Security Officials Trying to Identify Culprit
By Steven Mufson
When Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, was captured in Pakistan and flown into New York City in a helicopter, he wistfully told the Federal Bureau of Investigation agents with him that if he had enough money and a big enough bomb, he could have taken down one of the towers.
This morning other terrorists did just that, in what Robert Blitzer, the former head of domestic counter-terrorism for the FBI, said was “a major act of war.”
But war with whom? To retaliate, the United States must first figure out who committed these acts of terrorism. And the Bush administration and counter-terrorism experts today were trying to figure out whether Yousef’s comrades in the Osama bin Laden organization were behind it or whether some other group was to blame.
“We don’t know anything here. We’re watching CNN too,” said an official at the National Security Council, where the top counter-terrorism expert Richard A. Clarke was holed up in the situation room.
“In effect, the country’s at war but we don’t have the coordinates of the enemy -- yet,” said Leon Fuerth, a professor at George Washington University and former national security adviser to former Vice President Al Gore.
Suspicions turned immediately to the former Saudi businessman Osama bin Laden, who has been coordinating terrorism attacks against the United States from bases in Afghanistan and who the United States tried unsuccessfully to target in cruise missile attacks during President Bill Clinton’s administration.
“My view is it’s probably a bin Laden operation, given the complexity of the operation and given the targets’ high visibility,” said Blitzer, who noted that bin Laden has issued calls for his followers to bring war home to Americans. And many other terrorism experts said that the nature of the attacks -- coordinated, probably involving pilots, involving people willing to commit suicide during the attacks and requiring substantial financial resources -- pointed to bin Laden, Iraq or some other similar group.
But other security experts warned against leaping to judgment, noting that the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 that was carried out by Americans was initially suspected to be the work of foreign agents.
When the United States figures out who to blame, however, the retaliation is likely to be fierce and may call for a new level of mobilization by U.S. forces.
“This is the Pearl Harbor of American terrorism,” said Larry Johnson, a former CIA and State Department terrorism official. “Just as occurred with Pearl Harbor, we’ll get through this. But as Pearl Harbor awakened the United States to a war that it was unwilling to fight, this will have a similar effect. These groups that have called for killing Americans and gone unscathed are going to pay the price. We will overcome the grief, but after the grief, there’s a rage.”
Fuerth warned that Americans will have to control that rage. “This is a situation, depending on how it evolves, that may test American principles very severely because of the desire to strike out against whoever is responsible,” Fuerth said. “We’re going to want to strike out quickly and very powerfully. We have to make as sure as we can that we have gone through very carefully what to do before we execute. But then we must act with great decisiveness and tenacity.”
“We’ve witnessed a turn in history,” said retired ambassador Morton Abramowitz, former head of intelligence and research at the State Department. “And the way the United States will look at the world for a long time to come.”
Abramowitz also called the failure of the United States to have advance warning of the attacks, especially given their widespread nature and sophistication, a “massive intelligence failure.”
Johnson said there was no foolproof way to guard against this kind of attack. “The countermeasures required to defeat that would bring normal commercial airline service to a halt. There is always the possibility of this kind of attack.”
Fuerth said that whatever group organized these widespread attacks would fail to achieve its political objectives, however. “The United States is far more likely to be galvanized and to pull together than to be unnerved if that was the intention of whoever organized this,” he said.
Staff writer Vernon Loeb contributed to this report.