Strike first, ask questions later

US policy is now to hit terrorists hard, without any legal niceties.
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The Independent Online
WHEN bombs hit the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, the Americans responded with stunning speed, launching missile attacks on Afghanistan and Sudan. But nor was retaliation slow in coming: a bomb hurled into a US-owned restaurant in Cape Town last week killed a man and injured 27 others. Twenty-one people were injured by a Tel Aviv bomb, and more attacks are confidently expected.

That is unlikely to deter the men and women who planned and directed America's military response to the embassy bombings. US officials have repeatedly said they consider this a war and they have been shifting towards a more aggressive, active and military stance for three years, amassing funds, reorganising the key agencies and putting legislation in place.

Although they moved to arrest key suspects last week, law enforcement has taken second place to military action for the first time in over a decade. But there will, as Washington acknowledges, be a price to be paid for this activism, and it remains to be seen if America and its allies are prepared to pay it.

Until this year, the US has preferred to rely on law enforcement as a means of getting back at those who strike at Americans. As the rapid arrests of two suspects in Nairobi shows, this can pay dividends. But to see the limitations of the approach, Americans had only to watch Muammar Gaddafi, live on US television on Thursday, still havering over whether two Libyan suspects in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing would be sent for trial in the Hague.

Yet it was the Lockerbie bomb which dissuaded America from using military force as an arm of counter-terrorism. During the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was in the White House, Casper Weinberger in the Pentagon, Oliver North at the National Security Council and William Casey in charge of the CIA, the military and the intelligence agencies were the first line of response. The climax of this approach came in 1986, when US aircraft launched strikes on Libya to respond to a bomb in a German disco.

But the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland two years later was a hammer blow. The US concluded that Lockerbie was a response to the Libyan raids, and that "we just set up the next round of terrorism", in the words of a former counter-terrorism official. Casey died, Ronald Reagan left the White House and the approach shifted away from the unilateral use of force to law enforcement.

The origins of the new activism go back, ironically, to the Oklahoma City bomb in 1995, an attack by Americans on Americans. There had been attacks on targets in the US before, notably the World Trade Centre bomb in February 1993, which had convinced many in the counter-terrorism business that it was time to shift tack. But the political will was not there until Oklahoma City which "really brought home to people the need to change", says one official closely involved in the change of thinking.

The year before, a panel composed of American, Russian and Israeli terrorism analysts had compiled a report called Terror 2000. Led by the futurist Marvin J Cetron and Pentagon official Peter Probst, the panel predicted an expansion of attacks on the US, both overseas and on domestic targets. Chemical, biological and nuclear weapons would be used, said the report, recommending a new, more active and more global approach to countering and deterring terrorism. But Terror 2000 was deemed so alarmist that even a revised version was dumped.

Oklahoma City brought the issues back to the top of the agenda in Washington, and particularly in the Pentagon. Mr Probst, whom one associate describes as a "strategic genius," is based in the Pentagon's Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict section, and had a good platform from which to argue for a new approach. What he and others wanted was to be proactive, rather than simply responding to each attack; to be global, using America's strengths to hit back where it chose and not just at the obvious targets; and to ignore national boundaries when states were shown to he harbouring groups opposed to the US.

Above all, the Pentagon wanted to escape what it regarded as the straitjacket of law enforcement; an approach that highlighted evidence, due process and legality. "This problem will not be solved by law enforcement alone," Roy Godson, president of the National Strategy Information Centre and a member of the Terror 2000 panel, warned in 1995.

Piece by piece, the elements of a new policy were put into place. Anti- terrorism bills were passed, funding rose rapidly and two top-secret Presidential Decision Directives on terrorism were issued, which caused widespread alarm in the law enforcement community.

A new post of National Co-ordinator for Infrastructure Protection and Counter-Terrorism was established, filled by Richard Clarke, a veteran of the National Security Council. This weakened the hold of both the Justice Department and the State Department; and it also raised some older fears. There had long been concern about the role of the NSC as a "substitute government". Now it looked as if the NSC was once again trying to "operationalise" itself, adding real powers to its co-ordinating role. Mr Clarke, it was noted, was based in Oliver North's old office in the West Wing Basement of the White House.

The outcome was a remarkable consensus within the Administration after the embassy bombs on the need for military action, unlike previous crises. It was only two weeks from the day of the bombs to the missile strikes, indicating that the plans were already well under way before August. The US had always planned to hit the factory in Sudan at some point, officials say; the link to Osama bin Laden, which seems increasingly tenuous, was a convenient justification.

Having, piece by piece, gained greater influence over counter-terrorism, the military was in a pivotal position when the US embassies in east Africa were bombed. The response showed how radically the American approach had changed, according to officials involved in counter-terrorism. Henceforth, Washington is pledged to a far more active, unilateral policy. This, said Sandy Berger, National Security Advisor, is "the long-term, fundamental way in which the US intends to combat the forces of terror". The US, he continued, "will not play passive defence".

But what price will be paid for this new surge of activism? "We're now going back to where we were" in the 1980s, says one critic of the new approach, who sees the strikes as counter-productive. They have simply invested Osama bin Laden with more glamour and more legitimacy, he suggests. "What we've just done is turn him into a household name," and, he adds, invited retaliation. "The one thing we didn't do is destroy his organisation. Now, he or someone else, will strike back."

American businesses have been jamming the switchboards at security consultants for the last month, seeking advice about how to respond. In the main, the advice is the familiar litany: tighten physical protection, be more aware of potential threats, avoid obviously dangerous places - Boeing has even advised its overseas staff to avoid "looking American".

But the Cape Town bomb shows that retaliation may come from anywhere, at any time. "You're going to have people on the edge of groups who will do things freelance," said a London security source. "If they can get access to the kit and the communications, they will go off and do something." These attacks will be much more amateurish, but also harder to predict and harder to defend against." And the chances of further attacks, he adds, are "near-certain". If war it is to be, then it is only just beginning.