Terrorism is about politics - not about police work

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OF ALL the ardent hopes that have been expressed in the White House Rose Garden, few can have been so heartfelt or hopeless as President Clinton's after Friday's embassy bombings. "These acts of terrorist violence are abhorrent, they are inhuman," he said. "We will use all the means at our disposal to bring those responsible to justice, no matter what or how long it takes."

Judged by the evidence of past such attacks, the chances of catching those responsible are slim. Nearly 10 years after the Lockerbie bomb, no one has been brought to justice. Though suspects have been identified - Libyan security officers - they remain at liberty in Libya. And there is still no agreement within the intelligence community as to whether Libya was ultimately responsible, or if Iran or Syria was involved.

First, name your suspects. So far, the US authorities have little idea of who may have actually carried out the African blasts, and they were not pretending otherwise yesterday even after teams of FBI and military investigators were flown to Kenya and Tanzania.

And even if the blasts prove to be the work of a Middle Eastern group, that hardly solves the problem. Much suspicion has settled on the Egyptian group Jihad, which, as the State Department says in its own handy reference guide, "appears" to be divided into at least two separate factions, one of which "appears" to be led by Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, "who is currently outside Egypt".

The search for a convenient name to pin on the bombs is, in any case, deeply misleading. To say that Jihad was "responsible" would be virtually meaningless. These groups do not act like football teams with clear centres of activity, regular lists of players, management and home grounds. Sometimes they work together, sometimes apart; they link up with governments, or act alone; their hierarchies are fluid.

And should identities be established, there's then the problem of finding and arresting the culprits . Despite being hunted for decades, Carlos the Jackal was finally run to ground only last year.

Though searching for the people who carried out any specific act may be a legitimate part of criminal justice, it is nearly always unsatisfying, and often misleading. It equates the acts of bombers with the Great Train Robbers, making the search for the men who planted the bomb look like a piece of police work, when behind it probably lie many individuals and groups, networked together across the globe.

The truth is that "terrorism" is about politics, and addressing the politics of a bombing is a far more complex task than simply tracking down one or two individuals. Yet unless those issues are dealt with, there will be more bombs, more deaths and more emotional speeches in the Rose Garden.