Law Forces Make Quiet Countermoves Against Terrorism

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While most of the U.S. enjoyed a peaceful holiday weekend, the nation's law enforcement community quietly worked to preempt a New Year's catastrophe. In the Northwest the FBI tracked the lead of a Washington State airline employee who recalled selling a plane ticket for Las Vegas last week to Adbelmajed Dahoumane, the suspected accomplice of Ahmed Ressam, the Algerian man caught smuggling explosives across the U.S.-Canadian border. Dahoumane's destination raised a red flag — Las Vegas will host one of the nation's largest New Year's celebrations on its fabled strip. The feds continue to scour the Southwest for leads on the disappearance of a thousand pounds of explosives from an Arizona rock quarry. Across the country, authorities in the Big Apple — expected to host a million-plus in Times Square — are fortifying the city, welding manholes shut and locking postal boxes in the area surrounding Times Square. The city will saturate the area with an 8,000-strong army of police officers and a fleet of surveillance helicopters on New Year's Eve. Furthermore, area hospitals are hoarding antibiotics to treat anthrax, and are training doctors and nurses to treat victims of chemical explosions.

In Washington's eye, terrorism has supplanted computer failure as the primary Y2K bug. President Clinton urged Americans to be vigilant against possible terrorist attacks. The FBI on Thursday also issued a mail-bomb alert against any unsolicited mail bearing a postmark from Frankfurt, Germany, while a man was arrested in the Bahamas after he tried to flee when questioned about suspicious equipment he was trying to carry aboard a plane. And the specter of a bomb plot by Canada-based Algerian exiles grew Thursday as a Vermont prosecutor presented evidence linking Lucia Garofalo, arrested Sunday trying to cross into the U.S. along with an Algerian man, to terrorist organizations.

While Americans may be unaccustomed to being told they're in danger of being blown to bits on the streets of their own cities, raising public awareness can actually help foil terrorist plots. "Washington is treading a middle path between spreading panic and making the public more alert," says TIME correspondent William Dowell. "Of course it's possible that nothing will happen, but there's also obviously a real threat. The guy traveling with Ressam remains at large, and Ressam's travel bookings suggest he was planning to leave the bomb equipment for someone else to assemble." In public and behind the scenes, the stakes are rising in the waiting game between terrorists and the law.