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Sheik's Conviction Spurs Anti-terrorism Security

By Robert L. Jackson and Robin Wright
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

With the conviction of Egyptian Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman and nine other Muslim militants in a planned terrorist plot, U.S. officials are now confronting a prospect that has troubled them for months - that a new terrorist attack could be launched in revenge.

Intelligence officials and investigators are probing discreetly for clues in this country and abroad, and some believe the greatest threat may come from Egyptian militants operating out of Sudan or Arabs who fought with Afghan rebels against Soviet occupation forces.

The terrorism trial verdicts were only the latest development in an unusual confluence of events that included last week's White House signing of the Israeli-Palestinian accord, the arrival this week of Pope John Paul II for a five-day U.S. visit and - later this month - 140 world leaders converging for the 50th anniversary of the United Nations.

No specific threats have been picked up, though, and one of the continuing mysteries in such cases is which events will provoke retaliation against U.S. interests and which will not.

U.S. airports were on heightened alert Monday and U.S. embassies overseas began beefing up their protection to the highest levels since the Persian Gulf War.

At Los Angeles International Airport, managers said they had been preparing for the terror trial verdicts for more than a month - tightening access to the airfield, speeding the towing of cars left unattended at curbs and selectively X-raying packages and luggage.

All those procedures - first instituted last spring after the Unabomber threatened airliners flying in California - were re-instituted following Sunday's verdicts, officials said.

"We have been anticipating this since August," airport manager Stephen Yee said of the New York convictions. "So far there has been nothing unusual and no delays. Everything is in place."

"Certainly there is a measurable increase in the threat," said L. Paul Bremer, a former State Department official who specializes in counterterrorism. "While we don't have classically organized paramilitary groups (here in the U.S.), there may be ad-hoc groups of sympathizers meeting even now in the New York metropolitan area to take retaliatory action. But such groups may take six to eight months to develop a plan."

On the other hand, a poorly organized or poorly financed group of amateurs, angered by recent events, could lash out quickly and blindly, others said.

Noting that intelligence officers often obtain data from electronic intercepts, a senior counterterrorism official said, "There could be some spontaneous combustion that does not require a coded message. That's what makes it so difficult. An individual or cluster doing something ad hoc doesn't need to be directed by someone if you get someone who is angry enough."

Authorities said the leading hard-line group associated with Abdel-Rahman, known as the Islamic Group, might be discussing a retaliatory blow overseas. Besides his conviction for plotting to blow up the United Nations and New York area commuter tunnels, the sheik was found guilty of conspiring to assassinate Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, an avowed enemy of the Islamic extremists. This could lead to a possible life sentence for Abdel-Rahman.

At the same time, some authorities said there are mitigating factors - most notably the legal appeal process. U.S. officials explained the sheik's sympathizers may not want to do anything to jeopardize his chance of getting his conviction reversed on appeal, and Abdel-Rahman himself has urged his followers to remain calm.

Although U.S. personnel and facilities in Europe once were considered the most vulnerable targets, American counterterrorism officials said Americans in third-world sites may face the greatest dangers because of lax or corrupt security forces.

Foreign terrorists "have been looking for areas where security standards are not as tight," one official said. "As security gets tight in one area, they look for others. So no place really is safe."