Could Suicide Bombings Happen Here?

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AP

A June 1995 photo of Ghazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer, who admitted to plotting terrorist attacks on New York?s subway system.

Since Sept. 11, when America went on alert against terrorist strikes, there has been some small comfort in the knowledge that unlike al-Qaeda, most militant Islamic groups don't seek to attack targets inside the U.S. But the sickening rise in the number of Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel, and a spate of attacks last week against synagogues in Europe, raises a new worry: Could the intifadeh spread to the U.S.?

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In recent months, Hamas military sources say, there has been a debate within the military wing of Hamas, one of the most active Palestinian terror groups, over whether or not to attack U.S. targets inside Israel. So far, the bombers have not struck American institutions. And while experts don't believe an attack inside the U.S. by an established Palestinian group is likely, they do worry that one could be perpetrated by free-lance radicals living in the U.S.

Such an attack almost happened in 1997 when a Palestinian immigrant named Ghazi Ibrahim Abu Maizar came within hours of detonating a pipe bomb, and himself, in a Brooklyn, N.Y., subway station used by many Orthodox Jews. His roommate, an Egyptian, discovered what he was up to and, aghast, tipped off local police, who foiled the plot with just hours to spare. Police found two fully rigged pipe bombs packed with nails and bullets in his apartment. Though the would-be suicide bomber wasn't working for any Palestinian group, his case suggests that Middle East violence could provoke independent attacks in the U.S. "One of the biggest dangers is that lone individual," says an FBI counterterror agent.

Law-enforcement and intelligence officials say that since the beginning of the latest intifadeh, no Palestinian bomb plots have been uncovered in America. But they recognize that the ease of manufacturing a bomb makes suicide attacks a serious threat. "It's something to be concerned about," says a U.S. intelligence official. So far, there's little sign that it's in the interest of Palestinian bombers to attack Americans. While many Palestinians believe that U.S. support for Israel makes America complicit in what they see as the Jewish state's excesses, Palestinian militant leaders apparently believe that targeting Americans would hurt their cause. It would mean losing the moral stance of fighting against occupation and do nothing to further their stated goal of wresting political concessions from an Israel made desperate by internal insecurity. For now, the policy of Hamas is to confine attacks to Israel and the Palestinian territories. "Outside attacks are not helpful," explains a top Hamas leader in Syria,

That's the kind of reasoning that distinguishes the Palestinian brand of suicide bombing from al-Qaeda's. Osama bin Laden is not seeking the international community's support for his political aims and wants to take the fight directly to America. Palestinians, on the other hand, rely on money raised in the U.S., and carnage in America could turn off donors. Palestinians understand the danger of angering the U.S., the inevitable arbiter of peace negotiations. "They realize their only hope of getting Israel to pull back is the U.S.," says the FBI agent. "So to target us now would be counterproductive." That sounds reassuring. But it presumes that logic will govern these decisions. In the world of suicide bombings, that may not be a safe bet.

Reported by George Baghdadi/ Damascus; Massimo Calabresi and Elaine Shannon/Washington; and Matt Rees/Jerusalem