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1996 In Review: U.S. Fought Terrorism At Home And Abroad

Washington, 30 December 1996 (RFE/RL) -- The bombing of a U.S. military housing complex in Saudi Arabia, the investigation of the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City, a bomb explosion during the Summer Olympic Games, and a flurry of counterterrorism legislation in Congress and abroad made 1996 a busy year of fighting terrorism for the United States.

President Clinton set the tone early in the year for his administration's determined efforts to combat terrorism. He signed into law the "Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996." That came one year after a U.S. government office building was blown up in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people.

The legislation was aimed primarily at stopping domestic terrorism. It was a direct result of the bombing in Oklahoma City. After the disaster, Clinton ordered U.S. federal law enforcement agencies to determine what they needed to fight terrorism at home. Until this legislation was passed, the United States had no federal guidelines for fighting domestic terrorism, although laws were already in place for combatting terrorism abroad.

This new law grants broad power to law enforcement agents to fight domestic terrorism. Provisions of the law, among other things, ban fundraising in the United States that supports terrorist activities. It also allows the United States to deport or bar terrorists from American soil without being legally compelled to divulge classified information. It also requires plastic explosives to contain special chemical tags that make them easier to trace, and it forbids the sale of defense goods and services to countries the American president determines do not "cooperate fully" with U.S. anti-terrorism efforts.

The new legislation also imposes stiff penalties, including the death penalty, of convicted terrorists.

Two prominent cases are pending in the United States to which the new legislation could apply. One is the "Unabomber" case where suspect Theodore Kaczynski is accused of mailing bombs that killed three people and injured 23 between 1978 and 1995. The other is the trials of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, both suspected of bombing the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. If convicted, all could face the death penalty.

But terrorism against American citizens in 1996 was not restricted to U.S. soil. President Clinton was reminded of the vulnerability of U.S. citizens abroad, especially those serving in the military, when in June a powerful bomb exploded just outside a military housing complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing 19 Americans.

Clinton called the attack "brutal" and "cowardly" and vowed to do everything in his power to discover who was responsible.

Clinton also used the world economic summit to press the urgency of combatting terrorism. His efforts resulted in a ministerial meeting that was held in Paris in July to which Clinton sent Attorney General Janet Reno.

However, by the time the meeting took place, two more incidents had occurred, both on U.S. soil. First was the July 17 crash of an American airliner, TWA Flight 800, which killed all 230 persons on board. Many people initially considered the crash to be the result of an act of terrorism, although recently, investigators have said they think the tragedy was the result of mechanical failure. Still, the event riveted public attention once again on the issue of domestic terrorism.

The other incident took place on July 28 at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, in the U.S. state of Georgia, where a crude pipe bomb filled with nails and shrapnel exploded in Centennial Olympic Park, killing one person and injuring hundreds more. A Turkish reporter rushing to the scene died of a heart attack, presumably brought on by the explosion.

Investigators of the bombing in Centennial Park were able to employ the broad new powers granted to them by the 1996 legislation. However, federal authorities have been criticized for the overzealous handling of one suspect, Richard Jewell, the security guard who initially found the knapsack containing the bomb. To date, no one has been charged with the bombing.

By the time the July Ministerial Meeting on Counterterrorism took place in Paris, world attention was focused on terrorism. The United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia all quickly endorsed 25 explicit ways to enhance cooperation in the fight against terrorism and transnational crime and urged all nations to do the same.

The most notable measures agreed to were: declaring terrorist bombings an international crime; criminalizing possession of biological weapons; setting strict uniform standards for airport bomb detection and heightened security measures at airports; organizing methods to track more closely the manufacture, sale, transport and resale of explosives; tightening border controls; stopping terrorists from using encryption, and preventing terrorists' fundraising.

U.S. Attorney General Reno praised the international cooperation in her statement to the ministers: "This conference has shown us that terrorism must be every nation's concern -- and that we stand united in our desire to defeat it. We have committed to seek out and stop terrorists who move silently across borders, applying their trade on innocent people. Terrorism is designed to send a loud message from a small voice -- to drive proud nations to alter their course in tribute to invisible tyranny. Today we have stood together, resolute in our determination to refuse to let this happen."

The United States also spent part of 1996 developing strategies for dealing with the growing threat of cyberterrorism. In June a Senate Subcommittee on Investigations published the results of an eight-month study that concluded that the United States has created an electronic infrastructure critically vulnerable to terrorist-style attacks.

The areas identified most at risk: large corporations, government agencies (including the military), phone companies, banks, transportation systems and power stations. A research survey conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Computer Security Institute acknowledged that more than 42 percent of the respondents admitted at least one serious attack on their computer system within the past 12 months. The U.S. Department of Defense suffered as many as 250,000 intrusions on its computer system, double the amount from the previous year.

Military experts are particularly concerned about the possibility of Information Warfare or InfoWar -- a specialized computer attack via phone lines intended to create a mass disruption of society.

A study of InfoWar by the California-based Rand Corporation published in 1995 cited scenarios where computer terrorists were able to re-route trains on collision courses, destroy records of major financial institutions (including those of the U.S. stock market), order the shutdown of power stations and disable various communication and transportation networks.

As a result of the Senate Subcommittee's study, in July President Clinton ordered that a Infrastructure Protection Task Force be set up under the direction of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It will be devoted to coordinating U.S. response to terrorist attacks and improve infrastructure security against electronic intrusions. Clinton also ordered the formation of a presidential commission that will conduct a one-year study of the vulnerabilities of the nation's critical electronic infrastructures, especially those dealing with telecommunications, banking, defense and transportation systems.

The FBI defines terrorism as the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, a civilian population or any segment to further political or social objectives.

Although terrorism kills relatively few people, compared to other forms of violence, it provokes deep fear and anxiety because its victims are primarily innocent civilians, and the terrorist often strikes randomly and without warning.