August 23, 1998

In the 'War of the Future,' U.S. Raids Were a Skirmish

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    WASHINGTON -- The barrage of missiles that fell on Afghanistan and Sudan last week was a small battle in a war without a foreseeable end, U.S. leaders are warning -- not the moral equivalent of war, but war itself, similar in some ways to the long twilight struggle against the Soviet Union.

    "This is, unfortunately, the war of the future," Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said. "The Osama bin Laden organization has basically declared war on Americans and has made very clear that these are all Americans, anywhere."

    The national security adviser, Sandy Berger, said: "This is an evil that is directed at the United States. It's going to persist." And Under Secretary of State Thomas Pickering said, "We are in this for the long haul."

    The ultimate target of the U.S. missiles had a ready reply: the real battle has not begun, bin Laden's spokesman told Al-Quds al-Arabi, a London newspaper, on Friday.

    As they brace for bin Laden's reply, U.S. military, intelligence and diplomatic services are charting the contours of a new battlefield.

    Their enemy is a man, not a state, backed by acolytes, not armies. In this war, where high-tech weapons may prove less effective than pickups packed with dynamite, bin Laden, the exiled Saudi terrorist living in Afghanistan, represents something different -- something that Milt Bearden, a former senior CIA official, calls "Terror Inc."

    His organization, such as it is, is unlike any other. It has no real headquarters and no fixed address to target. It is a coalition of like-minded warriors living in exile from their homes in Egypt, Sudan, Pakistan and other Islamic nations riven by religious and political battles.

    The bin Laden organization is global and stateless, according to U.S. intelligence analyses, more theological than political, driven by a millennial vision of destroying the United States, driving all Western influences from the Arab world, abolishing the boundaries of Islamic nations and making them one, without borders.

    "This is a crusade he's on," said L. Paul Bremer, U.S. ambassador at large for counterterrorism from 1986 to 1989.

    "There is a quantum difference in the way bin Laden looks at terror," he said. "What we are seeing is a shift to terrorism on a more theological basis, to groups that are not after precise political goals. When you start to embrace goals as broad as bin Laden's, you are no longer constrained by the number of casualties you incur. You are now in a different game."

    Some of the older groups in this deadly contest -- the Palestine Liberation Organization, even the government of Iran -- have moved toward the mainstream in the last decade. State-sponsored terrorism is on the decline; with the exception of Iran, none of the seven nations on the State Department's terrorist list has been directly linked to an attack on Americans in years.

    U.S. intelligence agencies now list only six major Islamic groups beyond bin Laden's that are active and capable of terror against Americans.

    Four of them -- Hezbollah, the Shiite group based in Lebanon; the Palestinian groups known as Hamas and Islamic Jihad; and the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria -- have not recently specifically attacked Americans, although seven American citizens in Israel were killed in bombings blamed on Hamas in 1996 and 1997.

    About 3,000 Islamic militants worldwide stand under bin Laden's banner, according to a forthcoming report to Congress by Kenneth Katzman, the Congressional Research Service's leading expert on terrorism.

    Many are radical veterans of the Afghan war against Soviet invaders, a struggle that lasted from 1979 to 1989 and took hundreds of thousands of lives, and one in which the CIA poured $3 billion into battle.

    The rebels fought the Soviet Army in a real war, sheltered in mountains and caves, and their battlements and bunkers have been fortified by bin Laden. Their numbers alone make bin Laden's organization by far the world's largest international terrorist group.

    And if history is a guide, the United States will not fight this war in the mountains of Afghanistan. The last two superpowers that tried -- the British in the 19th century and the Soviets in the 1980s -- met bloody defeats.

    The Soviets tried to attack the Khost encampment, which was built by the Afghan rebels, with Scud missiles and with special forces commandos. They failed.

    Alongside bin Laden in Afghanistan stand leading members of the other two groups -- the Islamic Group and Jihad, both based in Egypt -- which are skilled in the art of political assassination.

    Their resumes include the murder of President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt in 1981 and the attempted murder in 1995 of his successor, Hosni Mubarak, two of the foremost pro-American Arab leaders of the last generation. These groups have killed 85 tourists in two attacks in Cairo and Luxor in the last two years.

    It is easy to overstate the threat that international terrorism poses for the United States. Taken together, the handful of organizations capable of carrying out attacks against Americans abroad like the bombings of the embassies in Africa this month have a tiny fraction of the U.S. military's firepower.

    Nor, by some measures, is the toll terrorism has taken immense. Since 1989, the beginning of the end of the Cold War, 98 Americans have been killed in foreign terrorist attacks. By contrast, on average, about 85 Americans are killed every year by lightning bolts.

    Coldly stated, Americans are far more likely to be killed by a bolt from the blue than by a foreign terrorist's bomb.

    But the intensity of the coming war of which U.S. leaders are warning is not accurately measured by body counts. It is measured by the perception that bin Laden and his followers will continue to pose a nearly invisible, potentially murderous threat to U.S. interests and installations everywhere in the world.

    This is why the oratory of U.S. leaders in the last 72 hours has been the language of war, hammered in by repetition. "This is going to be a long-term battle against terrorists who have declared war on the United States," Ms. Albright said. "That is what Osama bin Laden did. He basically made clear that all Americans and American facilities were potential targets, and he used the word 'war.' "

    One of her spokesmen, James Foley said: "A new era, in effect, is upon us. It's imperative that the American people understand and prepare themselves for facing this kind of a threat into the 21st century for as long as it's necessary to face the threat."

    But Bremer, the nation's counterterrorism ambassador in the 1980s, said: "There's no such thing as eliminating terror, any more than eliminating crime. What we're in for, if we're serious about it, is the kind of sustained effort it took during the Cold War -- not months, not years, but decades.

    "Every time there is a major terrorist incident American politicians are always standing with clenched jaws saying we're serious now. Their attention span always lasts a few months. Congress has second thoughts about the budget. And everything goes slack again. It would be a welcome change if the administration can orchestrate a concerted attack."

    That is what the CIA, among other arms of the U.S. government, has in mind.

    In this asymmetrical war, where a small band of suicidal bombers can hit the United States harder than the U.S. military can hit back, "good intelligence is 80 percent of the battle," Bremer said.

    Flush with success in identifying bin Laden as the likely author of the embassy bombings in Africa, and armed with at least six years of electronically gathered information and other secret intelligence on bin Laden, Washington's former ally in the Afghan war, the intelligence agency now has orders to play offense as well as defense against the man the world sees as the archenemy of the West.

    "This is not a one-shot deal here," a senior intelligence official said. This is "a real war against terrorism," he continued. And he warned, "There is a high probability of retaliation somewhere in this world."

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