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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

New year's evil?

Federal agents are scrambling to stop a new Y2K worry: terror

By JOHANNA MCGEARY

cover photo

December 27, 1999
Web posted at: 11:30 a.m. EST (1630 GMT)

The terror of terrorism is what you don't know. You can listen all you want to warnings to be vigilant. Cops can scan crowds; dogs can sniff luggage; border crossings can be tightened; you can report parcels left unattended. But if--when--it comes, you won't be warned. "We're not confident we can stop it," admits an Administration official.

Nonetheless, the Clinton team is determined to try. It lives in dread of an NSSE--the Disneyesque abbreviation for a national-security special event that triggers special precautions. But with Y2K happening all across the world, a flood of threats has washed in from every corner of the globe, and suspicious characters have been arrested. There's no shortage of danger out there. The government has conducted drills in 27 cities for an NSSE, but the real strategy is "Raise your defenses and plan for the aftermath." So when the Administration's heavy hitters convened in the basement of the White House Monday afternoon to hash over a subject so sensitive that few of their top aides were allowed in, they had a surfeit of possibilities to worry about but precious little that was concrete and even less they could do.

What got the government on edge also seeped through to the public. The State Department issued two warnings about possible overseas attacks. The FBI chipped in with an alert for mail bombs, further raising the temperature. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll on Thursday found that 62% of citizens surveyed believe terrorism is likely by New Year's Eve. Yet at the same time, official after official trotted out with reassuring words to soothe the jitters. "The authorities are on a higher level of alert," said President Clinton, the nation's Calmer in Chief, but ordinary people ought to go ahead and party.

The President is the man who will ultimately bear the blame if something happens. But his top aides came away from their Monday confab with more questions than answers. They've developed a bad case of nerves since a suspicious Algerian was arrested at the Washington State-Canada border two weeks ago. But they have uncovered no mother lode of hard information about his plans. "You don't know what's true," says a senior intelligence official. "But the political price of making a mistake in judging is so high." Is the chief threat lurking abroad or at home? Is Osama bin Laden masterminding a spectacular millennial blast, or would something come from an unknown, homegrown wacko?

Terrorism has undergone a sea change since the old days of skyjackings and hostage taking. Back then, the who and the why were known: leftists like the Red Brigades and the Baader-Meinhof gang, nationalists like the I.R.A., the P.L.O. and the Kurdish Workers' Party, and state sponsors like Syria and Iran, all with rational political objectives. In an odd way, the older forms of state-sponsored terror were easier to manage. They were tactical ploys with built-in limits to the damage that could be inflicted if the groups hoped to win hearts and minds to their causes--and the perpetrators left an address for retaliation.

Today the fastest-rising practitioners of the sneak attack--what the Pentagon likes to call using "asymmetric warfare" to slip past America's vast military superiority--are fanatics pursuing hate. "The normal restraints on the use of violence don't apply to them," says Steven Simon, assistant director at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies. These kinds of terrorists, he says, "want a lot of people watching and a lot of people dead." More important, he adds, "they want God watching. That's why they don't care about claims of responsibility."

They're by no means all Muslim either. Israel is seriously preparing to guard against end-of-time Christians hoping to speed the arrival of the Messiah by prompting Armageddon through an assault on Jerusalem's Temple Mount, holy to Jews and Muslims both. More dangerous still are the mystery crazies out there. The worst U.S. attack, the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City that killed 169, was perpetrated by a couple of homegrown disgruntled ex-soldiers. American millenarian sects, antigovernment militias and white supremacists who believe 2000 heralds the advent of racial war have wreaked their share of damage.

The most notorious exemplar, though, is bin Laden, the Saudi-born terror kingpin charged with organizing the embassy bombings that killed 224 in Kenya and Tanzania two years ago. But even he represents only one part of the new-style problem: hundreds or perhaps thousands of tiny cells, each made up of a few like-minded zealots, nearly impossible to penetrate and linked only loosely through shared finances and training grounds.

In fact, the U.S. believes it has kept bin Laden pretty well bottled up since his Africa attacks. The cruise missiles that leveled his Afghan hideaway have driven him into a sleepless life of hide-and-seek. Though his protectors, the Taliban government in Afghanistan, still refuse to hand him over, he is constrained not to tick them off. The U.S. warned the Taliban again last week to expect harsh reprisals if bin Laden acts. They responded that he cannot even use fax or phone to direct his enterprises, but U.S. officials don't believe it.

What Washington does claim is that American intelligence has taken down more than two dozen of bin Laden's cells in the past two years. In the summer of 1998, the U.S. got wind of a serious plot against the U.S. embassy in Tirana, Albania, evacuated the facility and worked with Albanian authorities to corral the suspects. Last fall in Germany, local authorities arrested a man thought to be bin Laden's head of procurement in Europe, allegedly on the prowl for weapons of mass destruction. And earlier this month, acting on a tip, Jordan rounded up 13 terrorists with possible links to bin Laden who were plotting, says an Amman official, to blitz the U.S. embassy, Christ's baptismal place on the Jordan River and the tomb of Moses near Mount Nebo, all haunts of foreign tourists.

Washington insists it is watching not only bin Laden's cells but also dozens of other potentially dangerous groups from its special Counter Terrorism Center in Virginia. Though the best way to track these groups would be to infiltrate them, that poses a nearly insuperable problem. "Terrorist cells are frequently very small groups of people who are all related to each other," says a CIA defender. "You don't just suddenly make yourself a cousin of somebody."

What's scary is the unknown terrorist. Last week's case of Administration anxiety came largely from the sudden appearance of a 32-year-old Algerian named Ahmed Ressam. Trying to sneak into the U.S. from Canada, he was caught by luck as much as diligence. The 3,000-odd-mile northern border of the U.S. is as porous as Swiss cheese. Some checkpoints are screened only by video camera. The one at Port Angeles, Wash., where Ressam was arrested, might have seemed like a sleepy, lax place to cross into the U.S. But around 6 p.m. on Dec. 14, Diana Dean, an inspector working that checkpoint, was doing her usual routine for travelers getting off the ferry from Vancouver: Where are you going? What do you have with you? When she came to the man in the rented Chrysler, her attention was piqued by his shaking hands. Dean asked the man to step out of his car and set in motion the search that would send a frisson of fear all the way to Washington.

Not only did he carry several false identity cards alongside his Canadian passport in the name of Benni Noris, but the well of his car trunk revealed a chilling cache: 10 plastic bags loaded with 118 lbs. of urea, two 22-oz. jars three-fourths full of a volatile liquid similar to nitroglycerine and four small boxes containing circuit boards connecting Casio watches to 9-volt detonating devices. The man trying to enter the U.S. 17 days before the millennium was carrying enough explosive material to take out the Seattle Space Needle. He was also carrying a plane ticket to London, via New York. Target, or escape route?

According to French experts, the suspect quickly identified as Ahmed Ressam was all too familiar in Paris. Officials say he belongs to "an extremely dangerous network of Islamic fundamentalists" intent on an "international holy war." He might connect to the Armed Islamic Group, a radical group in Algeria renowned for indiscriminate and barbarous acts of violence in their quest to turn the country into an Islamic republic. But Washington wants to know very badly whether Ressam is a free-lancing foot soldier for bin Laden. The leader of Ressam's French cell has been identified as Fateh Kamel, thirtyish, an Algerian-born naturalized Canadian who later set up shop in Montreal to gather money and materiel but was arrested last April in Jordan and then extradited to France. Another member of the group, said French authorities, was Said Atmani, an Algerian zealot who may have roomed with Ressam in Montreal.

Atmani may be the man American police are still searching for: an accomplice, thought possibly to have fled from the ferry--along with "sleeper" associates already hiding somewhere in the U.S. It's likely that at least one other person would have been required to transform the volatile chemicals in Ressam's trunk into bombs. The chemistry alone could take a couple of days; the assembly process would have been tricky as well. Ressam's chosen crossing point seemed amateurish: he would stand out among the sparse travelers. And though he could be a lone crank with a totally fanciful notion of what it takes to perpetrate mayhem, if he is not, it means several other people have to be in on the plot. "It's a multiheaded monster," says a French official, adding, "There are probably other Ressams out there right now."

The Ressam in U.S. custody was charged Wednesday with five counts of activities that are possibly terror linked. He has entered a not guilty plea, and he is not cooperating with police--it took five fbi agents just to wrestle a set of fingerprints from him--and the U.S. still has no idea what he was up to. His trail through Canada includes a history of eluding authorities, acquiring the Noris passport using a fake baptismal certificate and stealing a computer from a car in 1998. But Canadian authorities who held him in jail for two weeks for the theft apparently never cross-checked his fingerprints with provincial police, immigration or international intelligence agencies. French officials complain bitterly about the "weak" and "passive" attitude of the Canadians even when visiting magistrates showed them the complete dossier on Ressam, documenting his frequent contacts with a band of gangster-terrorists who used theft to finance their plots. "They dragged their feet on everything," says a French official.

Now investigators in at least three countries are scrambling to uncover Ressam's story. Washington moved swiftly to tighten the free-and-easy border crossings with Canada. Only a few days after Ressam was caught, alarm intensified when guards at the Vermont border detained a Canadian woman trying to smuggle another Algerian with a phony French passport into the U.S. Although bomb-sniffing dogs alerted border officials to possible traces of explosives in her car, fbi tests uncovered none in the vehicle. Despite the fact that investigators have no idea whether the woman, Lucia Garofalo, was abetting terrorism, and have found no connection to Ressam, they are taking no chances. They found enough other signs for concern: her car was registered to still another Algerian, Brahim Mahdi, and her cell phone was registered in his name until last summer. He is suspected of being a member of the violent Algerian Islamic League. Mahdi denies knowing anything about the league and having connections to any terrorists.

Garofalo's lawyer says she will plead not guilty to the passport and immigration charges. "Sometimes things are not what they appear to be," the lawyer said.

All these suspicious activities pushed the U.S. State Department to issue a second travel alert for the year-end, while cities playing host to huge outdoor New Year's Eve celebrations stepped forward to promise, to the contrary, that revelers would be safe. New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani disputed the precautionary urging of former FBI official James Kallstrom to stay away from Times Square's giant party--just the kind of gathering terrorists like. "I think everybody but Jim Kallstrom is coming," snapped the mayor. Some 10,000 policemen have been ordered to mingle with the crowd while bomb-sniffing dogs will patrol the city's underground tunnels. Israel plans to deploy 12,000 security people in and around Jerusalem and other cities on New Year's Eve weekend.

The flurry, veering from caution to calm and back again, bothered some officials who feared that pronouncements urging "vigilance" contributed to the terror phobia. "It's not that there's not a significant risk out there," said a senior Pentagon official. "It's just that running around setting your hair on fire--and putting it out with a hammer--is probably not the right approach."

So what is? The Administration wants to be seen doing something, but any real counterterrorism must of necessity be kept secret. Part of the noise is psywar to put terrorist wannabes on notice, part is Washington's habitual CYA--cover your you-know-what. Says a senior U.S. official: "We don't want to get caught with our socks down again [as in Kenya and Tanzania]. If we warn people and nothing happens, they may be a little ticked off, but that's better than saying nothing if there's a chance something bad is going to happen."

--Reported by Massimo Calabresi, Viveca Novak and Mark Thompson/Washington, Thomas Sancton/Paris, Susan Kuchinskas/Seattle, Rahimullah Yusufzai/Peshawar with other bureaus

HOW U.S. AGENCIES PREVENT TERRORISM
Dozens of agencies are teaming up to prevent and combat terrorism this New Year. Here's how:

Satellite Intelligence

WHO DOES IT: CIA, NSA, NRO (National Reconnaissance Office)
HOW IT WORKS: Orbiting space satellites listen for signals and take pictures of places like Osama bin Laden's camp. The problem: they can't tell if he is home.

Infiltrate Terrorists

WHO DOES IT: CIA (abroad), FBI (at home)
HOW IT WORKS: Agencies look for potential turncoats within terrorist groups to get inside information, but this method is rarely successful. Volunteers are very hard to recruit.

Shared Intelligence

WHO DOES IT: FBI, CIA, NSA
HOW IT WORKS: The U.S. coordinates with foreign intelligence agencies on the activities, whereabouts and connections of suspected terrorists. This kind of information sharing is critical in preventing terrorism.

Monitor Ports and Borders

WHO DOES IT: Border Patrol, U.S. Customs, ATF
HOW IT WORKS: Officials check passports and other ID, question passengers and look for anyone or anything suspicious at all 301 ports of entry. Drudgery, but it's effective.

On-Site Policing

WHO DOES IT: Local police
HOW IT WORKS: Police agencies have stepped up presence in all major cities, in part to keep an eye out for terrorist activity. New York City will have 19,000 cops spread throughout the five boroughs.

TARGETS OF OPPORTUNITY?

New York City
THE SCENE: Two million people are expected in Times Square
THE PLANS: No specific threats have been received, but New York will deploy 10,000 police, and is considered the best-prepared city in the country for possible chemical, biological or other attacks

Washington
THE SCENE: The President and 100,000 people are expected on the Mall
THE PLANS: Federal agencies like the FBI will be on high alert. Some 3,500 D.C. police officers--the entire force--will be on duty on extended shifts throughout the weekend

Seattle
THE SCENE: Celebrations near the Space Needle may draw 50,000
THE PLANS: In the wake of Ressam's arrest, authorities have circled the area with fencing, canceled a pyrotechnic performance-art piece, and will do visual checks of partygoers

London
THE SCENE: The Queen and other luminaries will celebrate at the Millennium Dome
THE PLANS: Massive police presence and special permits will help British cops ensure that the event--10,000 are expected--will be as well controlled as a small party

Jerusalem
THE SCENE: 400,000 Muslim worshippers are expected at the Temple Mount and other areas
THE PLANS: Electronic surveillance and metal detectors will gird the Temple Mount. A special force will be backed by 6,400 cops and 5,500 civil guards

Rome
THE SCENE: Some 40,000 are expected at St. Peter's
THE PLANS: Police have been beefing up security in the Via Veneto and Spanish Steps areas, especially around American facilities. Bomb dogs will be at airports, train stations and major events


MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: December 31, 1999

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