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CRISIS IN THE MIDEAST

New Chapter in Terrorism May Have Begun

October 13, 2000|ROBIN WRIGHT and BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The apparent attack on the U.S. destroyer Cole appears to represent a deadly new tactic in the constantly evolving arsenal of global terrorism, one that could have a widespread effect on U.S. naval and maritime operations around the world, according to U.S. officials and terrorism experts.

Indeed, U.S. officials were shocked by the huge bomb blast alongside a powerful U.S. warship in the Arabian Peninsula port of Aden, Yemen.

"It's every bit as much a symbol of American power as a U.S. embassy, and probably more so," said Daniel Benjamin, who headed counter-terrorism at the White House during the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed more than 220 people.

Clinton administration officials said they had no concrete evidence of who was responsible for the blast. No advance intelligence warnings were received, they said.

A previously unknown group, the Army of Aden-Abyan, claimed responsibility for the blast late Thursday via a communique in London. Some experts said the group might be an offshoot of the Islamic Army of Aden, which issued a statement in 1998 declaring "total war on all U.S. interests" and aligning itself with fugitive Saudi militant Osama bin Laden.

U.S. intelligence officials were checking classified databases and other sources to see if the Islamic Army of Aden could have caused the explosion alongside the Cole.

In the absence of hard evidence, officials said they were considering a variety of possible motives.

Chief among the theories was a possible effort to sow further turmoil in the beleaguered Middle East peace process, and especially to undercut what many Arabs view as a clear U.S. tilt toward Israel in the conflict.

Other officials said the blast might have been in response to recent efforts by the U.S. military to upgrade its strategic presence in Aden by pre-positioning fuel and supplies for its ships in the Persian Gulf.

Among the possible suspects in the blast are followers of Bin Laden, who has been accused by U.S. officials of masterminding the 1998 bombings in Africa. Bin Laden's family was originally from Yemen, and groups of his followers are known to operate there.

"Bin Laden is active there," said a U.S. intelligence official. "He has operatives who are there. But it's a wild and woolly place. There are lots of terrorist groups that have a presence there."

Because of premature and erroneous discussion of possible connections following past terrorist attacks, however, U.S. officials shied away from public speculation about possible perpetrators.

"It's premature to link it to Bin Laden," Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen said Thursday.

Some of the most intriguing initial evidence involved the sophistication of the apparent attack, U.S. officials said.

The operation appears to have been planned long in advance of arrangements made by the U.S. Navy to refuel the Cole in Aden. Preparations, particularly the arrangements needed to gain access to an American warship, most likely began at least several weeks ago, said one senior Clinton administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

That would predate the recent outbreak of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as the Cole's notification that it would refuel in Aden, although the timing of the attack might have been fine-tuned in response to those events.

"This was not something that someone concocted to take advantage of the Mideast crisis," the official said. "But they may have tweaked it to coincide with the violence."

Cohen told a news conference that Washington had "no information" at all linking the blast to the current Israeli-Palestinian violence, which began Sept. 28.

The Cole, a guided-missile destroyer bound from the Mediterranean to join U.S. and other forces monitoring Iraqi smuggling operations in the Persian Gulf, was probably not chosen in advance as the specific target, U.S. counter-terrorism officials said. It may have simply been the first U.S. Navy vessel to dock in Yemen once a terrorist plot was ready for execution.

The possibility of a new terrorist tactic stunned official Washington. Only 2% of all international terrorism incidents over the past 30 years have been maritime or seaborne attacks, according to the Rand Chronology on International Terrorism. And most of those have been off the island nation of Sri Lanka.

"Maritime or seaborne terrorism is among the rarest of terrorism tactics," said Bruce Hoffman, terrorism specialist and director of the Washington office of think tank Rand Corp.

Moreover, most past attacks were much simpler, involving small bombs tossed at ships or mines attached to ships' hulls.

Hoffman said the only group that has made frequent use of maritime terrorism is the Sea Tigers, a wing of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka. In ones or twos, members of the separatist movement have rammed small boats into Sri Lankan vessels.

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