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The Terrorists Among Us : American society is all too vulnerable to attack.

March 07, 1993|DAVID WISE | David Wise, who writes often about intelligence agencies, is the author, most recently, of "Molehunt" (Random House), a book about the CIA's secret search for Soviet spies in its ranks

WASHINGTON — A line has been crossed--we have become a vulnerable society.

Counterterrorism officials here hope that the fast work by the FBI in arresting at least two suspects, described as Muslim fundamentalists, in the Feb. 26 bombing of the World Trade Center will send a message that may discourage similar acts in the future. But the swift police work--the case was cracked in one week--cannot obscure the reality of the gaping, rubble-filled crater beneath the Trade Center. The explosion in Manhattan, which killed five and injured 1,000, was the worst major terrorist attack in the United States.

The Trade Center blast, with its direct links to the byzantine politics of the Middle East, demonstrated the enormous vulnerability of a highly industrialized, urban society to calculated acts of violence. America is a fat target. It's infrastructure, to use a word popular these days in the Clinton White House, is vulnerable--bridges, tunnels, airports, airliners, railroads, railroad stations, communications networks, including telephone and television installations, power grids, high-rise office buildings (with windows that don't open), hotels, apartment complexes and government offices.

It is a point not lost on foreign political leaders. Last week, the leader of the Serbs in Bosnia, Radovan Karadzic, warned that continued U.S. aid to the Muslims in that country could lead to terrorist attacks against the United States. He later modified his remarks, but the meaning was clear.

Perhaps because of the geographical barriers formed by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, Americans have always felt somewhat protected from terror. Terror was something that happened in Israel, Beirut, Athens, Rome, Vienna, northern Ireland or London, but not in the good old U.S.A. Main Street was not the Middle East. We might have shootouts in Waco, or crazies who cut loose with automatic weapons in fast-food restaurants or post offices, but that kind of violence was at least home-grown.

But in a world that is a global village, linked by CNN and rapid telecommunications, it would seem only logical that events in remote, volatile areas overseas may have violent repercussions here at home. The case of the hundreds of Palestinians deported by Israel late last year, still encamped in a no-man's land in southern Lebanon, is one example. Most are members of the Palestinian extremist group, Hamas. In January, federal authorities warned New York police that the U.S. Embassy in Algeria had received a warning that unless the deportees were allowed back into Israel, a target in New York City would be bombed within 48 hours. Nothing happened, and a caller extended the deadline for another 48 hours, again with no result. But New York City, with its large Jewish population, remains a tempting target for Arab or other Muslim extremists.

"The United States is a target-rich yet hostile environment for terrorism," one high-ranking FBI official told me, speaking on condition of anonymity. The target-rich part is obvious. Why a hostile environment? "There's a degree of geographic isolation, of course. It's a lot more difficult for someone to engage in an act of terrorism inside the United States than it would be in Europe or Africa. But law enforcement is a major factor." The FBI official cited the 1988 arrest, by New Jersey state police, of Yu Kikumura, a Japanese Red Army terrorist who was headed for New York City with three bombs in his car. "He was arrested at a traffic stop half an hour outside of New York because he was acting suspiciously. And the FBI has prevented terrorist acts in this country, both domestic and international, in a number of instances."

It is also true, however, that this country's vulnerability has greatly increased with the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the former Soviet Union and the communist hegemony over Eastern Europe. The collapse of the Soviet Union has unleashed the forces of nationalism that were suppressed as long as those nations were in the grip of communism. The civil war among Serbs, Bosnian Muslims and Croats in the former Yugoslavia is perhaps the most dramatic example, but ethnic groups are killing each other in many parts of the former Soviet Union, including Russia.

As the post-Cold War Soviet world has become much more volatile and unpredictable, the potential for violence directed at the United States has become that much greater. Not that many Americans would want to roll back democracy in Russia or Eastern Europe and restore the Cold War. But there was a certain predictability in that era, a balance of terror, as it were, as long as the superpowers held each other in check.

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