Why the Embassy Bombing Trial is a Footnote in the War on Terrorism

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Family members of bombing victims talk to the press following the verdict

In the war against terrorism — as in any other war — putting the enemy on trial is always an afterthought. That's why the conviction in New York of four footsoldiers of Osama bin Laden's jihad to drive the United States out of the Middle East will be recorded as, at best, a footnote in the chronicle of a long and bloody war in which the real measure of U.S. success is tragedies averted rather than perpetrators apprehended. After all, the man named in the indictment as the architect of the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania wasn't even in court, and the accused were at best mid-level operatives in his diffuse international network — and therefore easily replaced. In a warrior cult that holds martyrdom as its highest honor, being imprisoned — or even executed, as may be the case for two of the accused when the trial concludes its penalty phase — by the enemy is scarcely a deterrent.

Bin Laden remains holed up in Afghanistan under the protection of its ruling Taliban militia, which praised him Wednesday as a hero of Afghanistan's fight against the Soviet invasion and reiterated that it has no intention of handing him over for trial. And some of the Taliban's recent outrages against Buddhists — blowing up their statues, forcing them to wear yellow patches on their clothing — served as a reminder that bin Laden's hosts are singularly impervious to foreign pressure.

Last October's bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Aden that killed 17 U.S. Navy personnel was a reminder that bin Laden's networks are far from inactive. And the anti-American rage inflamed throughout the Arab world by the Palestinian intifada suggests his pool of potential recruits will grow no matter how harsh the punishment meted out by a New York jury to the four men convicted of the East Africa embassy bombings.

Bin Laden's evasion of justice may be frustrating for the loved ones of his victims and the American public at large, but U.S. security and intelligence services have managed to foil a number of subsequent plots linked with the Saudi financier through patient intelligence gathering and cooperation with law enforcement agencies in foreign countries. Plans to wreak mayhem in Seattle and in Jordan at the dawn of the Millennium were thwarted by good police work, and there have, no doubt, been other successes that those in charge of the nation's security have chosen to keep secret.

The war on terrorism is primarily about intelligence — being able to monitor your enemy's communications and anticipate his actions in order to confound his plans and keep him on the defensive. Bin Laden's network is large and diffuse, and its components are highly autonomous, meaning that simply lopping off its head is unlikely to eliminate the threat.

Sometimes, though, the patient gathering of intelligence and monitoring the usual suspects can be a hit-and-miss game: Wadih el Hage, one of the four men convicted of the East Africa bombings, had been under surveillance for two years before the bombings. A year before the attack, Kenyan and U.S. agents had even detained him for questioning at the Nairobi airport. And yet, according to the indictment, El Hage still managed to play a major role in organizing a bombing attack on the American embassy in Nairobi that killed 212 people.

The trial of El Hage and his associates is largely symbolic, sending a message to the American public and U.S. allies that Washington intends to seek justice for each and every perpetrator of a terrorist act. And, of course, the guardian's of the nation's security will be doubling their watch right now, in case the terrorists try to answer with a message of their own.