Newsreal: Lone gunmen

The most serious terrorist threat to America comes not from organized or state-sponsored groups of political militants but from loners with a grudge and a gun.

Topics: Afghanistan, FBI, CIA, Religion, Iran, Terrorism, Soviet Union, Russia, Pakistan, Middle East, Islam,

While Washington was working itself into a lather over Saddam Hussein for the past two weeks, an arguably more potent face of anti-American terrorism was right here at home, in an American courtroom, hearing a jury recommend that he be executed.

Mir Aimal Kansi was not a member of a political terrorist organization when he attacked a line of cars outside CIA headquarters in 1993, killing two people and wounding three with lethal spurts of AK-47 semiautomatic rifle fire. He was an individual with a grudge, and there are many more like him out there, unhinged loners who are focusing their rage on all things American.

Last August I walked through the political environment out of which Kansi sprang when I went to Pakistan to investigate his life and eventual capture by a team of FBI, CIA and Pakistani commandos. Bumping along a stretch of broken concrete in the broiling heat of central Pakistan, my driver, Ahmad, told me a story.

“You know how Pakistan was listed No. 2 in world corruption last year?” he asked. On the horizon, like a runaway prop from “A Passage to India,” the half-century-old Lahore-Karachi Express chugged by, its passengers hanging from the windows and riding on the roofs.

Yes, I said to Ahmad, I’d heard something about that. Nigeria was the worst, right?

“Actually,” Ahmad said, his eyes dancing and black mustache twitching, “Pakistan was No. 1, but we bribed the Nigerians to go first.”

When they’re not joking, Pakistanis blame the U.S. for this rather dubious achievement. Corruption, along with a flood of heroin and AK-47s, they say, are Pakistan’s principal rewards for collaborating with Washington during the Afghanistan war of 1980-89, when the CIA equipped and quarterbacked a coalition of Islamic fundamentalist rebel groups against the Soviet Red Army. With the Red Army long gone, radical Islam of the most extreme kind has triumphed in Afghanistan. And it is becoming an increasing factor in Pakistani cities, where rival Sunni and Shia extremists battle it out with leftover AK-47s.

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At the same time-anti-government, and anti-American, mullahs are raising the decibel level in the mosques, much like the movement that toppled the Shah of Iran almost 20 years ago. It was out of this maelstrom, rather than an organized terrorist cell, that last week’s deadly attack on four American oil company workers in Karachi most likely came. The murders were claimed by something calling itself the Aimal Secret Committee, in honor of the defendant in Virginia. But intelligence sources know of no such organized group and believe it was almost certainly the work of an ad-hoc gang of Muslim hotheads cashing in on Kansi’s conviction.

As a result of the murders, the Virginia jury was sequestered under armed guard, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright pointedly pressed the Pakistani government to capture the killers — without any evident success so far — and the State Department has issued a traveler’s advisory warning American tourists, business people and soldiers to beware of
“random acts of anti-American violence, such as drive-by shootings, kidnappings or bombings.”

The phrase “random acts” is accurate. Organized international terrorism has been in steep decline over the past decade. Last year there were 296 terrorist attacks, down from 665 in 1987, according to Larry Johnson, a former State Department terrorism specialist. The number of terrorist groups operating now is about half of that in the mid-1980s, down to 40 or so. Four groups are responsible for 90 percent of the casualties — Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, Hamas, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah and Egyptian fundamentalists, who murdered more than 60 foreign tourists and Egyptians last Monday.

“The threat of terrorism is so amorphous and so difficult to pin down that it’s easy to exaggerate it,” says Johnson. There is a terrorist threat to America, Johnson says. It’s just not coming from terrorist groups so much as freelance gunmen like Kansi, or ad hoc groups like the one Ramzi Yousef patched together to bomb the World Trade Center in Manhattan.

Kansi grew up in Quetta, the southern base for the CIA’s war in Afghanistan, and may even have been recruited by the CIA at some point, according to retired Gen. Hamid Gul, Pakistan’s former spy chief, whom I interviewed in Rawalpindi last summer. Kansi has said he was motivated by America’s enmity toward Islam, but
Gul suggested Kansi might have had a personal motive in attacking CIA employees. The CIA flatly denied any association with Kansi.

While the CIA, FBI and Pentagon have recently turned their attention — and millions of dollars — to the threat of state-sponsored nuclear, chemical and biological terrorism, Johnson considers lone actors like Kansi a more lethal threat to American security.

“To an extent that it’s an act of personal vengeance,” Johnson said of Kansi’s assault, “it’s even more dangerous. It de-links politics and violence, and there’s no telling what they’ll do, and no limits on what they’ll do.”

Johnson compares Kansi to American anarchists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries — little men who made big statements with guns and bombs. “Politics imposes restraints, because the ultimate goal is to be in control,” Johnson said. “Kansi didn’t care about that … It’s sort of an old form of anarchism.”

And nearly impossible to deter or prevent. Current thinking in counter-terrorism circles is that rewards are the most effective tools to catch fugitives — after the fact. More than $3 million was paid out to snitches and Pakistani officials to get Kansi, according to reports.

Saddam Hussein or Iran’s theocrats, on the other hand, are loathe to sponsor terrorist attacks on U.S. soil that can be traced to them, according to most terrorism specialists. As one former CIA man put it to me, “They’ve got addresses in Baghdad and Tehran where we can hit back.” Not so the wandering man with a grudge.

The teeming slums of Pakistan, like the refugee camps of Gaza or the tenements of Cairo, are breeding grounds for future Aimal Kansis. Just after dawn last August I was driving out of Lahore, capital of the old Punjab. Outside my window scores of families in rags were awakening in the dust and dirt of the city’s parks to another bleak day of hustling for food and water. I turned to Ahmad and asked whether militant Islam held much of an attraction for these homeless, hungry people.

“When the mullahs give their speeches,” Ahmad said, “they show up and listen. They nod their heads and sometimes yell, ‘Death to America!’ with everybody else. But most of them just go home afterward.”

Then his brown eyes fixed on me, seriously. “But Aimal Kansi, you know, he didn’t just go home. And there are many more like him these days. Many more.”

Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.

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