America: A Nation on Full Alert

  • Share
  • Read Later

Spare a thought for the thousands of FBI and security officials who guard the United States from terrorism. Not only will they spend New Year's Eve stone-cold sober and ready to roll at the chime of a beeper; the next day, and the next and the day after that they'll find themselves on point in a war that's hard to fight, let alone win.

New York City's Times Square on New Year's Eve could conceivably look like a scene out of a Quentin Tarantino movie, with different groups of terrorists — unaware of each other and motivated by passions as diverse as Middle Eastern Islamic fundamentalism and midwestern right-wing conspiracy theories — converging to spread bloody mayhem at ground zero of America's millennium celebration. It's a truly scary scenario, in which acolytes of monsters as different as Timothy McVeigh and Osama Bin Laden engage in a kind of terrorism Olympics with innocent New Yorkers as their cannon fodder. But it's a scenario for which federal and city officials are well prepared, and for which they're deploying legions of FBI personnel and police to head off.

However, though that could deter or foil terrorists who may have been planning to strike as the ball drops, it doesn't stop them from striking a mile or two down the road or in the same place on the following weekend. Thus the handicapping of the war on terrorism: The initiative is almost always in the hands of the bad guys.

"The paranoia of the authorities is entirely justified," says TIME correspondent William Dowell. "The arrest at the Canadian border suggests that the threat is very serious and very disturbing." Although preliminary reports have linked the arrested man, Ahmed Ressam, less with Osama Bin Laden than with Canada-based Algerian Islamic radicals whose primary target has been France, "what you may have here," says Dowell, "is some cooperation between different groups or even one group subcontracting another."

But it gets worse. "Intelligence professionals reviewing this case would have to consider whether Ressam may have been a decoy designed to draw attention away from someone else," says Dowell. "In Vietnam, the Viet Cong would often do all the preparations for an attack, knowing U.S. intelligence would pick it up and protect against it, but then not actually attack. If you have a big organization, you want to send out a lot of false signals to stretch your enemy's resources and keep him guessing about when you're really planning to strike."

Of course, the fact that U.S. citizens are going into the holiday season being told by their government that they're potentially in danger of being blown to bits on the streets of New York, Washington or Seattle is, in itself, something of a victory for the terrorists. After all, they measure their success in terms of spreading fear rather than damage inflicted. It also turns a spotlight on the shape of America's defenses against unconventional warfare. "One of our key weaknesses in this battle is that we've relied very heavily on electronic intelligence and allowed human intelligence to drop off," says Dowell. "While it may be very effective against governments with whom we're at war, electronic intelligence isn't always very effective against terrorist organizations."

Unfortunately, the new century may offer America plenty of opportunity to refine its antiterrorism methods. But even if terrorism proves difficult to eliminate, that doesn't mean the terrorists are the winners. "Ultimately, terrorism doesn't accomplish very much," says Dowell. "It may make people nervous, but it doesn't change their opinions."