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Sniper Attacks Reveal New Vulnerability

The shootings provided a powerful lesson to international terrorist groups, experts say.

November 01, 2002|Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- The sniper shootings around Washington in the last month were unsophisticated, low budget and left the public paralyzed with fear, all of which provided a powerful lesson to international terrorist organizations, according to law-enforcement officials and terrorism experts.

Although the shootings did not fit the typical high-profile attack on a big target, they were equally effective in creating mass fear and having a large-scale effect on the public, thereby demonstrating a new vulnerability in U.S. society, experts say.

This concern is one of the reasons why the federal government is moving so forcefully in filing charges against John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, who by all appearances are not international terrorists but rather accused murderers who do not normally merit federal prosecution.

A Justice Department official said the federal charges filed against Muhammad and Malvo this week send a clear message that federal law-enforcement officials regard their methods as a serious threat to public safety and that they will receive the close attention of top officials.

"It is something we have been aware of since 9/11, that the problem is not just a big attack from a car bomb or a suicide mission, but it could be, God forbid, a sniper," the official said. "There is federal interest in this case on those grounds."

In commenting on the case this week, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft used strong terms to condemn the attacks, calling them "atrocities" and saying that the death penalty should be available in trying the murders. In his brief remarks, Ashcroft repeatedly cited the need for additional investigation and analysis, indicating that an understanding of the crime was far from complete.

FBI officials acknowledge that they have been preparing for terrorist snipers, although they have no direct evidence that any international organization is gearing up for such an attack.

"Obviously, it is a possibility," said one FBI official. "If you look at Al Qaeda's training manuals, there is mention of sniper training at their camps. But I am not aware of any evidence that there is an effort to insert snipers into the U.S. to do what this guy [Muhammad] did."

Exactly what federal, state or local officials could do to counter a well-organized and sophisticated sniper or group of snipers is unclear. Muhammad and Malvo allegedly killed 10 and wounded three others in Washington-area attacks in less than three weeks, leaving police stumped until they received an extortion note with some clues.

The suicide missions on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center led to logical and fairly prompt changes to cockpit doors aboard jetliners and security inside airports to prevent further occurrences. But random sniper shootings could be more difficult to prevent, federal officials acknowledge.

"What do you do from an infrastructure point to prevent this, put up a camera on every street corner?" the FBI official asked.

"We are scratching our heads," admitted the Justice Department official.

Terrorism experts say sniper attacks have raised the stakes for the public and the police. Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor who now teaches at Loyola Law School, said the sniper attack created widespread terror and left police looking powerless.

"It did have the same grip on the nation that a wider-scale attack has, and terrorists see that it works -- that it does create terror," she said. "It was so random, and the authorities seemed so powerless, which is what feeds terrorism. Now that we know what Muhammad was, we should be even more alarmed, because he was not particularly well-prepared or organized."

Muhammad was scrutinized by police at least 10 times while apparently living in his 12-year-old Chevrolet Caprice with Malvo, an undocumented 17-year-old from Jamaica.

Muhammad had been the subject of a prior restraining order -- investigated in the kidnapping of his children in Washington state -- and often seemed to arouse suspicion.

The shootings further blur the distinction between routine crime and terrorism, just as the July 4 shootings at Los Angeles International Airport by Hesham Mohamed Hadayet broadened the definition of terrorism, said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corp. think tank in Santa Monica.

"Terrorists watch our society and attempt to find vulnerabilities and pressure points," Hoffman said.

"They derived an enormously important lesson about terrorizing millions of Americans. Clearly, it has to be the operating assumption that we have a new vulnerability."

It became clear from the outset of the shootings that federal, state and local law-enforcement authorities were not treating this as a routine crime spree, but rather as a significant public safety risk that required a massive response.

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