A Meek Response Invites Terror

Wall Street Journal-Europe (editorialpage),

August 11, 1998

(a slightly abridged version of this article appeared in theU.S. edition on Aug. 12)

© Copyright 1998 by Kenneth R. Timmerman


Last Friday's simultaneous bombings against U.S. Embassy buildingsin Kenya and Tanzania are ample proof that the U.S. is facing alarge, sophisticated terror network that most likely benefits fromthe assistance of a state. "We stand united against terrorism,"President Clinton declared on Saturday. But unless that "stand" isaccompanied by a willingness to retaliate, such words will onlyembolden terrorists and the states that give them support.

While there are as yet no clear fingerprints on last week'sattacks, a lineup of the usual suspects would include, of course,Saddam Hussein's Iraq. But though Baghdad cannot be counted out, ithas no record of carrying out attacks such as these. Syria is anothersuspect, especially given its unflagging support for groups such asHezbollah and Hamas and the current deadlock in the peace talks withIsrael. And then there's Libya, though Tripoli's sponsorship ofterrorism against U.S. targets has been diminished by United Nationssanctions and by President Reagan's 1986 raid in retaliation for aterrorist bombing in Berlin.

Not Easily Cowed

But no one should forget the Islamic Republic of Iran, whoserulers may not be so easily cowed as Libya's Col. Moammar Gadhafi.Iran has not felt the sting of U.S. retaliation since Mr. Reagan sanktwo thirds of its navy in 1987 in response to Iranian attacks oncivilian maritime traffic in the Persian Gulf. The Islamic regimestill bears a grudge for the accidental U.S. shooting of an Iran Airjetliner over the Persian Gulf in 1988, which killed more than 200Iranians. Tehran still believes the shooting was intentional.

Despite the attention given to Iranian "moderates" and a thawingof U.S.-Iranian relations, it is plausible that Iran could be behinda terrorist attack on U.S. targets. Indeed, the bombings may be adeliberate attempt by Iran's radical clerics to reverse the thawstart by President Mohammed Khatami.

Mr. Khatami has taken a courageous stand in favor of civilliberties and the rule of law, and is seeking Western investment anda rapprochement with the United States. But he is being opposed everystep of the way by Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i,who retains control of the military, internal security, theintelligence services, and the foreign terrorist apparatus. Mr.Khamene'i and his allies are desperately seeking to frustrate aU.S.-Iranian dialogue, which they perceive as a threat to their ownpower.

Numerous Iranian defectors, including a former top-rankingintelligence operative known as Abolghassan Mesbahi, have providedWestern intelligence services with detailed and strikingly similaraccounts of how Iran uses non-Iranians to carry out terroristoperations around the world. Just two weeks before the twin embassyblasts, 22-year old defector Ahmad Rezai, the son of formerRevolutionary Guards commander Maj. General Mohsen Rezai, told methat Mr. Khamene'i and claimed former President Rafsanjani hadpersonally ordered terrorist attacks.

One of the Iranian regime's goals, repeatedly publicly byofficials at every opportunity, is to drive the United States fromPersian Gulf. According to Mr. Rezai, it was for this reason thatregime hard-liners ordered the bombing of the Khobar Towers buildingin Dhahran, Saudi Arabia in 1996 that killed 19 U.S. servicemen. Mr.Rezai says that his father (who is stillin Iran, and who told his sonhe fears for his life) provided him details of the bombing in thehope he would tell the story once he escaped. In the Dhahran bombing,Mr. Rezai alleges, the Iranian regime turned to Saudi and other Arabdissidents, including networks run by former Saudi financier OsamaBin Ladin.

Mr. bin Ladin has a long history of anti-U.S. attacks. Trained inthe 1980s as an anti-Soviet fighter in Afghanistan, Mr. bin Ladinsoon turned against the Saudi government and against its primarybacker, the United States, once American troops were stationed onSaudi soil to defend the Kingdom against Saddam in 1991. Aninternational investigation I conducted for the Reader's Digest(published in July) uncovered evidence not only of Mr. bin Ladin'sinvolvement in the Dhahran bombing, but of at least eight newattempts against U.S. and Saudi targets since then that were foiledby Saudi intelligence operatives. (Mr. bin Ladin has denied directinvolvement in the Dhahran bombing while applauding those who didit).

My investigation also uncovered convincing evidence that Mr. binLadin financed the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, trainingmaster-bomber Ramzi Yousef and sending him on what he hoped would bea worldwide terror spree, from New York to Manila, and finally toPakistan. This past February, Mr. bin Ladin issued a religious order,or "fatwa," telling his followers to carry out attacks againstAmerican civilians and military personnel wherever they could aroundthe world. Mr. bin Ladin commands a far-flung network of formerAfghan fighters who have been involved in terrorist attacks and"liberation" struggles from Algeria to the Philippines. According toAhmad Rezai, the Iranian government transmits orders and explosivesto the bin Ladin networks through high-level intelligence emissariesit dispatches to Syria. No orders are transmitted by telephone, forfear of U.S. communications intercepts.

Saudi dissidents close to Mr. bin Ladin told me that members ofhis networks were involved in the 1996 Dhahran bombing; some arestill being held in a Saudi jail. When the Saudis threatened toexecute them last year, the Clinton administration intervened,anxious to bring them to trial in the United States instead. U.S. andSaudi intelligence sources said that the sophisticated militarytiming device used in the Dhahran bomb was unequivocal evidence thatBin Ladin had not acted alone. "We have absolutely no doubt that Iranwas ultimately behind the bombing," a senior Saudi source toldme.

But the Clinton administration does not want evidence of Iranianterrorist activity. Intelligence information and warnings of Iranianterrorism have systematically been either ignored or overruled. Onthree separate occasions before TWA 800 went down off the Long Islandcoast in July 1996, the FBI and the Federal Aviation authorityreceived explicit warnings that Iran was planning an attack against aU.S. airliner "originating in Athens, Greece." TWA 800 arrived at JFKairport in New York from Athens, before being refued for its fatefulflight to Paris on July 17. Although one of the sources was "notdeemed credible" by U.S. intelligence agencies, a second, indepenentwarning was received of the impending attack.

TWA crash

Just two weeks ago, a former U.S. Navy pilot, William Donaldson,released a 96-page report on the TWA crash, pointing to a foreignterrorist attack. Although Mr. Donaldson's conclusion was widelycriticized before he released his report, former NationalTransportation Safety Board member Vernon L. Grose said thatlistening to Donaldson "changes my mind" about the crash. Donaldsoncited new evidence he said proved the plane was hit by two missiles,probably launched from small boats off the Long Island coast.

There is a pattern here. Time and time again, when the UnitedStates is attacked, the Clinton administration has instructed the FBIto pursue a forensic investigation aimed at making a criminal case inthe U.S. courts - a standard of evidence and public disclosure thatgoes way beyond the type of proof needed for effective foreign policyor national defense. Terrorism is a criminal act, and the courts arean appropriate venue for justice. But terrorism sponsored by aforeign government is also an act of war. If solid evidence this timepoints to Iran, its government must pay a high price.

Mr. Timmerman is an investigative reporter for the Reader'sDigest, and publishes The Iran Brief, a monthly investigativenewsletter in Washington, DC