US boosts anti-terror tactics, urges caution for holidays

Los Angeles Times - Monday, December 20, 1999


WASHINGTON--A senior White House official Sunday urged Americans at home and abroad to "be vigilant" amid an expanding international effort to keep fugitive extremist Osama bin Laden and other terrorists in check during the holidays.
     The official concern is sharpened by the fact that the Muslim holy season of Ramadan coincides with celebrations marking the turn of the century and the second millennium of Christianity--a convergence that authorities fear will entice extremists abroad and at home to take drastic action.
     "As we head towards the new year, the millennium, the end of Ramadan, this is a period of heightened risk of terrorist actions involving Americans," said White House National Security Advisor Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger. "Americans should be vigilant as they go about their plans" for the new year.
     Berger said on the CBS program "Face the Nation" that the government is not aware of "specific threats against particular targets in the United States." The State Department had previously warned Americans traveling abroad to keep a low profile.
     Berger said no conclusions had been drawn about the motives or intended target of Ahmed Ressam, 32, the Algerian arrested last week on suspicion of trying to smuggle explosives from Canada into the Seattle area. Although U.S. officials declined to comment, a massive search is believed to be underway for a possible accomplice or accomplices, because Ressam is suspected of acting as a courier for an unknown terrorist group and because he did not have all of the elements needed to make a bomb.
     The United States is trying to determine if Ressam was acting at the behest of Bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi radical who is wanted for allegedly ordering the bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania last year.
     Bin Laden is believed to be in Afghanistan, and his main access to the rest of the world is thought to be through supporters in Pakistan.
     The government of Pakistan has announced that it is tightening security at its airports in a bid to constrict the freedom of movement of Bin Laden's supporters.
     "We don't want terrorism in our country against the Americans, nor do we want our soil used for any such activity abroad," a Pakistani intelligence official told Associated Press on Sunday.
     The news agency reported that Pakistani authorities have arrested more than 200 Bin Laden supporters who they say they feared might try to attack U.S. citizens. The arrests were made during night-time raids in the capital of Islamabad and in Peshawar, a region that borders Afghanistan.
     However, a State Department official said the roundup was apparently not a crackdown on suspected terrorist sympathizers but was instead related to a local criminal investigation.
     Last month, rockets were fired at U.S. and U.N. buildings in Islamabad two days before international sanctions intended to force Afghanistan to turn over Bin Laden went into effect. Last week, Pakistan extradited a Bin Laden associate to Jordan.
     "We have had a very aggressive campaign against [Bin Laden] over the last year and a half," Berger said. "We've taken down a number of his cells around the world."
     Officials say one such cell was broken up in Jordan, where 13 alleged associates of Bin Laden were recently detained.
     Ressam's arrest in the United States--and his possible Bin Laden connection--has expanded the range of domestic anti-terrorism efforts over the New Year's holiday. Previously the FBI had said it was chiefly concerned with home-grown fanatics and Christianity-based cults harboring apocalyptic beliefs about the Second Coming. Now some of the emphasis has shifted to Middle East extremists.
     The FBI is expected to update the public as early as today regarding its plans to cope with the threat. A bureau spokesperson said Sunday that all 56 field offices will be staffed and ready, in addition to a national command center in Washington and an FBI presence at the government's year 2000 headquarters.
     "We'll be telling people where the FBI stands in its preparations, just to allay the fears of the public," the official said. "People should be fully aware of their own safety and take precautions in open areas where large groups of people have gathered."
     Revelers should be aware that this is not just another New Year's, suggested Berger. "If they see something suspicious, or see packages or activities that they think are unusual, they should obviously let law enforcement people know," he said.
     But the warnings are "a yellow light, not a red light," Berger added. "People should be cautious." Those planning to travel abroad should check with a U.S. consulate or embassy at their destination to see if there are localities they should avoid.
     Brian M. Jenkins, a Los Angeles-based counter-terrorism consultant, said the challenge facing authorities is complicated by the fact that terrorist organizations have evolved. Loosely affiliated cells have replaced older types of organizations that had clearly defined structures.
     "It's a lot more fluid than it used to be," Jenkins said. "It more closely resembles a 'terrorist Internet' as opposed to a military command structure. All of this makes it extremely difficult for the authorities to deal with."
     The many New Year's celebrations around the world create a "heightened possibility" of a terrorist act in the near future. "Extremists look for stages [upon which] to act out things," Jenkins said.
     Ressam, whose nervousness tipped off U.S. Customs inspectors and led to his arrest, may not have been ready for that macabre stage. But his criminal record may suggest the kind of loose-knit radical networking to which Jenkins referred.
     Montreal police said Ressam has been convicted of stealing computers and cell phones, allegedly as part of an Algerian ring that sold the electronics and sent the money to militant Islamist organizations abroad.
     Police have said they believed the ring was linked to Lebanon's Hezbollah, or Party of God, and not bin Laden.
     And Hezbollah also has a motive to attack Americans: Officials say the organization may attempt to retaliate against the United States for brokering the Israel-Syria peace talks.

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