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Incident May Signal New Round of Terrorist Action

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

After a long hiatus in attacks against the United States, the explosion at New York’s World Trade Center may signal the onset of a new phase of international terrorism, U.S. officials said Saturday.

“This is our worst nightmare come true,” said a U.S. counterterrorism official. “The issue is not just the bomb and the damage it did. The bigger problem is the precedent it set. It opens up a whole bunch of possibilities.

“It also demonstrates our vulnerabilities, that we don’t live under some enormous lid that protects us better than any other country.”

FBI Director William S. Sessions emphasized Saturday that authorities at this point could not say with certainty that the explosion was a terrorist act or even if it was caused by a bomb. But if it turned out to be so, it “might be a harbinger of a new era,” he said.

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Although there has been no official confirmation that the explosion was the work of terrorists, U.S. counterterrorism officials already were expressing concerns Saturday about the prospects of copycat attacks.

“Most dangerous of all, this demonstrates what works,” one official said. “And face it, there are tens of thousands of parking garages across this country, many of them under or near important buildings.”

Since modern terrorism emerged as a trend in the late 1960s, terrorist groups have been quick to adopt the new targets or tactics of others--ranging from airplane hijackings and mass hostage seizures to suicide bombings.

Security around official facilities in Washington and New York was heightened, while alerts were sent to American embassies and military or strategic installations overseas, U.S. officials said.

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Officials also confirmed that extra precautions are being taken at “appropriate embassies,” including those in the Balkans. An anonymous individual claiming to speak for a previously unknown Yugoslav group had been among the first to make a telephone call Friday claiming responsibility for the explosion.

The magnitude of casualties and vast property damage caused by the explosion Friday would make the blast, if confirmed as a bombing, the worst terrorist attack in the United States in modern times, although other incidents have caused more deaths. A 1975 bombing at New York’s La Guardia Airport, for example, killed 11 people.

Friday’s blast also would be the worst terrorist incident in the world since the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in which 270 people in the plane and on the ground died, according to State Department sources.

But compared to the rest of the world, including other Western industrialized countries, the United States has not had a serious problem with terrorist attacks at home since the trend emerged in the late 1960s.

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Most incidents in the United States--with the major exception of terrorism linked to Puerto Rican groups--involved foreign interests plotting against foreign targets. Among the most active were Armenian, Croatian and anti-Castro Cuban groups playing out political vendettas against rivals. American soil was merely the battlefield.

Even those kinds of attacks have decreased. From more than 100 domestic incidents in 1981, the total declined to “virtually none” last year, Sessions said.

Outside the country, attacks against Americans and U.S. property have been increasing as a percentage of total terrorist activity in recent years, but even that trend reversed last year, Sessions said in an interview.

The World Trade Center bombing--if that is indeed what it was--was distinctly different from past patterns. “This incident marks a watershed,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism specialist at the RAND Corp. in Santa Monica. “Our immunity or innocence, even if illusory in the past, has now been completely lost.

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“What makes this a watershed is that it is the first attack on American soil analogous to the Beirut attacks, in that it appears to have been deliberately calculated to influence U.S. policy,” Hoffman said.

The 1983-84 bombings of the Marine barracks and two U.S. Embassy buildings in Lebanon were similar turning points for the United States overseas. Most previous attacks against American personnel or installations abroad were to pressure the host government.

The deadly Beirut attacks, all by suicide car bomb, were aimed at intimidating the United States to withdraw its troops and diplomats from the Mideast.

Hoffman and others predicted that the trade center explosion is likely to mark a similar turning point in the post-Cold War era.

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“It’s an entirely new ballgame,” Hoffman said. “The old battle lines of the Cold War, which were rigidly demarcated, and the enemies who were well-known have been overshadowed by the multiplicity of conflicts and by the equal multiplicity of aggrieved people and minorities around the world.”

In the buildup to the Gulf War and during the conflict itself, U.S. counterterrorism forces worked hard to prevent an outbreak of violence in this country orchestrated by the regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Their task, however difficult, was at least confined to a single enemy. The circumstances are different today.

“As the one remaining superpower in this chaotic new world, everyone is going to be looking at us,” Hoffman said. “And the precedents we set in places like Bosnia and Somalia open a Pandora’s box. Groups unhappy with what we’re doing in these or other places may attack us--to try to get us to stop, or to get us to reverse course or even to get us to do more.”

U.S. counterterrorism officials warned Saturday against expecting imminent breakthroughs in the case. “This is the beginning of a long and difficult process,” said the counterterrorism official.

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“We’d like to think that someone will walk in with information or evidence, that there could be a break today or tomorrow. But it’s much more likely to be subject of intensive investigation that will take many months or longer,” the official said.

Confirmation that Pan Am Flight 103 went down because of an explosion took 48 hours, and it was a week before authorities knew it was a bomb. At the same time, however, there is greater optimism about eventually tracing the perpetrators of the New York explosion.

“Unlike acts undertaken overseas, we can bring enormous domestic resources to bear here,” the U.S. counterterrorism official said. “And the government has a damn good record of solving bombings at home.”


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