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Raid on Libya Curbed Terror, Israelis Believe

June 26, 1986|DAN FISHER | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Israeli experts have concluded that the U.S. air strike against Libya 10 weeks ago has succeeded in deterring international terrorism.

Despite fears that the April 15 raid on the Libyan cities of Tripoli and Benghazi would inspire more terrorist attacks, possibly directed against the United States itself, there has been a marked drop in the frequency and severity of such actions, the Israelis say.

"It's a clear trend--no mistake about it," said Ariel Merari, head of a terrorism study project at Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.

Merari said in an interview that after an initial "spasmodic wave" of mostly minor incidents carried out by Libyan-supported groups as far away as Mexico, "there has been a real drop of significant terrorist actions against American interests."

"There is a decline, and one can conclude that it had to do with Libya," said Yehosephat Harkabi, former chief of Israeli military intelligence and a former adviser to the prime minister on terrorism matters. "Those who were guardians of terrorism, the sponsors, are more careful."

In addition to statistical evidence, the Israelis noted, it is clear that the American attack galvanized anti-terrorist sentiment in a number of countries. Among other things, they said, this has resulted in more effective security measures and what a military source here termed a "greatly raised level of intelligence cooperation."

Although Israelis are willing to pronounce the U.S. air strike a success, American officials have been more circumspect. They have commented extensively on military aspects of the attack but have said little in public about its effectiveness in deterring terrorism--in part, apparently, for fear that any such comment might be seen as a challenge to potential attackers.

No Boasting Desired

A Pentagon official, speaking on condition that he remain unidentified, agreed that the terrorist record since the air attack "looks good," but he added that "as soon as someone brags about it, it will be over."

In a speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors last week in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Robert B. Oakley, the State Department's senior expert on counterterrorism, said there has been "a marked reduction" in terrorism attributed to the Libyan regime of Moammar Kadafi, "apparently due to internal Libyan disarray, the compromise of Libya's external terror network and the tighter controls placed upon Libyan activities all around the world."

Israeli officials, who have long advocated a tougher world response to terrorism, are less reserved. "Anyone with two eyes can see that there is a major drop in activities," a Foreign Ministry spokesman said. "Our policy all along is that the only way to fight terrorism is by hitting it in its headquarters."

Decline in Incidents

According to worldwide figures compiled by the Jaffee Center, there have been 155 international terrorist incidents so far in 1986, compared with 209 in the first half of 1985--a rate of about six a week this year against eight a week last year.

These figures show that the pace for all such incidents picked up slightly, to 6.7 a week since the mid-April raid. But the incidence of Palestinian terrorism, which Merari called "the more lethal type of terrorist activity" and the type most dependent on state sponsorship by countries such as Libya and Syria, has declined sharply.

Last year, according to Anat Kurz, a Jaffee researcher, there were 73 international terrorist incidents carried out by Palestinians. So far this year, there have been 17, all but four of which took place before the American attack.

Airline Bomb Attempt

The incidents since the bombing of Libya include the abortive attempt on April 17 to smuggle a bomb aboard an El Al plane bound for Tel Aviv. El Al security guards found 30 pounds of explosives hidden in the carry-on baggage of a woman passenger just before the flight was to depart from London.

Two of the recent incidents were aimed at Arab targets: the assassination of a Palestinian activist in Athens and a hand-grenade attack on a Saudi Arabian airline office. The fourth incident involved a grenade that was dismantled in the Vienna airport.

American and Israeli experts both cautioned that the success of the last 10 weeks does not mean the defeat of international terrorism.

"We still consider the threat level high," a Pentagon official said.

Harkabi said the terrorist lull may be a tactical one and added that the experts simply do not know whether it will continue.

No Change in Morality

Merari called the air strike a "conditional turning point" in the battle against terrorism. He said that while the U.S. attack made the state sponsors of terrorism more cautious, "neither the motivation of Syria and Libya and Iran that led them to sponsor terrorism, nor their strategic interests, nor their morality has changed."

"So if the sponsors of terrorism perceive that the international climate changes," he went on, "then I think that terrorism will return."

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