Terror Strikes
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  Continued from Page One

The Rome and Vienna massacres, which killed five Americans, followed closely upon a highly publicized hijacking by the ANO and other attacks by terrorists in the Middle East. Soon after, the United States put economic sanctions into effect against Libya, accusing the country and Gadhafi of supporting Abu Nidal.

In Gadhafi, U.S. officials had found an identifiable enemy – a radical outcast whose vocal anti-U.S. stance and unwavering support for Abu Nidal made him stand out among other state sponsors such as Syria's Hafez Assad, Iraq's Saddam Hussein and Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini.

"What always frightened people about Abu Nidal was that he was not predictable when he was going to strike and he was so ferocious in the attack." — Vincent Cannistraro, former head of counterterrorism at the Central Intelligence Agency.

Gadhafi, relatively isolated in the Arab world, was also the most vulnerable to U.S. retaliation. Following the deadly 1986 bombing of a disco in West Berlin frequented by American soldiers – one that U.S. and German officials blamed on Libyan agents – the United States sent dozens of warplanes on two bombing raids of Benghazi and Tripoli. The Tripoli and Benghazi raids killed Gadhafi's daughter and wounded two of his children.

U.S. officials said after the airstrikes that they had been tipped off to the Libyan disco bombing beforehand, intercepting a conversation with Gadhafi in which the Libyan leader was said to order the attack. The agents, however, could not alert U.S. forces in the region in time.

To the frustration of U.S. officials, agents would undergo a similar experience apparently involving the Middle East radicals again in 1988. Following the downing of an Iranian airliner over the Persian Gulf that year by the USS Vincennes, which killed 290 civilians, U.S. intelligence began receiving rumblings about an alleged plot by Iran and a Palestinian terrorist group to retaliate against a U.S. airliner.

According to U.S. intelligence, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC) had established a terrorist cell in Frankfurt, Germany, to carry out the operation on behalf of Iran. Through a mole, U.S. and Western officials learned that the Frankfurt cell had begun experimenting with planting altimeter-sensitive bombs in various radio-cassette players and televisions. These devices that could be easily placed undetected in luggage compartments of airplanes and explode when the target aircraft reached a certain altitude.

The West German intelligence service raided the cell's base in October 1988 arresting all but one of the perpetrators, who left a day earlier, and seizing all but one of the bombs. The operation, known as Autumn Leaves, seemed successful. But in December, Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people – victims of a bomb packed in a Toshiba radio-cassette player.

Lockerbie Bombing
December 1988
  By 1991, investigators had traced the bombings to two Libyan agents, who intelligence officials believe had carried out the operation using the techniques and intelligence of the PFLP-GC's Frankfurt cell. In April 1999, more than 10 years after the Lockerbie incident, the two Libyan agents were handed over to a special Scottish court set up in the Netherlands for trial.

U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies moved in a relatively coordinated fashion following the Pan Am blast, a turnabout from the Hezbollah days. One key, U.S. officials say, was that Congress had significantly ramped up spending for counterterrorist activities after the Beirut attacks – money that allowed for the construction of a new counterterrorism center at the CIA by 1987. Intelligence analysts later credited the center for helping to coordinate information collected by the CIA, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other agencies during the Lockerbie investigation.

As the U.S. government expanded its resources to counter attacks, key developments continued to shape the terrorism landscape. The 1989 death of Iran's Khomeini allowed for a relative warming in the relationship between the United States and Iran, some experts say, ushering in a series of more moderate leaders. Iranian leaders continued their terrorist ways, according to intelligence specialists, maintaining their hatred of the United States and their alliances with terrorists hatching anti-U.S. plots. But Americans would not be subject to the same flurry of attacks from Iranian-backed groups as they had been in the early 1980s, these experts say.

By the end of the decade, attacks against the United States from Libya and Abu Nidal had also begun to slow. Diplomatic isolation from the West and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 had severely impacted Libya and other state sponsors, drying up funds that had long been used to train, arm, and assist terrorists. The older leftist Palestinian groups like the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine had begun to fade, while more radical Islamic fundamentalist organizations garnered strength.

World Trade Center
World Trade Center
February 1993
  Such events helped usher in a new era in the American fight against terrorism. On February 26, 1993, terrorists detonated a huge bomb underneath the World Trade Center in New York. Never before had perpetrators taken such a huge risk to carry out such a large attack in the United States; six were killed and thousands injured in what would be (until the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing) the worst act of terrorism on American soil.

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