New year's evil?
Federal agents are scrambling to stop a new Y2K worry: terror
By JOHANNA MCGEARY
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
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
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
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
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
HOW U.S. AGENCIES PREVENT TERRORISM
Dozens of agencies are teaming up to prevent and combat
terrorism this New Year. Here's how:
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.
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.
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.
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
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
THE SCENE: The President and 100,000 people are expected on the
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
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
THE SCENE: The Queen and other luminaries will celebrate at the
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
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
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
MORE TIME STORIES:
Cover Date: December 31, 1999