Retaliation Is No Easy Task

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CHRIS O'MEARA/AP

President Bush responds to the attack on the World Trade Centers

America's first instinct is to hit back, and hit back hard in response to a terrorist attack that many have compared with Pearl Harbor. But retaliation was a lot easier back in 1941, when the bombers had a return address and plenty of fixed assets of their own. Terrorism is different; it's what Pentagon planners call "asymmetrical warfare," in which an enemy who can't match America's planes, ships and missiles uses unconventional methods to strike. The prime suspects in the latest outrage — the networks associated with Osama Bin Laden — have no fixed address or military installations of their own, much less civilian infrastructure. The fugitive Saudi terrorist financier may be sheltered by Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia, but his is very much an independent operation rather than anybody's proxy.

It is too early, of course, to say definitively that Bin Laden was responsible, and terror attacks against U.S. targets are seldom followed by a claim of responsibility. Still, the choice of targets points less to the Oklahoma City variety of domestic terrorism than to a foreign enemy looking to strike at symbols of American power and wealth. Terrorism is the dark art of sending political messages through spectacularly ugly acts of violence. And everything from motive, track record, modus operandi and operational capability put the terror networks of Osama Bin Laden at the top of the suspect list. His statement published Wednesday praising the attack but denying responsibility will be read as a fudge familiar from previous Bin Laden-linked strikes.

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Bin Laden-related cells have certainly tried to attack major targets inside the U.S. in recent years, and both the previous World Trade Center bombing and the foiled plot to finish the job in 1995 were carried out by groups that could be considered Bin Laden's precursors or fellow travelers. Moreover, U.S. intelligence officials reportedly claim to have more than just circumstantial evidence linking Bin Laden acolytes with Tuesday's attacks.

U.S. officials certainly weren't the only ones making the Bin Laden connection. His Taliban hosts rushed to express their condolences to the U.S. and proclaim their Saudi guest incapable of an attack of such sophistication. But it is precisely the level of training and investment in an operation that required men to simultaneously hijack four planes in different cities and skillfully pilot and navigate them to their targets that makes Bin Laden a prime suspect. The attack appears to have been beyond the known capability of the Palestinian terrorist groups whose supporters took to the streets Tuesday to celebrate the gruesome event.

The Taliban's rush to proclaim the innocence of their guest is hardly surprising, of course, since they may be first in line to suffer Washington's wrath — President Bush emphasized Tuesday that the U.S. will not differentiate between the perpetrators and those that have harbored them. But retaliation remains a complex challenge when terrorists act independently rather than on behalf of any state. Unlike the state-sponsored terrorism of the Cold War era, Bin Laden runs a self-financing "Islamist International" forged among like-minded fighters from throughout the Muslim world who earned their stripes as volunteers in the Afghan 'jihad' against the Soviets and subsequently declared the U.S. as their prime target.

Hitting back effectively at Bin Laden is far from easy, as the Clinton administration discovered after the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings. That time, the U.S. fired a fusillade of cruise missiles at camps used by Bin Laden in the mountains of Afghanistan, and destroyed a pharmaceutical factory linked (possibly erroneously) with him in the Sudan. Although the missiles killed a handful of terrorists-in-training — most of them Kashmiri Mulims for 'jihad' against India — they did no discernible damage to Bin Laden's operational capacity. But they did burnish his image as a champion of a global 'jihad' against the U.S. — a 'jihad' whose popularity in the Arab world has spiked during the current Palestinian uprising in response to U.S. support for Israel.

The dilemma of retaliation is sharpened when the victim of terrorism is a nation of laws but the perpetrator respects none. Arrests and trials are a mostly symbolic afterthought in the battle against terrorism, and yet U.S. law forbids tactics such as assassination that are routinely used by more battle-scarred nations.

The global nature of Bin Laden's operations requires maintaining effective anti-terrorism alliances with countries where he operates, making diplomacy an indispensable part of the struggle against terrorism. Winning that fight, of course, is less about retaliation than about prevention. While Washington's short-term response will likely take a military form, there were also strong calls Tuesday for increased spending on security and intelligence, which remain the key elements of prevention.

Still, even if the U.S. manages to arrest some of those who planned the attack, and to destroy some of the infrastructure that made these attacks possible, there is no shortage, right now, of volunteers for suicide missions against Israel and its ally, the United States. The political context most likely to have provided both motive and personnel for the vicious terror strike will be left unchanged no matter how hard the U.S. hits in retaliation. The chilling reality is that this is a war that's just beginning.