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Experts Fear Recent Events Will Spur Terrorists

Times Staff Writer

U.S. and foreign authorities are fearful that developments last week, including President Bush’s support for a controversial Israeli initiative and Israel’s assassination of a leading Palestinian militant, could galvanize Islamic terrorists.

National security advisor Condoleezza Rice said Sunday that the Bush administration was concerned about the possibility of terrorist attacks aimed at influencing U.S. elections this fall. She cited the train bombings in Spain that helped oust that country’s ruling party last month.

“I think that we do have to take very seriously the thought that the terrorists might have learned ... the wrong lesson from Spain,” Rice said on “Fox News Sunday.” “I think we also have to take seriously that they might try during the cycle leading up to the [U.S.] election to do something.

“In some ways, it seems like it would be too good to pass up for them, and so we are actively looking at that possibility, actively trying to make certain that we are responding appropriately,” she said.

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Counter-terrorism authorities in Washington, Europe and the Middle East said the string of recent events could prompt attacks in the near future and aid recruiting and fundraising efforts by Al Qaeda and other organizations.

On Wednesday, President Bush -- with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at his side -- announced U.S. support for an initiative in which Israel would withdraw from the Gaza Strip but maintain several large Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Bush’s announcement prompted street protests in Europe and the Arab world, criticism by many U.S. allies and calls for retaliation from Islamic militants.

On Thursday, Arab satellite TV channels broadcast an audiotape in which a voice said to be that of Osama bin Laden offered European nations “reconciliation” if they rejected an alliance with the U.S. and the American-led occupation of Iraq. The CIA said the tape, which issued a fresh call for attacks on Americans, was probably authentic.

On Saturday, Israel assassinated Abdulaziz Rantisi, head of the Palestinian group Hamas, in a missile strike just weeks after killing Hamas’ spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin.

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Any of those events in isolation would have inflamed anti-U.S. sentiment, U.S. and foreign counter-terrorism officials said. Combined, the officials said, they could incite impulsive violence by Islamic extremists or prompt terrorist cells to set plots in motion.

Counter-terrorism officials said Bush’s endorsement of the Sharon proposal provided Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups with new ammunition in their effort to link the United States with Israel as enemies of Islam.

“It’s just not a popular policy,” said one U.S. official involved in Middle East issues. “This is not going to help our position in the region.”

A senior Bush administration official said such concerns were unfounded.

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“The war on terror is something that has to be seen as something that is separate from our efforts to bring peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians,” the official said. “And anyone who says President Bush’s standing shoulder to shoulder with Prime Minister Sharon somehow jeopardizes the coalition in the war on terror sounds like typical old appeasement-oriented European thinking to me.”

Rice sought Sunday to downplay any connection between violence in the region and Bush’s support of Sharon’s plan, describing it as a “tremendous opportunity” for both sides.

Authorities said the taped comments attributed to Bin Laden, his first in three months, appear to have been timed to take advantage of recent events and could have included coded signals related to terrorist attacks.

On the tape, Bin Laden said the Madrid bombings were in retaliation for the presence of Spanish troops in Iraq. He offered to spare other European nations similar suffering if they cut their ties to the United States.

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If those countries refused and terrorist acts resulted, “do not blame us -- blame yourselves,” he said.

Authorities said such comments were a departure from Bin Laden’s usual religious rhetoric. The March 11 bombings in Madrid killed 191 train passengers and were a factor in the new Spanish government’s decision to withdraw its troops from Iraq.

Bin Laden also called on Muslims to avenge Yassin’s killing by attacking Americans. In a warning to foreign governments, he said that siding with the United States and Israel “increases the shedding of your blood, instead of sparing it.”

Magnus Ranstorp, a Middle Eastern terrorism expert and consultant to European governments, said last week’s events “will exacerbate the antagonism against the United States and unite certain disparate elements and perhaps propel them into action against the U.S. and those who support it.”

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U.S. authorities believe the situation in the Middle East is volatile, an FBI counter-terrorism official said.

“The whole region is problematic right now, as a result of the [Bush-Sharon] meeting.... How it’s been perceived, the reaction of the Palestinians and the Arab world,” the official said.

A senior European counter-terrorism official, in Washington for meetings with U.S. counterparts, said authorities in Europe are concerned that Bush’s support of Sharon -- coupled with the occupation of Iraq -- has radicalized Islamic moderates and placed the leaders of countries in the U.S.-led coalition in a precarious political position.

Arabs believe that the United States and Israel have conspired to isolate the Palestinians, the European official said.

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“That fits wonderfully into Al Qaeda’s argument that you have the small Satan and the big Satan. The small Satan is Israel, and the big Satan, the big devil, is the U.S. We know that it’s a crude argument but ... it works.”


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