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A Shadow War

By Jim Hoagland
Tuesday, September 11, 2001; 4:55 p.m.

In the first sickening and shocking moments of a day of terror unlike any the United States has ever known, the initial anonymity of those who carried out the attacks added a special horror to the carnage. All we could see in that blinding flash of multiple explosions was their suicidal, immortal hatred for America's government, financial system and people.

But the perpetrators left big fingerprints by their choice of targets, methods and goals. Eight years ago an effort to destroy the twin towers of the World Trade Center and kill hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers narrowly failed. This time the suicide bombers, using airliners as their explosives, did not miss.

The mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center plot escaped and was hatching a plan to coordinate the bombing of 12 U.S. airliners in a two-day period when he was captured in Manila in 1995 and jailed in the United States. At some level, Ramzi Yussef's earlier plots doubtlessly served as inspiration, if not first rough blueprints, for the severe body blows inflicted on America today.

The evident training, technical expertise and grim determination of the suicide assailants as well as the coordinated nature of their nearly simultaneous attacks also recall the bombing in Aden of the U.S.S. Cole a year ago and the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Both murderous assaults have been attributed to Saudi Arabian terrorist chief Osama bin Laden and his organization.

But America was left to guess in its moment of agony about the identity of its attackers today. That too has become a fingerprint. Before the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103 over Scotland, terrorists usually proudly claimed "credit" for themselves and their causes. They established proof of their responsibility and explained why it was necessary to shock the world with extreme actions.

Now the terrorist style is to remain silent, count on the United States to treat the attack not as an act of war but as a legal matter for world tribunals to resolve (as it did with Pan Am 103) or to launch poorly conceived pinprick responses by cruise missiles (as it did for the 1998 embassy bombings). The hidden hand and those who manipulate it now remain in the shadows to escape direct retaliation.

No government can cut off every avenue of possible attack. But by bringing their war to the heart of Wall Street for the second time and now to the Pentagon, the terrorists underlined how poorly prepared the United States remained even after persistent, earlier warnings that America would not escape the consequences of international turmoil.

There has been a certain complacency in the repeated assurances from officials in both the Clinton and Bush administrations that U.S. power has put its openly declared enemies abroad "in a box" from which they were powerless to strike convincingly at U.S. interests. In today's interrconnected high-tech world such a box does not exist. There is no wall over which the frustrated, the damaged, or the desperate cannot and will not climb.

This is not reason for Americans to despair or retreat from protecting their interests overseas and at home. It is in fact reason for new determination and effort: for those entrusted with leadership to shed all traces of self-protective complacency and to look clearly at the alliance of haters who are commited to breaking America's resolve with terror.

"Eight years of incomplete explanations for the first terrorist attack on the World Trade Center left the country vulnerable to this," said author Laurie Mylroie, whose book, "Study of Revenge" is a thorough examination of that attack. "We wasted eight years."

Mylroie puts Ramzi Yussef, an ethnic Baluch from Pakistan traveling on an Iraqi passport, at the center of the 1993 effort to topple the World Trade Center and spread cynide gas throughout Wall Street. It failed in part because the blast was detonated in a van parked below ground in the twin towers complex. Mylroie points a finger at Iraq's Saddam Hussein as having the most obvious motive to seek revenge on American soil with that attack.

That has yet to be proven conclusively. But Mylroie and others make a convincing case that the technical skills, coordination and resources required for mega-terror operations need the support of hostile intelligence agencies and governments with an overriding need to strike America senseless.

"People like Ramzi Yussef and Osama bin Laden have become fronts for bigger forces who help them and use them," she said. "There can be no question that Iraqi, Sudanese and other intelligence agencies have helped these two, and others. We cannot continue looking past this and treat these as isolated incidents."

The United States is engaged in a shadow war that must now be the central priority for this president and his administration for every day of his term. Waiting for America's enemies to grow weary and to go away has not worked.

2001 The Washington Post Company


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