Terrorism experts question U.S. air strikes

Terrorism experts react to Thursday's U.S. air strikes in Afghanistan.

Published August 21, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

The bombing of six supposed terrorist sites in Afghanistan and the Sudan Thursday by U.S. forces may have given some Americans a sense of revenge -- and temporarily diverted some public attention from President Clinton's deepening sex scandal -- but a number of foreign policy experts believe it will serve only to embolden Middle East radicals bent on further terrorist acts against the United States.

"We're not doing much more than making ourselves feel good," says Bernard Reich, professor of international affairs at George Washington University. "It could very well have the reverse effect, especially in Sudan, where there are plenty of wonderful people that want good relations with the United States."

Thursday's attacks were directed against targets associated with Osama bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi Arabian who's been financing terrorist attacks since the early 1980s. U.S. investigators have concluded that bin Laden was behind the recent bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa. The air strikes carried out yesterday were direct retaliation, but they may have been futile.

"It doesn't affect bin Laden unless he was killed," says Scott Armstrong, a former Washington Post reporter who's been in contact with bin Laden's associates in researching a book about American policy in the Persian Gulf. "The U.S. military wanted to show great strength. It did. But the only real impact on bin Laden is that he might hamper him a bit in getting money from his family."

Bin Laden, who moved his base of operations to Sudan in 1991, is reportedly worth $500 million. He's driven by a fundamentalist, pan-Islamic belief that Western influences must be driven from Muslim holy places, according to Armstrong. It's a passion that's shared by some radical Muslims from Saudi Arabia and Tunisia to Bosnia and Chechnya.

Professor Reich says bin Laden represents a brand of terrorism that's a departure from the state-sponsored terrorism prevalent during the 1980s, when Libya and Iran encouraged and financed terrorist operations. Bin Laden springs more from an ideological, romantic strain of terrorists, who are much more difficult to identify, target and control.

"Bin Laden may be of the romantic variety, but he is the functional equivalent of a state," Reich says. "He's worth a half a billion dollars in a part of the world where people will do things for very little money. He can provide cover, passports, transportation. He can do what Syria can do, what Libya did with Pan Am 103."

Taliban leaders in Afghanistan reported that bin Laden was not killed in Thursday's bombing raids. Reich says it's just as well. "He would have become a martyr," says the professor. "It could very well have had the opposite effect."

Armstrong agrees that the bombings could backfire. "It could recruit huge numbers of people to his cause," Armstrong says. "He has about 4,000 active members right now, and he could call on many thousands more. These raids will multiply that by a factor of 10."

"You have to remember that bin Laden is revered by thousands of his followers," a weary intelligence specialist said before heading back to another 13-hour shift at the counter-terrorism center in the Pentagon Thursday afternoon. "He's revered as Daddy to them -- Daddy Bucks.

"He's got thousands of freedom-fighting veterans who went back to their countries, mostly in the Middle East and North Africa, but also stretching into Asia. They're certainly capable of doing all sorts of nasty things."

And so are his relatives. Bin Laden's brother-in-law Jamal Khalifah owns a rattan factory in the Philippines, for example, from which he's bankrolled the Filipino Muslim terrorist organization Abu Sayyaf. In 1991 the organization recruited future World Trade Center bomber Yousef Ramzi.

In 1994 Khalifah was arrested in Morgan Hill, Calif., on a charge of providing false information on his visa application. Eventually he was deported to Jordan and is understood to be busily buttressing bin Laden's terror campaigns.

The picture Americans have of bin Laden sitting cross-legged in his Afghan redoubt in brown robes, with a scraggly beard and sunken cheeks, meanwhile, may give a false impression of the Saudi's business and professional acumen.

He is a professional engineer who has amassed a multibillion-dollar family fortune building roads and other construction projects in Sudan, where he lived with his four wives before being forced to move to Afghanistan.

One project was a new, 500-mile highway from Khartoum to Port Sudan, which replaced an old road that was nearly twice as long, cutting travel time by days. Only five years earlier, bin Laden was using the same equipment to blast tunnels through the mountains of Afghanistan for use by Muslim guerrillas in the jihad against the Soviet Red Army.

Intelligence analysts say bin Laden's cousins manage the Sudan projects now -- including the Khartoum pharmaceutical plant that was bombed by U.S. warplanes Thursday. U.S. officials have not said publicly that Laden's family owned the plant, but "you can use your logic and come up with the most likely conclusion," one analyst says.

The pharmaceutical plant, the analyst said, was capable of making at least mustard and VX gases for use against Western targets. Bin Laden's family also has large holdings of land south of Khartoum that Western intelligence suspects have been used as military training camps for Islamic guerrillas, with the training at least partly supported by Iran. Other terrorist groups, such as Hamas and the Iran-backed Hezbollah, openly maintain offices in Khartoum.

In a confidential study for the secretary of defense last year, a group of retired military and intelligence officers concluded a terrorist gas attack on U.S. military bases, including the Pentagon itself, would not be difficult.

As for the likelihood of bin Laden's retaliation, "The main groups he seems to be affiliated with are no doubt taking a look at contingency plans, if they're not scrambling for their own little asses," says the analyst. "It's one thing to carry out an action and say, 'Oh, America, you're a paper tiger.' It's another thing to have a goddamn Tomahawk coming through your window."

Assembling bombs like the ones that exploded in front of U.S. embassies in Africa last week, however, takes "about 20 minutes if you have the materials ready in a truck in a warehouse somewhere," the analyst points out.

Meanwhile, Armstrong says the raid could start a domino effect in the Middle East if it increases bin Laden's power and influence. Armstrong said there's already a large group of clerics in Saudi Arabia who share bin Laden's religious beliefs that Western influences must be swept from Mecca, Medina and other Islamic holy places. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan is with him. The Islamic government in Sudan is in the balance, but it's already angry with the United States for supporting a Christian rebellion in the south. "Also," Armstrong said, "this could certainly radicalize certain people in Pakistan to his cause."

Says Professor Reich: "We have no conclusive evidence that raids of this sort will have any effect on terrorism. Yes, we can reach anywhere. We have an incredibly impressive arsenal. The question is do you stop groups who are doing terrorist acts?

"We have no solution to terrorism," he says. "We can slow it down, we can divert it, but a determined terrorist can pull off a terrorist act with relative ease."

In light of all this, were Thursday's attacks more politically motivated than militarily? "This event does look like a wonderful confluence of international opportunity and domestic advantage for Mr. Clinton," says James Morrow, a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

"People say that the Lewinsky scandal is weakening the United States internationally, that it is encouraging states like Iraq and North Korea to challenge the United States," adds Morrow. "I think that argument is absolutely wrong and it's backwards. I think the temptation for the wounded leader to act is stronger in crisis, and therefore, if you're a prospective opponent, you have to be aware of that. I think opponents are less likely to challenge a leader who is down, precisely because they know they are more likely to get a strong response."

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Harry Jaffe is a leading journalist covering Washington, DC—its politics, its crime, its heroes and villains. Beyond Washington, Jaffe’s work has been published in Yahoo News, Men’s Health,Harper’s, Esquire, and newspapers from the San Francisco Examiner to the Philadelphia Inquirer. He’s appeared in documentary films, and on television and radio across the country and throughout Europe.

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