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U.S. Wins a Few : Upping the Stakes on Terrorism

October 11, 1987|DAVID LAMB | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In basement offices where a hand-lettered sign says "The Bullet Stops Here" and conference rooms where government lawyers gather, in California think tanks and training facilities from Oklahoma to Georgia, the United States is shaping the course of its undeclared war on international terrorism.

It is a shadowy war that perhaps no one can win. Advances are measured in inches and may not last. The ammunition is often only snippets of intelligence or pleas for international cooperation, and the soldiers are as often lawyers and bureaucrats as undercover agents or counterterrorism squads awaiting secret deployment orders at U.S. military bases.

Treated as Criminals

In the FBI headquarters and the Justice Department, across the street from each other on Pennsylvania Avenue, lawyers and investigators for the first time have started building cases against individual terrorists as though they were domestic criminals--which, in fact, they are under new U.S. laws. About a dozen cases are under investigation and 17 arrest warrants have been issued for known terrorists, FBI agents said.

"I don't want to call Fawaz Younis' arrest a message," Victoria Toensing, U.S. deputy assistant attorney general, said after the accused Lebanese hijacker was arrested by FBI agents Sept. 13 on a yacht in the Mediterranean and flown here to stand trial. "But I think some people got confused over the Iranian arms sale. Now they will know what our commitment is, that we will get terrorists whenever they become available to us."

Across town, in what was once the South Vietnamese Embassy, the cellar billiards room, replete with pine-paneled walls and large fireplace, has been turned into a command post for seven State Department agents. They are processing requests from foreign governments for counterterrorism training in everything from airport security to bomb detection. In the last three years about 6,000 foreigners from 40 countries have been trained under the $10-million-a-year program at various facilities throughout the United States.

Disarming a Terrorist

One anti-terrorism instructor, P. C. Knowles, a deputy sheriff from Alachua County, Fla., stood the other day among a group of 30 Bolivian policemen and security officers at one of those facilities, a Transportation Department complex in Oklahoma City. One of the Bolivians held a simulated pistol at Knowles' back and the others crowded around attentively.

"First thing to know is where the weapon is," Knowles said, his head turning toward the assailant. "You have to look. Now, from this position, it's hopeless . . . but from here," and his feet spun, his arm swung back and in a flash he had the gun and his student had been flipped gently onto the canvas mat, "from here, it's easy."

These efforts may represent only a footnote in a larger campaign, but CIA statistics indicate that they are paying dividends. They also imply that the Reagan Administration's sale of arms to Iran--which the State Department lists along with Syria, South Yemen, Libya and Cuba as a state sponsor of political violence--may not have been as harmful to U.S. interests as many had believed.

Terrorist incidents leveled off last year, after climbing more than 30% in 1984 and peaking in 1985 when 785 attacks claimed more than 2,000 casualties, including 38 Americans killed and 157 wounded. In Europe, international terrorism of Middle East origin dropped 70% in 1986. For the first time, Latin America became the region where the most attacks against U.S. property or personnel were carried out. Preliminary figures for 1987 indicate that the trends continue.

Not since September, 1986, when five Palestinians hijacked a Pan American jetliner in Karachi, has the State Department's operations center--a windowless, seventh-floor room full of telephones, computers and maps--been used for a terrorist crisis. Suddenly terrorism has slipped from the daily vocabulary, and the fears of 1985 have given way to the notion that terrorism is ebbing.

That notion is not justified, say experts on political violence in the United States and Europe, although virtually all agree that the West has made significant progress in combatting terrorism. The impetus for that progress goes back to a single military operation that even former skeptics now view as being highly successful, at least in the short term--the U.S. bombing of Libya in April, 1986.

"Clearly the bombing of Libya changed the equation," said Brian Jenkins, director of research on political violence at the RAND Corp. in Santa Monica. "It suggested to nations that use terrorism as an instrument of policy that they risk retaliation. They may choose to dismiss that risk or to accept it, but they're going to have to take it into account."

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