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1998 In Review: Terrorists Struck Hard

Washington, 10 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- From Africa to Afghanistan to Latin America and the Middle East, the world continued to be plagued by deadly terrorist attacks in 1998.

In 1997, according to the U.S. State Department, there were more than 300 terrorist attacks carried out worldwide, mostly bombings. Overall, a State Department report put the death toll from terrorist attacks in 1997 at 221, with more than 690 people injured.

In 1998, the previous year's casualty figures were surpassed on a single day. On August 7, two nearly simultaneous bombings at U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya killed more than 260 people -- including 12 Americans -- and injured more than 5,000 others.

Just a week later in Northern Ireland, a terrorist group calling itself "The Real I.R.A." set off a powerful bomb in the town of Omagh. Twenty-eight people were killed and 220 injured in the single worst attack in 30 years of sectarian violence in the British-ruled province. A search is still underway for those responsible.

In the case of the U.S. embassy bombings in Africa, a complaint was filed by U.S. federal prosecutors in August claiming that suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden and his organization al Qaida directed the attacks as part of an anti-American terrorist campaign. Bin Laden, a Saudi Arabian multi-millionaire who is said to be living in Afghanistan, denies any involvement.

Yonah Alexander, director of Terrorism Studies at George Washington University in Washington, told RFE/RL that the two embassy bombings were clearly the most significant international terrorist acts of 1998.

He noted that while many other terrorist acts occurred in the Middle East, Latin America, Turkey, Algeria, India, Bosnia and even France, the bombings of the U.S. embassies was "by far" the most damaging and destructive.

Alexander said it was significant that while the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) immediately undertook a massive investigation, the American military also struck back with force. U.S. missiles were fired at suspected al Qaida terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and at a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan the U.S. said was producing chemical weapons.

Alexander said, "(The U.S. strikes) elevated the terrorist threat to a war framework from both the terrorist point of view and the U.S. point of view."

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright strongly defended the U.S. action in a statement several days after the military strikes.

Albright said: "Terrorists should understand that America will use every available diplomatic, judicial, economic and, when necessary, military tool to protect our people. We will not be intimidated by terror; we will not shrink from our responsibilities; and we are determined that sooner or later, one way or another, terrorists will be held accountable for their crimes."

The U.S. investigation into the bombings proceeded quickly. By the end of August, the FBI -- in cooperation with Kenyan and Tanzanian authorities -- arrested and charged two men with participating in the bombings. They are currently in the U.S. awaiting trial.

One month later, American authorities arrested another suspect, a U.S. citizen who once served as bin Laden's personal secretary. Other persons with alleged connections to bin Laden have also been arrested in Germany and Great Britain.

The U.S. State Department announced in November that it would pay up to five million dollars to anyone providing information that would lead to the arrest and/or conviction anywhere in the world of bin Laden and his military commander, Mohammad Atef. Both men have been charged in a U.S. court with the bombing of the embassies.

But George Washington University's Alexander says a rapid military response and increasing security at overseas facilities is not the only answer to fighting terrorism for any nation. He says the international community needs to improve laws regarding extradition treaties, develop ways to better enforce both political and economic sanctions, and increase the effective exchange of information.

He also warns that the world needs to become more focused on the possibility that terrorists might soon use weapons of mass destruction.

"The point really is that terrorism is becoming a permanent fixture of international life. My concern is that we have to consider not only the conventional threats or attacks such as bombings and suicide bombings, but the escalation to biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, which is clearly a feature of the future."

The U.S. is clearly emphasizing the need for global cooperation on fighting terrorism. U.S. President Bill Clinton made it the focal part of his address to the opening of the 53rd session of the U.N. General Assembly in September.

Clinton said: "It is a grave misconception to see terrorism as only or even mostly an American problem. Indeed, it is a clear and present danger to tolerant and open societies, and innocent people everywhere."