The absence of terrorist strikes against U.S. targets since Iraq's seizure of Kuwait displays Saddam Hussein's iron control, with a frightening mirror image: the instant President Bush launches war to free Kuwait, anything outside the continental United States bearing an American label is in peril.
Diplomatic warnings have streamed into the State Department since August, alerting the Bush administration that U.S. Embassies are being cased by suspicious characters using video cameras. What they find out about the comings and goings of American personnel is sent to the Baghdad headquarters of Palestinian terrorist networks.
The five-month hiatus of terror certifies the Iraqi dictator's command of anti-American terrorist operations run out of Baghdad. "They were put on hold," an intelligence operative says privately. It is presumed that Saddam can take them off "hold."
It is probable that after Bush orders the first shot fired, anything that looks American throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Europe could come into the cross hairs of a rifle sight or be blown up by a car bomb. But intelligence specialists believe that the continental United States probably would be too difficult to hit.
However swift and total a U.S. military victory over Iraq may be, terror will be one of its most unpleasant and least avoidable adjuncts. Not only for the duration of actual hostilities but possibly for months or even years, anti-American terror is likely to persist. Nor, say specialists, can the United States and its European and Arab coalition partners do anything for self-protection except be on guard.
That is what makes reports that U.S. Embassies and installations in every European capital have been cased by terrorist groups so ominous. The purpose: to establish habits of leading officials, their times of arriving and leaving, the location of their offices and homes, the automobiles they drive and other clues to help find them -- if and when the bloodshed starts.
The videotapes and other film are believed to be sent back to Baghdad for study by agents who will carry out the terrorist raids, always different operatives from those who prepare the ground at the target points and often are unknown to them. These are "rejectionist" Palestinian groups, strongly opposed by Yasser Arafat's mainline Palestine Liberation Organization and headed by some of the most notorious names in the killing business: Abul Nidal, Abu Abbas and Abu Ibrahim.
Officials here say privately that war against Iraq will offer Saddam rare, even unique terrorist targets. In 1983 the presence of a mere few thousand Marines sent to protect Beirut after Israel's invasion of Lebanon resulted in 241 Marines killed in a single blast. In contrast, prime targets in Saudi Arabia will abound.
The terrorists will start with the military (first, Marines and soldiers), then hit oil wells and pipelines, water supplies, rear-guard concentrations of troops and any "unprotected" target, such as American-owned corporate buildings in Riyadh.
Although some officials disagree, some reports from pro-U.S. Gulf states say the American rear will be exposed to attacks from groups and agents in Yemen independent of Saddam. Much more populous than Saudi Arabia, Yemen has old scores to settle with Riyadh and its friends.
The last time a Mideast war produced an anti-American flood of terror came when Israel swept to the Suez Canal in the 1967 Six Day War. American citizens and installations were hit worldwide, although the United States was not involved in that war except as a bystander rooting for Israel.
It is not necessary to accept the judgment of terrorist specialists that Saddam can control Baghdad-based agents wherever they operate. Whether he does or not, war in itself can convert much of the Arab world into a place of quicksand for Americans long after Bush has disposed of his enemy in Baghdad.