Washignton: In the months leading up to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, the Iraqi dictator secretly built new ties with a long list of terrorist operators, U.S. intelligence agencies say.
Now he is in a position to deploy those killers and kidnapprs to strike at Americans, Europeans and moderate Arabs, if he decides to turn to the terrorist option in the Persian Gulf crisis.
U.S. officials stress that the Central Intelligence Agency and other U.S. and Allied intelligence operations haven't detected any specific terrorist moves to retaliate for President Bush's swift military deployment to the Gulf. And they are anxious to head off public alarm; portents of terrorist attacks have been wrong in the past.
But the West's counterterrorism networks have gone into high gear in the past 10 days, issuing alerts across the world and even within the U.S. Their worry has increased as analysts have revisited past intelligence reports with the advantage of handsight and concluded that, well before the invasion, the Iraqi dictator seemed to be methodically knitting together a network of old and new terrorist allies. Although for years Saddam Hussein had sat on the terrorism sidelines, even expelling some groups, now he appears in a position to get back into the game if he chooses.
By one foreign intelligence estimate, there may be as many as 1,400 active international terrorists now in Iraq, which is double the estimate of just a year ago. Any attack they might stage against Americans could put pressure on President Bush to order military retaliation, risking wider combat. `We have conveyed the message to Saddam Hussein that an act of terror will be viewed as something for which he'll be held responsible,' says a senior administration official.
Nobody in the West knows for sure whether Saddam Hussein will choose the path of terrorism. He faces political and logistical problems in using terror tactics, and a growing American military force on his doorstep. Experts warn that intelligence in this field is slippery, sometimes contradictory, and subject to differing interpretations.
However, American, French and Israeli sources familiar with intelligence on the subject say Saddam Hussein took a number of key steps earlier this year to build up his terrorist capabilities. The various spy services don't agree on all the details, but all are convinced that the terrorist pattern is real. Among the actions by Saddam Hussein they cite are these:
He began reinstalling the notorious Abu Nidal Organization in Baghdad this spring. It had been exiled for years to Libya, where it suffered a debilitating internal split. By some estimates, there now are hundreds of Abu Nidal operatives training in and around Baghdad in case they are ordered to repeat the group's earlier exploits, such as machine-gunning airports and synagogues. Abu Nidal himself may now be in Baghdad.
He gave haven to his longtime terrorist protege Abu Abbas, after Mr. Abbas publicly took responsibility for an aborted attack on an Israeli beach that forced the U.S. to end talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization. Mr. Abbas's Palestine Liberation Front is also responsible for the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship in the Mediterranean, in which a wheelchair-bound American was shot and thrown into the sea.
He permitted Yasser Arafat and the rest of the PLO leadership to move key parts of their headquarters to Baghdad from Tunis. While many PLO leaders play no direct role in terrorism, Western experts claim that Abu Iyad, an Arafat deputy who is suspected of directing the killing of a U.S. diplomat in the Sudan, is in Baghdad, along with elements of Force 17, a PLO military arm that has engaged in terrorism.
He opened contact with Ahmad Jibril, leader of the group that is believed to have blown up Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. According to French sources, Mr. Jibril was invited to open an office in Baghdad for his Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine--General Command, even though his patrons are Iraq's worst Moslem enemies: Syria and Iran. Mr. Jibril is thought to have declined, but has changed patrons before.
He may have gained a lever over another bloody group that is an unlikely ally: Lebanon's pro-Iranian Shiite Hezbollah, or Party of God. By seizing Kuwait, Saddam Hussein won control over 15 Shiite terrorists in prison there, including the brother-in-law of one of Hezbollah's most brutal operatives, Imad Mugniyah. French intelligence sources say the prisoners are now in Baghdad, and Saddam is offering to free Mr. Mugniyah's brother-in-law if Hezbollah plays ball with him. If true, that could be ominous for the six American hostages the group holds, including two controlled by Mr. Mugniyah.
He is bidding for the backing of some groups with which he doesn't appear to have made contact, by calling on devout Moslems to help him stand up to America. U.S. intelligence is especially worried that Irag may recruit the Islamic Jihad, a Lebanon-based Palestinian group that in February shot up an Israeli tourist bus in Egypt.
In addition to these contacts, two other major terrorist figures have long lived in Baghdad. One is Abu Ibrahim, the master Arab terrorist bomb-maker, who devised the hidden suitcase bomb for destroying airliners and trained others who built even smaller and cleverer bombs. Mr. Ibrahim is supposedly retired, his terror group disbanded, but he is a potential asset for Saddam Hussein.
Another terrorist based in Iraq is Abu Salim, whose group, the Popular Front for the Lberation of Palestine Special Command, claimed responsibility for the 1985 bombing of a Spanish restaurant frequented by U.S. servicemen.
Lesser groups also call Baghdad home. Iraq sponsors a marginal group called the Arab Liberation Front, and it has backed Kurdish terrorists in Turkey and Iranian terrorists in Iran.
The last time American forces were on the ground in the Mideast, it was terrorism, not conventional arms, that drove them off, through the stunning 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon.
This time, terrorists are again issuing threats. Hussein Musawi, a leader of Hezbollah, the Lebanese group that killed the 241 Marines in 1983, has called for `suicide attacks' against U.S. interests, even though his pro-Iranian group has also condemned the Kuwait invasion. Abu Abbas, the man behind the Achille Lauro hijacking, has told his followers to `strike with your strong arms at all U.S. interests.'
And, in addition to the prominent, methodical groups, experts fear that Saddam Hussein's flaming anti-American rhetoric could incite quicker, free-lance terrorism by unknown individuals.
`Saddam Hussein is building up something, obviously,' says a French terrorism expert who writes under the pen name of Xavier Raufer. `It seems that even in May and June, Saddam Hussein already had something in mind.'
Gary Sick, a former National Security Council specialist on the Gulf, thinks terrorist actions inspired by Saddam Hussein are `highly probable.' He notes: `This can be directed not only at us, but also at the Saudis and the Egyptians and all of those Arab forces who have chosen to oppose him.' In case of terrorism, he says, `Bush will find it very hard to sit still with all those forces there.'
Two days after Mr. Bush announced the U.S. intervention, the U.S. issued an innocuous-sounding travel warning that was lost in the tide of crisis coverage. `The Department of State advises that the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait may raise the risk of terrorist incidents directed against American interests overseas,' it said, adding, `There is, however, no specific information available at this time concerning such terrorist operations.'
The bland announcement was the public manifestation of an intense counterterrorism effort. Since U.S. troop deployments began, American embassies and military bases have been told to increase security. The FBI has stepped up surveillance in the U.S., especially where troops and arms concentrate on their way to the Mideast. The CIA has redoubled its detection efforts overseas, searching for signs that Iraq-inspired groups might be activating terror cells to kill Westerners, incite Israel to enter the fray or destabilize Arab allies of the U.S.
In Washington, a little-known interagency counterterrorism group has met frequently, sifting a surge in clandestine information and tips, most of them of little value. Experts from the National Security Council staff, the CIA, the FBI, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the State Department also confer frequently, and terrorism intelligence is a regular part of Mr. Bush's crisis briefings.
For most of the 1980s, Iraq wasn't a leading terror suspect. As part of his effort to win help in the long war against Iran, Saddam Hussein barred active terrorism out of Baghdad in the early 1980s. Iraq was removed from the U.S. list of terrorist states in 1982, and the next year expelled the Abu Nidal Organization.
Now all terrorist-trackers are focused on Baghdad again. `We are very, very concerned,' says a senior U.S. counterterrorism official. `In the context of everything else, it looks very ominous.'
Intelligence officials are especially concerned about the Abu Nidal and Hezbollah groups--proven masters of the bloodiest and most calculated sort of terror, with experience operating far from home.
Abu Nidal's band had been widely reported shattered in severe infighting that peaked last year in Libya, and Abu Nidal himself (whose real name is Sabri al-Banna) has been reported dead or imprisoned in Libya. But U.S. olfficials now believe at least a remnant of the group has emerged in fighting shape in Baghdad. The group had been expert at concealing cells of killers in Europe, and U.S. intelligence was particularly alarmed this spring at sudden signs that Abu Nidal operatives there were stirring, traveling and holding meetings, after long being dormant.
French and Israeli sources go further: Both say Abu Nidal himself is now in Baghdad. By some foreign accounts, the terrorist chief was escorted to the Iraqi capital from Libya by a brother of Saddam Hussein. They also note signs that scores of PLO fighters have recently defected to Abu Nidal in Lebanon.
Hezbollah is doubly dangerous: It is as bloody as Abu Nidal's band and despises the U.S., plus it holds the six U.S. hostages in Lebanon. They key to its posture may lie in Iran's attitude toward Iraq, and especially in the fate of that 15 Shiite prisoners Kuwait had held. Twelve of those are Iraqi exiles who have tried to unseat Saddam Hussein, a past that would normally mark them for death in Iraq. But French sources contend that all 15 have been taken to Baghdad, where they could be used as bait to coax new anti-U.S. terrorism from Hezbollah's Mr. Mugniyah, who holds hostages Terry Anderson and Thomas Sutherland. U.S. intelligence is striving to locate the 15 Shiite prisoners.
Hussein Musawi, a Hezbollah leader, has called on terrorists to help dislodge the U.S. from the Persian Gulf and said that `releasing the [U.S. hostages] now would be a reward to the Americans for their invasion of the Gulf.' If Iraq's new peace bid to Iran succeeds, the pro-Iranian Hezbollah may take an even harder line.
Despite the assets Saddam Hussein seems to have assembled, he still would face several obstacles that could slow or even stop him from moving to terrorism. One is that Syria, Iraq's enemy and rival in the Arab world, opposes his invasion of Kuwait and has sent troops to help keep him out of Saudi Arabia. Many of the most radical Palestinian and Shiite terrorists owe some allegiance to Syria, which has let them operate from Syria or Lebanon.
Moreover, though Saddam Hussein now portrays himself as a Moslem seeking to oust foreign infidels, he remains handicapped by being known as a secular Arab who spent eight years fighting Iran, the Shiite Moslem theocracy that inspires some of the most active Shiite terrorists.
An additional obstacle is that most professional terrorists acts take months to plan.
And, of course, the biggest constraint may be the simple fact that Saddam Hussein would have to contemplate launching terrorism with tens of thousands of American troops on his nation's doorstep--a far different situation than in earlier outbreaks of terrorism, when any U.S. forces that could retaliate were far away.