Everything's at stake in terror's wake

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Everything's at stake in terror's wake

By Abid Aslam and Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON - Tuesday's attacks against targets on US soil portend far-reaching implications for everything from US anti-terrorism efforts to global finance.

In the immediate aftermath, attention will focus on the search for culprits. Beyond this, questions will be raised about US anti-terrorism and intelligence efforts. But the fallout also will affect diverse political issues ranging from the US administration's plans for a national missile shield and its ability to foster closer international cooperation on defense and foreign policy issues, to the civil rights of Arab Americans. Initial speculation has centered on the likelihood that Islamist extremists launched the attacks.

Casualty figures from the attack on New York's World Trade Center remain to be compiled but the shock to financial markets could be severe, since the dead presumably include key personnel at the investment banks with offices in the buildings. Leading international maritime, legal, services, and manufacturing firms also had offices there.

US financial markets, closed on Tuesday, would remain closed on Wednesday. All civil aviation was grounded Tuesday and would remain so at least until noon Wednesday, the Federal Aviation Authority said. European bourses posted losses Tuesday.

An apparently related attack on the Pentagon, headquarters of the US Defense Department, could call into question the effectiveness of systems in place to prevent airborne and other attacks on sensitive federal facilities. These include a complex network of radar and ground-to-air missile installations.

If, as is now assumed, the crashes - and a fourth one involving a hijacked plane near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania - were the result of a coordinated terrorist plot, then US intelligence agencies also will face tough questioning. Tuesday's attacks took place as intelligence officials were expressing increasing confidence that they had Islamist groups associated with fugitive mujahid Osama bin Laden increasingly on the run.

As Emilio Viano, of the International and Strategic Studies Institute at American University in Washington, put it, "This is a major humiliation of the US and shows that our services in intelligence are not that good."

Assuming that blame can be assigned with certainty, Washington will be under political and psychological pressure to react decisively. When its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were attacked in 1998, it launched cruise missiles against targets in Afghanistan and Sudan.

At the time, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said the United States was engaging in "the war of the future" against "rogue nations" and the global, stateless terrorist networks they spawn or nurture: the likes of bin Laden, who has been sheltered by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Analysts, however, said the emphasis on the "rogue" nature of US foes rules out deeper analysis and limits US options in retaliatory attacks.

"Rather than simply branding our foes as rogues and crazies - which bin Laden may well be - we need to know how they get a following," University of San Francisco professor of politics Stephen Zunes told IPS. "What fans the flames?"

For example, terrorist leaders are able to exploit the popular perception of the United States as starving Iraqi children because of Washington's insistence on sweeping sanctions against the regime of Saddam Hussein, Zunes explained. At the same time, Washington is vilified for supporting Israeli military occupation and assassinations of Palestinians and Arabs and for backing autocratic and unresponsive regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Such questions notwithstanding, US officials are likely to argue that Tuesday's events warrant closer international counter-terrorism cooperation. Richard Holbrooke, Washington's former UN ambassador, said, "This requires a unified response by all the international community."

Whether Washington can leverage the cooperation it desires remains to be seen, particularly in light of a number of unpopular retreats from multilateralism. The current administration has turned its back on international treaties on small arms, anti-ballistic missiles, nuclear weapons tests, biological warfare, global warming, and racism.

US threat assessments have undergone a sea change and the Pentagon had begun to review its traditional assumption that US forces must be trained and deployed in a manner consistent with the need to fight two simultaneous conflicts of the magnitude of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. More recently, President George W Bush has sought funding for a National Missile Defense shield as well as theater missile defense systems in Asia and elsewhere.

On one hand, Tuesday's incidents will fuel critics who say such a system, designed to thwart missile attacks, would fail to protect the United States or its allies against terrorist plots. On the other hand, if it transpires that foreign governments had a hand in the latest attacks, missile defense promoters could argue that the events in New York and Washington confirm the "rogue nations" theory and therefore underscore the need for a missile shield as part of a comprehensive approach to threat management. Depending on how the political debate unfolds, this could prove a persuasive argument - particularly if opponents of missile defense are reluctant to risk appearing to be cavalier about national security.

When some in the media questioned the effectiveness of long-range interventions such as retaliatory missile strikes, Pentagon hawks seized the opportunity to advance arguments in favor of maintaining a "forward-deployed" US military presence overseas.

The impact of Tuesday's events will be extraordinary not only in policy terms, but also with respect to how US citizens feel about their own security and potential threats, especially foreign threats, against them. The precedent most cited by commentators Tuesday was the December 1941 surprise attack by Japanese warplanes against the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. That attack launched the United States into World War II, but its impact lasted far longer. "Remember Pearl Harbor" has been a mantra of the national-security state and its backers for more than 50 years, a powerful argument for spending trillions of dollars over that period to maintain the world's most potent armed forces and most lavish intelligence establishment.

Pearl Harbor led directly to the internment of Japanese Americans. American Arab and Muslim groups, noting that their compatriots had borne the brunt of US domestic opinion and law enforcement reactions to previous terrorist attacks, expressed great concern Tuesday over the new attacks and their possible consequences.

"We urge our fellow citizens not to rush to judgement and point fingers at their Arab American neighbors and colleagues who are suffering, like all Americans, from these despicable acts," said the Washington-based Arab American Institute. "Regardless of who is ultimately found to be responsible for these terrorist murders, no ethnic or religious community should be treated as suspect and collectively blamed."


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), September 13, 2001

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