The Terror Within

  • Share
  • Read Later
The visions were apocalyptic: bomb blasts spreading fire and smoke through United Nations headquarters and a lower Manhattan skyscraper that houses, of all things, the New York offices of the FBI. Other explosions the same day in the Holland and Lincoln tunnels under the Hudson River, crushing motorists inside cars turned to twisted junk, killing many more by spreading intense heat, smoke and noxious fumes throughout the enclosed space of the tubes. Thousands dead, thousands more injured, the nation's biggest city in a wild panic.

It was supposed to happen this week, stunning America with a new and ghoulish kind of pre-Fourth of July fireworks display. It won't, though. A SWAT team of FBI agents and New York City police burst into a garage in the borough of Queens at 1:30 last Thursday morning, catching five men hunched over 55-gal. barrels, swirling wooden spoons to mix fertilizer and diesel fuel into an explosive paste. The alleged bombmakers were hauled into court, some still wearing overalls splotched with what the local FBI chief called a "witches' brew." They and three others nabbed in raids on apartments, all described as Muslim fundamentalists, were charged with conspiracy to carry out the bombings and held without bail. Several other suspected members of the ring are still at large while authorities look for more evidence against them, but are not regarded as dangerous.

If the plotters had succeeded, their handiwork would have traumatized the entire U.S. as well. In Washington, President Clinton said the American people should feel "an enormous sense of pride" that the terrorist plot had been foiled. In New York City, U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White noted that Siddig Ibrahim Siddig Ali, accused ringleader of the bombmakers, had been quoted as boasting, "We can get you anytime!" (He uttered these words after the Feb. 26 bombing of the World Trade Center.) Said White: "Law enforcement's answer is, 'No, you cannot' . . . We will not permit the likes of these defendants to terrorize our city."

Well, not so fast. The World Trade Center bombers, for all their ineptitude -- one expert on terrorism likens them to the Three Stooges -- did set off a blast that killed six people and injured more than 1,000. Their would-be imitators failed mostly because a confidential informant inside the ring helped the FBI keep his comrades under close surveillance. FBI men dubbed him "the Colonel"; he was later identified as Emad Salem, 43, a former Egyptian military officer.

Salem was part of the inner circle around Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind, fiery Egyptian cleric who has been spiritual mentor both to the accused World Trade Center bombers and to members of the new ring. In fact Salem served for a time as Abdel Rahman's bodyguard. He is said to have turned informant partly for money (the FBI reportedly has recommended that he be given a $250,000 bonus for his help), but largely because he thought terrorist killings were betraying, not furthering, the cause of Islam and were likely to prompt a worldwide backlash against Muslims.

Salem's position close to Abdel Rahman apparently enabled him to win the conspirators' confidence completely. They gave him prime responsibility for making the bombs and for finding and renting (with $300 given him by Siddig Ali) a safe house that could serve as an explosives factory. When the plotters became worried that they were being watched, it was Salem they asked to sweep the safe house for electronic bugs. Next time the feds may not be lucky enough to find an informant, at least one so trusted by his comrades.

There is almost sure to be a next time -- and then another and another. The end of the cold war and the disintegration of the Soviet-bloc governments that often abetted terrorism have not done away with the phenomenon. Quite the opposite: terrorism of new varieties seems to be on the rise around the world. As the World Trade Center plot and last week's arrests illustrate, the U.S. is not safe any longer. The sole superpower, it is now the focus of many of the world's resentments as well as much of the world's hope. Terrorism, says Bruce Hoffman, an expert at Rand Corp., "is going to join the omnipresence of crime as one of the things we have to worry about in American cities."

The cruise-missile attack early Sunday morning in Baghdad may do little to allay such fears. Yet it was a swift and powerful response to one of the world's boldest practitioners of state terrorism. The raid came after the CIA and FBI had concluded that Saddam's government had tried to kill George Bush with a car bomb during the former President's visit to Kuwait last April. The Egyptian government was less fortunate in combating terror: six days before the U.S. bust, a bomb filled with nails exploded outside a subway entrance in Cairo, killing seven and wounding 20. That was the fourth blast in or near the Egyptian capital since February -- the first went off hours after the World Trade Center bomb -- and brought the cumulative toll to 21 dead, 76 injured.

On the very day of the New York City arrests, Kurdish militants attacked Turkish institutions -- embassies, consulates, businesses, banks -- in 29 cities throughout Europe. Some of the assailants only trashed stores and offices, but one Kurd was killed outside the Turkish embassy in the Swiss capital of Bern, while raiders in Munich and Marseilles took and then released a total of 31 hostages. The Kurds were extending to Europe a guerrilla war that has raged for nine years in southeastern Turkey between Kurdish rebels and the Ankara government.

In the U.S. the same day, a Yale professor was seriously injured when he & opened a package containing a bomb -- apparently the latest attack of a bomber who has struck university and high-tech targets on and off since 1978 while successfully concealing his identity and motives.

As these assaults show, terrorism spans a spectrum from state-sponsored attacks to individual acts (like the exploits of the university and high-tech bomber) that straddle an ill-defined border between terrorism and plain ordinary crime. The mix, however, has been changing. The traditional tightly organized, centrally directed, usually left-wing and often state-financed networks of highly trained terrorists are in decline. The end of the cold war has deprived them of the money, weapons and safe havens that used to be provided by Moscow and Eastern Europe. Syria and Libya, traditional sources of training, direction and money, have been lying low lately, partly because they know they can no longer get backing in any confrontation with the U.S. from a Soviet bloc that no longer exists. Effective police work has largely neutralized such groups as the Red Brigades in Italy and the Red Army Faction in Germany.

While old-style terrorism (narrowly defined as politically motivated violence involving the citizens or territory of more than one country) has decreased since the 1970s, homegrown, ad hoc and, especially, ethnically or religiously inspired violence has increased. For example, terrorism and organized crime are blurring, especially in such places as Italy and Colombia. Using a much broader definition of terrorism -- which counts violence committed inside a country by its own citizens -- Pinkerton Risk Assessment Services concludes that terrorist attacks worldwide increased to a record 5,404 in 1992, up 11% from 1991, and the number of people killed rose above 10,000 for the first time. Just since the World Trade Center bombing, at least 36 car bombs have exploded around the world, killing more than 300 people and wounding more than 800, according to Brian Jenkins, one of the world's leading terrorism experts.

Which indicates that the new terrorism could be even deadlier than the old. Harder to combat too, precisely because its perpetrators are less organized than their forebears and thus more difficult to spot, track and intercept. To fight the rise of decentralized terror, the U.S. must respond with more sophisticated intelligence gathering. Says a top Pentagon official: "We need to improve our capabilities, to try to outthink them, to outimagine them."

- The new attackers are sometimes called free-lance terrorists, and some truly are. Examples are the Palestinians with no history of political activity or affiliation with any organization who randomly stab or ax Israelis on the streets, and some of the German rightists who assault and kill Turks and other foreigners. Their depredations are "unorganized, unstructured, spontaneous acts with a political motivation," says Ernst Uhrlau, director of the Hamburg branch of an agency equivalent to the FBI. Police can never predict where or whom they will strike because, says Uhrlau, the offenders themselves "don't know in the morning what they will be doing that night."

Mostly, though, the new terrorists are a collection of groups that form, change and regroup, operating with some coordination and perhaps prompted or even financed by a state -- Iran and Sudan are the leading suspects currently -- but not really controlled or directed by anyone. "Inspiration may play the same role as instruction. A state can issue a mandate to carry out an act," says Jenkins, and leave the rest "up to local initiative." That poses a severe problem for counterterrorists who are used to searching for, say, an organization run from Tripoli and coordinated by alleged diplomats operating out of Libyan "people's bureaus" (embassies) around the world. "We're always looking for a central headquarters," says Jenkins. But the new terrorists, he says, comparing them with their predecessors of the 1970s and '80s, are "more religious, more ecumenical, more implacable, less organized, less structured, more unyielding, more difficult to predict and to penetrate."

All of which gives the New York plot more than local importance; the group that planned it in many ways typifies the new terrorism.

It had some connections to the World Trade Center bombers. According to court papers, two members, ringleader Siddig Ali and Clement Rodney Hampton- El, a black American convert to Islam, told FBI informant Salem they had helped that group test-fire a bomb. Several members of both groups had also fought with the Islamic fundamentalist guerrillas harassing the Soviet invaders of Afghanistan -- a resistance movement supported, ironically, by the U.S., which is now the terrorists' target.

Otherwise, though, the two groups seemed to be connected only tangentially, through Sheik Abdel Rahman. Members of both groups worshipped at the Jersey City, New Jersey, mosque where Abdel Rahman preaches fiery sermons. Mahmud Abouhalima, an alleged member of the World Trade Center gang, once served as Abdel Rahman's driver. Siddig Ali was Abdel Rahman's interpreter.

No one, however, has yet alleged that Abdel Rahman gave either group any actual directions. The FBI did get a court order allowing it to record some conversations between Abdel Rahman and members of the ring broken up last week. Some agents then wanted to arrest the sheik, and prepared an affidavit in support. The debate on whether to order the arrest went all the way to Attorney General Janet Reno. The consensus of superiors who reviewed the document and the evidence it contained, however, was that the agency just did not have enough to link Abdel Rahman to the plot in anything but a marginal way. FBI agents did raid Abdel Rahman's apartment in Jersey City and carted away boxes of documents and tapes -- said to have been left there by Siddig Ali for safekeeping -- but no other action immediately followed.

Besides the bombings, the terrorist group is alleged to have plotted four assassinations, all of people Abdel Rahman has something against: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whose secular government the sheik preaches must be overthrown; U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, an Egyptian regarded as a traitor by Islamic fundamentalists because he helped negotiate peace with Israel; Republican Senator Alfonse D'Amato, who has urged that Abdel Rahman be imprisoned; and Dov Hikind, a New York State legislator who has questioned whether Abdel Rahman's followers were involved in the 1990 murder of Meir Kahane, a Zionist zealot. Abdel Rahman professes abhorrence of terrorism, but he is widely considered adept at phrasing religious messages in ways that sound innocent to outsiders but that some Muslims understand as coded incitements to violence.

Foreign connections are somewhat the same story: there seem to have been some, but vague and indirect. Five members of the gang were described by the FBI as Sudanese who had become legal permanent residents of the U.S. (Another was said to be a Palestinian born in Jordan, and the other two native-born U.S. citizens -- one apparently Hampton-El, the other a Puerto Rican named Victor Alvarez.) According to diplomats in Cairo, three of the supposed Sudanese may really be Egyptians who passed through Sudan and acquired Sudanese passports. Sudan is now second to Iran in the financing and training of Muslim terrorist groups, and it shelters P.L.O. terrorists from Lebanon and Tunisia as well as Egyptian fundamentalists fleeing from a crackdown by Mubarak. But though they may have been given or promised some help by Sudan, Iran or both, the bombers appear to have drawn their plans on their own.

Those plans allegedly were quite specific. According to a federal affidavit, Siddig Ali told the FBI's informant Salem on May 7 that he had "connections" who would help him drive a vehicle laden with explosives into a parking garage of the U.N. building and leave it there to be detonated. (Actually, that would be no great trick. Dozens of cars with diplomatic plates allowing entry to the U.N. complex are parked all over Manhattan; a terrorist could easily steal one and drive it past U.N. guards, who rarely check to see if the person at the wheel has any identification.) Later in May, Siddig Ali allegedly told Salem that he had carried out pre-bombing surveillance of the federal building housing the FBI's New York offices and made sketches of its entrance. He allegedly remarked that some guards would have to be killed for the bombers to get inside.

At the end of May, Siddig Ali added the tunnels to the list. While driving through one of them with Salem and "Amir Last Name Unknown" -- as he is identified in the affidavit -- Siddig Ali said the tunnels should be bombed after the U.N. but before the federal building. He "discussed where a bomb would best be placed and where a fire should be set as a diversion."

Finally, the gang proceeded to actual assembly of the bombs. Last Wednesday two men brought to the Queens safe house diesel fuel from a gas station in Yonkers, a northern suburb, operated by one of the suspects, Mohammad Saleh. Some of the gang also reportedly made specific preparations to flee the country within a few days. The FBI and city police, who had been watching the assembly through concealed television cameras (which later pictured their own raid on the factory) and listening through monitoring devices, decided they had better move immediately. Said FBI special agent in charge James Fox: "We entered so fast, some of the subjects said they didn't realize strangers were in the bomb factory until they had the handcuffs being put on them."

The defendants were charged immediately with conspiracy and attempting to damage and destroy buildings by use of explosives. If convicted they could be sentenced to 15 years in prison. U.S. Attorney White, however, said additional charges are likely to be filed. Said Fox: "These people are going to do many years of hard time."

Perhaps, but will that deter further attacks? The case might never have been cracked without the help of Salem. FBI agents insist he did not drop into their lap: they were led to him by contacts carefully cultivated in the Muslim community. "There was some damn good police work involved," says one. But it seems unlikely that a similarly highly placed informant could be located in every incipient terrorist group. And, says former FBI director William Webster, there are "dozens and dozens" of similar groups around the country; their very lack of central organization or direction makes them difficult to crack.

The U.S. has long been a major terrorist target, but most of the assaults on Americans and their organizations have taken place overseas. Terrorist attacks inside the U.S. have been extremely rare. There are many reasons, though, to think that may change. As the only remaining superpower, the U.S. already is the Great Satan to Islamic fundamentalists -- the protector of Israel, supporter of the perceived infidel Mubarak, prime enemy of theocratic Iran. But there could well be many other groups with grievances: Bosnian Muslims who think the U.S. has abandoned them to slaughter; Kurds who think Washington has left them to the cruelties of Saddam Hussein, the Turkish government or both. Indeed, the U.S. could be a target for just about any group that feels itself aggrieved and believes the one superpower has caused its troubles or could stop them but won't bestir itself.

There is also the copycat factor. Blundering though they were, the World Trade Center bombers still hit what for terrorists is the jackpot: headlines. Big, bold, worldwide headlines, which might well tempt other groups to think they could achieve the same results, call attention to their cause -- and, if they operated with a modicum more intelligence than those bombers, even escape uncaught.

Finally there is the open nature of American society. Borders are porous; potential terrorists can slip in easily. Many kinds of explosives can be bought easily, legally and without arousing suspicion. Diesel fuel is available at almost any gas station, and fertilizer of the right kind at most garden shops and hardware stores. The alleged bombers arrested last week are said to have bought their supplies in 10-lb. sacks from a hardware store on Canal Street in Lower Manhattan. Such supplies are even cheap. The World Trade Center bomb is said to have been assembled from materials bought for about ^ $400.

Most of all, there is the legal code. Wiretaps and bugging can be ordered only if there is evidence or probable cause to believe that a crime has been or is about to be committed. Mere suspicion, however well founded, is not enough to make an arrest stick; there has to be hard evidence. Freedom-of- speech laws protect fiery oratory that in many other countries would get an aspiring terrorist leader jailed or deported long before he attracted a coterie of followers willing to bomb and kill.

Democratic values can be a protection too: many immigrants hold American freedoms so dear that they report their more radical countrymen to the FBI or police. In any case, turning the U.S. into a police state in order to prevent terrorism would be not only morally repugnant but probably ineffective; in many countries dictatorial repression has bred, not stifled, terrorism. So the nation essentially will have to watch carefully, improve its intelligence work -- and hope.