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Attack on U.S. ship signals new wave of terror

( -- The escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict means that the suicide-bomb attack that killed four U.S. personnel in Yemen on Thursday is unlikely to be the last. Although it's far too early to say just who rammed a U.S. destroyer with a rubber dinghy packed full of explosives, it's relatively safe to assume the attack is not unrelated to the violence currently unfolding in the Palestinian territories. That's not to imply in any way that the perpetrators were Palestinian -- the U.S. has plenty of enemies throughout the Arab world, and its flag has been torched all over the Middle East in the past two weeks as protestors express their outrage over the shooting of some 90 Palestinians by Israeli security forces. Washington's perceived, indeed stated, pro-Israeli bias in dealing with the Middle East has dissolved any distinction between the U.S. and Israel in the minds of the enraged youths on Arab streets.

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The USS Cole was rammed in the port of Aden by an explosive-packed inflatable craft that blew a 30-foot hole in its port side, killing four sailors and wounding at least 31. Twelve are reported to be missing. The Cole had been heading for the Gulf, where it was to help police sanctions against Iraq. The suspect list would have to include the Osama Bin Laden network, in whose stomping ground it occurred, and whose leader might see Arab rage against Israel and the U.S. as an opportunity to burnish his claims to pan-Islamic leadership. Then there's Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese guerrilla movement that has previously demonstrated a capacity to operate abroad and has been expanding its influence among the Palestinian Islamist terrorist group, Hamas. The latter have refrained from attacking U.S. targets in the past, but with U.S. intelligence personnel guiding Yasser Arafat's security forces in a crackdown on Hamas, it's far from inconceivable that this policy would change. But there are a number of other Islamist terror organizations in the region, such as Egypt's Islamic Jihad, that have both local grievances with the U.S. and the proven capacity to operate beyond their home ground, as well as sharing the generalized hostility to attempts to persuade Arafat to sign away Palestinian claims on East Jerusalem.

So while the shooting war in the Palestinian territories may or may not be abating, the terror war may only be beginning. The events of the past two weeks have stirred up a hornets' nest of rage, and throughout the Middle East there'll be groups planning to avenge Palestinian casualties in what they perceive as a battle over the fate of the Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem. Israeli leaders have already warned their people to brace for a new wave of terrorist attacks. Washington will probably have to do the same.

Copyright © 2000 Time Inc.


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