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THE WORLD AFTER 9/11 : The Truck Bomb Threat

Impervious Shield Elusive Against Drive-By Terrorists

By Spencer S. Hsu and Sari Horwitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 8, 2004; Page A01

Government bomb technicians have packed Chevrolet sedans, Dodge vans and Ryder trucks with 10 tons of explosives and have blown them up in the desolate New Mexico desert hoping to analyze the flight of debris over the sand.

Federal agents in Front Royal, Va., have trained more than 400 Labrador retrievers to sniff out the chemical compounds used in 19,000 separate explosives formulas.

A D.C. police officer finishes inspecting a truck near the IMF building in Northwest Washington. Last week's orange alert bulletin noted that "there is no standard type of vehicle associated with" a car bomb and urged special attention to limousines as well, which often get close access to buildings. (Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)

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Law enforcement officers have left thousands of calling cards across the country -- from a farmer's co-op store in McPherson, Kan., to a chemical company in West Haven, Conn. -- asking sales managers to report unusual interest in fertilizer or other components of homemade bombs.

The United States has spent more than $1 billion on these and other efforts to stop a single threat: the explosion of a car or truck bomb at a government installation or other structure. But 11 years after Muslim extremists used an explosives-laden van to attack the World Trade Center and nearly three years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, even senior federal agents acknowledge that the country has virtually no defense against a terrorist barreling down the street with a truck bomb.

"If a person doesn't care about dying, they can pull right up to a building, push a button and the building would go," said Michael E. Bouchard, assistant director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. "That's why we have checkpoints and try to keep large vehicles away from buildings."

The government has been racing to devise ways to systematically detect and warn against plotters creating truck bombs. But those efforts are embryonic at best, government officials say, even as al Qaeda and other Islamic extremists have used the truck bomb time and again overseas and the threat to use it here is growing.

The frustrating struggle to thwart terrorists' low-tech, low-cost weapon of choice provides a case study of America's challenge in waging the fight in the post 9/11 world -- a fight in which the enemy is hiding and the traditional role of soldiers and weapons takes a back seat to intelligence and prevention.

It is a war in which the United States, with all its technological and economic advantages, has been unable to develop protection against a self-taught bomber assembling large amounts of explosives in secret, acquiring a vehicle and fading into the landscape before detonating a payload.

Since the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the government has hardened federal buildings and military facilities at home and abroad; passed laws restricting the sale of explosives and shipments of hazardous materials; inspected thousands of people who deal with explosives; and researched explosive-detection and vehicle-disabling technology. But the only foolproof defense was on display last week, when heavily armed police sealed off buildings, roads and bridges in Washington, New York and Newark after the government issued an elevated terror alert focusing on five financial institutions.

The threat of truck bombs underscores the ways terrorists can turn America's economic strength and freedoms against itself, academic experts say.

"The challenge is to provide a level of security that does not impede normal life and commerce, which would achieve the terrorists' aims without even launching an attack," said Bruce Hoffman, author of "Inside Terrorism" and head of the Washington office of the Rand Corp., a nonprofit think tank.

In a society based largely on the free movement of information, bombmakers acquire their expertise from chemistry texts, the Internet or each other. Taking advantage of a giant economy that depends on efficiency, they can buy or steal bomb components and obtain vehicles without fear of regulation while security measures are resisted by many farmers, truckers, city planners and citizens. They exploit free movement of people through states and cities, requiring society to undertake extraordinary surveillance and spend large amounts of time and effort to find them.

"What do you do when you have whole cities built up with no regard to this threat?" asked Daniel Benjamin, former counterterrorism director at the National Security Council. "Are we going to turn Lower Manhattan into a pedestrian zone?"

Counterterrorism experts say the threat is especially striking because al Qaeda and other Muslim extremists have demonstrated mastery of the weapon. Since the first World Trade Center attack was plotted by Ramzi Yousef with 1,200 pounds of chemical explosives tied to Casio watch timers in a rented Ford van, al Qaeda cells perpetrated simultaneous truck bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, blew up three housing compounds in Saudi Arabia in May 2003, attacked resorts in Bali and Jakarta and carried out multiple bombings in post-war Iraq.

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