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U.S.: Afghanistan, Iran Pose Biggest Terrorist Threat

The United States ambassador-at-large for counterterrorism, Michael Sheehan, has released a post-millennial terrorism review in which he brands Afghanistan and Iran as the two greatest threats to American security and interests. Sheehan was addressing a policymaker series Thursday at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Washington, 11 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Ambassador Michael Sheehan, whose office develops, coordinates and implements U.S. counterterrorism policy, organized his remarks yesterday (Thursday) around three key themes: the impact of terrorism, its changing face, and what the U.S. can and will do to combat it.

Sheehan said the most obvious result of terrorism is the tragic loss of human life and property. But beyond that, he said lie other detrimental effects. In the United States, he said terrorist acts cause crisis, provoke outrage, fray community ties and undermine faith in America's democratic institutions. Internationally, Sheehan said, the threat of terrorism has even broader implications:

"International terrorism conducted abroad can destroy or delay peace processes, provoke, prolong or entrench conflicts, and otherwise accelerate the cycle of violence in areas of the world important to our (U.S.) national interest. Examples of these phenomena just recently include the following: The five explosions in Moscow claimed the lives of nearly 300 people and contributed to the decision-making that has driven the relentless attack by Russian troops in Chechnya."

Sheehan said terrorism can also have a disproportionate impact on national economies, as was the case in Egypt in 1996, after a small group of Al-Gamat 'Al-Islamayya operatives gunned down 58 international tourists and four Egyptians at a tourist site in Luxor. Sheehan said that in this particular case the terrorists not only achieved their goal of killing tourists, but of crippling Egypt's tourism industry.

Chillingly, America's counterterrorism ambassador predicted an increased threat to so-called "soft tourist targets" in the United States.

Sheehan later hailed what he called "significant success" in the fight against terrorism in the past 20 years, particularly against state-sponsored terrorism. But he said the challenge ahead lies in fighting a whole new breed of "freelance" terrorist:

"Today's terrorist threat comes primarily from non-state actors with few ties to governments, such as the al-Qaida network, Aum Shinrikyo in Japan, and the FARC in Columbia. Terrorists are acting more on their own and are resorting to car bombs, suicide bombings, and attacking civilian buildings and diplomatic posts. They have their own funding networks -- through narco-trafficking, private businesses, independent wealth, charities, and local financial support. They are also individually recruiting new members."

Sheehan said that in many states where the government is weak in providing basic public services, the terrorists have stepped in, creating "parallel public institutions" from schools to public health and social networks.

He said they are also exploiting volatile areas like Chechnya and Afghanistan, where local conflicts help terrorist recruitment. This infusion of resources and training in conflict-ripe areas makes for what Sheehan called a "very deadly mix."

Sheehan said Afghanistan is of primary concern because of its continued harboring of indicted terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden, wanted for masterminding the bombing of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998.

The United Nations imposed sanctions on the Taliban in November after the Islamic militia refused to hand over bin Laden. Sheehan said the Taliban had told him on several occasions since that they would like to have good relations with the United States and he said he had no reason to doubt they mean it. So what should the Taliban do? Sheehan answered:

"First, they must comply with UN Security Council Resolution 1267 and find a way to get bin Laden to justice to face charges for his terrorist crimes. They have spoken to me about several incentives on how to move forward on this issue -- and I encourage them to proceed. If they accomplish this, those sanctions will be removed. We will not move the goal posts."

On Iran, Sheehan concurred with CIA Director George Tenet's recent remark that Iran remains "the most active state sponsor of terrorism." This, Sheehan said, despite signs of change and new openness in Iran. He also said that through sanctions and diplomatic pressure, the United States had made clear to Tehran its strong objection to its support of such terrorist groups as Hezbollah, HAMAS, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

But panel member and Brooking's Research Associate Meghan O'Sullivan pointed out the trouble in merely relying on the imposition of unilateral sanctions to fight terrorism.

"Perhaps the best example of this frustrated policy would be Iran, where comprehensive, American sanctions have had very modest success in changing the behavior of the regime, or in denying the resources--such as foreign exchange--needed to carry out this behavior when our European allies have continued to trade and invest in Iran." Overall, Sheehan, O'Sullivan and others agree that the main instrument of U.S. counterterrorism -- American leadership and a policy of zero tolerance -- will remain constant.