.N. hostage-mediation effort is a demand by Lebanese groups that Hamadi and his brother Abbas Ali, convicted in Germany for taking hostages in Lebanon, be freed before two Germans now in captivity are released.


The State Department has defined terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine state agents, usually intended to influence an audience.”