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In a Changing World, We Are Vulnerable on Our Own Soil : U.S. Takes Precautions as Terror Comes Home

February 05, 1989|CHRISTOPHER SULLIVAN | Associated Press

RIDGEFIELD, N.J. — Traffic droned on the New Jersey Turnpike just as on any other Tuesday morning. Commuters passed through the rest area here just as sleepy-eyed. But something was amiss, and if Robert Cieplensky hadn't spotted it someone might be dead now--in New York, perhaps, or Washington or Toronto--from the shrapnel of a homemade bomb.

Cieplensky, a New Jersey state trooper, saw a disheveled young man in the rest area parking lot, walking in circles, looking under a car, heading one way, then another. When the man got into a brown Mazda and pulled out--narrowly missing parked cars, the trooper said--he stopped him.

The Mazda turned out to contain not just Yu Kikumura, later identified as a member of the terrorist Japanese Red Army, but also electrical fusing devices, two clocks, precision tools, U.S. airline timetables, maps of New York City and other places, a bottle of Ten High whiskey and 36 $100 bills.

A search also found three foot-long steel canisters packed with gunpowder and lead shot.

Kikumura faces sentencing Monday in Newark after his November conviction for transporting the bombs "with the knowledge and intent that they would be used to kill, injure and intimidate."

Agent of Kadafi?

In a presentencing memo released Friday, prosecutors said that Kikumura was operating under orders of Libya's Moammar Kadafi. He had planned to bomb a Navy recruiting center in New York to mark the second anniversary of the U.S. air strike on Tripoli, prosecutors said.

Kikumura's case and others like it raise a troubling question:

Are Americans, who have long felt safe at home, becoming more vulnerable to terrorists?

"The fact that we have been free from terrorist acts to the extent we have is in some ways amazing," said U.S. Atty. George Terwilliger III, who last year prosecuted three Lebanese natives stopped just inside the Vermont-Canada border with makeshift bombs. Federal investigators said they belonged to an organization that assassinated Lebanon's president-elect, Bashir Gemayel.

"Are we vulnerable? Absolutely," said Frank Bolz Jr., whose consulting firm trains other nations' police in handling terrorist incidents.

"This is a democratic country, with wide open borders," added Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert at RAND Corp. in Santa Monica. "It's not as though we're protected by a high wall."

Nonetheless, Jenkins said, the United States generally lacks the driving forces of home-grown terrorism: ideology (usually "Americans kill in personal quarrels, not for causes") and ethnic grievances (the independence movement in Puerto Rico is an exception).

As for foreign terrorists, why attack on American soil when there are convenient U.S. targets abroad, from embassies to fast-food restaurants? "It's easier to cross a street than cross an ocean to commit a terrorist attack," as Neil Livingstone, author of several books on terrorism, put it.

Bombers Evade Safeguards

Still, despite safeguards, bombers have slipped through.

Even though their numbers have not been great--the FBI counts seven domestic terror incidents in the last year--law enforcement officials know the potential for destruction and intimidation of even a single well-placed explosive. (The Vermont bombs blew 2-foot-square steel plates the length of a football field when agents set them off.)

Americans' best protection, authorities say, will come from continued toughening of anti-terror laws and swift justice for those caught. At least as important is intelligence work.

"We have to get to know more about the enemy," Bolz said.

"We can't wait for the bomb to go off," said the FBI's counterterrorism chief, Neil Gallagher, who added that agents would use "whatever resources the judicial system would allow . . . (to) neutralize a terrorist act before it occurs."

Civil liberties groups are watching for overzealousness, something the FBI tacitly acknowledged last year in disciplining agents for an undercover probe of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador.

The FBI's counterterrorism effort costs tens of millions of dollars annually, said Gallagher, who declined to be more specific because the budget is classified.

"I always say it's been 95% blood, sweat and toil by those agencies involved, but we've had a bit of good luck too," said Victoria Toensing, a former top terrorism policy official at the Justice Department.

She said the tools of anti-terrorism have improved.

FBI Improves Communication

There is better cooperation among investigators and prosecutors--the FBI, which once balked, she said, now "has the coffee waiting" for Justice Department lawyers called to an investigation. And laws have been toughened--extradition agreements have been revised, and it's now a federal crime to attack an American abroad, she noted.

These changes have not halted terror altogether. In 1986 alone, the worst recent year for domestic attacks, the FBI recorded 24 incidents and nine preventions.

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