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Former head of US counter terrorism Steven Simon
analyses the threat posed by terrorist groups
 real 28k

Friday, 24 December, 1999, 12:22 GMT
Analysis: US faces up to terror threat

1998: US embassies in Africa targeted

By the BBC's Jonathan Fryer

The US authorities are taking the possibility of a terror campaign over the holiday period very seriously.

Until recently, the main concern about the end of 1999 was the so-called millennium bug.

But just when advanced industrialised societies such as the United States were congratulating themselves on having installed the necessary precautions to stop that happening, a new worry is besetting Washington - the possibility of terror attacks on US targets, by Islamic extremists.

"We do have specific information, and we're working to counter the threats," said James Foley, deputy spokesman at the White House.

"The information that we have does indicate that the potential attacks are related to end-of-year celebrations during the New Year and the Ramadan period."

This year, the Islamic holy month of Ramadan coincides with Christmas and the Western New Year. Although for most Muslims, Ramadan is a time for daytime fasting and prayerful reflection, counterbalanced with joyful evening breaking of the fast, some militants have carried out violent action during Ramadan in the past, notably in Algeria.

Terrorism difficult to predict

Bin Laden: Viewed by US as a major terrorist threat
By its very nature, terrorism is difficult to predict, both in form and location. But US and European intelligence reports have made the US authorities particularly wary of the possibility of letter bombs being sent to US addresses from Germany.

"There's information, and its credible. We're not really getting into the details of that, but it's credible enough for us to institute these relatively extraordinary security measures," said Dan Mihalko, a spokesman for US Postal Inspectors.

"We're looking at all the mail coming from Frankfurt, Germany, that's coming into the specific gateway airports. So we have post inspectors x-raying the mail."

A major focus of the US concern has been the possibility that supporters of the multimillionaire Saudi Islamic militant Osama Bin Laden, whom the Americans tried unsuccessfully to bomb out of Afghanistan last year, will carry out an attack, knowing they will be guaranteed worldwide publicity.

"The United States says: look, Osama Bin Laden has been on record as calling for action against American targets in this holiday period approaching the Millennium. So they're naturally taking it seriously," said BBC Washington correspondent Rob Watson.

Over the past two weeks, two Algerians have been taken into custody in separate incidents in the United States, and the borders with Canada and Mexico are being carefully watched to make sure no more slip in. US prosecutors suspect links between the detainees and Algerian terrorist groups.

"There are a number of issues that the government wants to explore, particularly any connections that may exist between these defendants and other organisations that we have concerns about," said US attorney Charles Zetlaff.

Public told to be vigilant

As the authorities cannot keep an eye on everything and everywhere themselves, US Defence Secretary William Cohen is asking the general public to be vigilant during the holidays, while at the same time not wishing to alarm them.

"They should be somewhat on the lookout for suspicious activity," said Mr Cohen.

"But basically, they should carry through their plans, and understand that we're cooperating with all the countries and sharing intelligence with them. So we're doing our level best to make sure that they're safe and secure."

However no government can guarantee complete safety and security, where terrorism is concerned.

"No one can guarantee that nothing will happen," admitted President Clinton. "All I can say is that we are working very hard.

"My advice to the American people would be to go on about their business and do what they intend to do at the holiday season. But be a little more aware of people and places where they find themselves. And if you see something suspicious, well call us and let us know. Call the authorities."

For many Americans, this whole business may just turn out to be yet another reason to stay snugly at home over the Christmas and New Year period, eating, drinking and being merry.

But as Ramadan does not end until about January 8, the exact date depending on the moon, they should maybe not drop their guard too soon.

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See also:
24 Dec 99 |  Americas
US warns of bomb threat
24 Dec 99 |  World
In pictures: World on alert
12 Nov 99 |  Americas
FBI reorganises to combat terror
09 Oct 99 |  Africa
US embassy bombing suspect in court
06 Aug 99 |  South Asia
Osama bin Laden: America's most wanted

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