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The New Realities Of Terror

10 minute read
Johanna Mcgeary

Israeli pilot Rafi Marek was 90 seconds into his flight from Mombasa, Kenya, at about 3,000 ft., when he felt an unexpected thump. He thought it was the impact of a bird hitting the fuselage of his Arkia charter Boeing 757 carrying 261 Israelis home from a beach vacation. But he wondered if something far more frightening might have been after his plane when crew members spotted two white stripes of smoke streaming past the jet’s tail, only 100 yards away. Two shoulder-fired heat-seeking missiles had just missed blowing up Marek’s plane: the launcher and shell casings were found a mile from the Mombasa airport.

The big blast hit 18 miles away and five minutes later. Just as another group of Israelis arrived at the Paradise Hotel on the Indian Ocean, north of Mombasa, Three suicide bombers smashed an explosives-laden vehicle through the hotel gates into the front door. One man draped in a bomb belt leaped from the green Mitsubishi Pajero and blew himself up inside the lobby. His co-conspirators detonated the explosives packed in the vehicle, incinerating the car, themselves and the 160-room thatched-roof hotel within minutes. Amid the screams and billowing black smoke, three Israelis, including two small boys, and 10 Kenyans, mostly young village dancers, died. Scores were badly injured. As the air filled with the smell of burned flesh, witnesses spotted a single hand flung nearly 300 ft. away.

A day later, forensic analysts and intelligence agents from Israel’s Mossad and personnel from the big U.S. FBI and CIA offices in Nairobi were picking through the tree stumps and smoldering ruins for clues. Little red flags marked the remains of the car suspension, and other tags stood by pieces of human flesh that might have been the bombers’. Hotel workers and David Kalonzi, who sold souvenirs opposite the hotel entrance, talked of the men they saw in the Pajero: brown-skinned, thirtyish, Arab-looking. Kenyan police quickly detained 12 people of assorted nationalities for questioning, including an American woman who was soon released. An unknown group in Lebanon calling itself the Army of Palestine claimed responsibility, but nobody believed it.

Leaders in Tel Aviv, Washington and Nairobi think they already know the culprit: al-Qaeda–either the network itself or perhaps a local clone. The assaults bore plenty of al-Qaeda’s trademarks: double attacks, synchronized, well-organized and well-coordinated, based on good local surveillance and precision timing, in a part of East Africa where the terrorist organization has long operated. But because Israelis were the target, intelligence agents are looking hard at the possibility that Palestinians were somehow involved. U.S. and Israeli leaders took heart that the death toll was comparatively small because the jetliner attack had miraculously failed. For the victims and their families, of course, the scale and details of the carnage make no difference. But for those laboring to deter future assaults, this one offers some daunting clues to the new realities of terror.


Terrorism is like a balloon: Squeeze one end, and it expands at the other. As the U.S. and other governments harden security around military facilities, diplomatic posts, key businesses and transportation nodes, terrorist operatives look for targets that are not so well protected. CIA interrogators questioning Omar al-Faruq, the al-Qaeda lieutenant detained in Indonesia in the summer, learned he had cased the U.S. embassy in Jakarta but abandoned an attack when he saw the compound’s hefty security. Terrorists have switched to striking Westerners where the risks are lower. As a U.S. intelligence officer says, “One of the things that figures into their calculations are chances of success.” So the terrorists are taking aim at accessible places –dance halls and hotels, shopping malls and tourist sites, the nightclub in Bali and the French tanker off Yemen–that are not and can never be very well protected. When the soft targets are linked to tourism in countries that count on it, the secondary economic impact can be almost worse.

Kenya made a ripe choice. Al-Qaeda has spent years operating there. The government had done little to tighten security after the 1998 bomb blast that shattered the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, along with a twin assault in Tanzania. Porous borders with war-ravaged Somalia and Sudan made it easy to bring in surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). Mombasa has little in the way of immigration or passport controls, and the steamy seaside city is home to the most radical Muslims in the country. Australian intelligence picked up enough chatter about potential danger in Mombasa to issue a travel warning to its citizens on Nov. 12. But the U.S. considered the Australian information about Kenya too general to warrant any action.

The downside for the terrorists is that these soft assaults tally fewer casualties per incident, and they suggest that al-Qaeda can’t mount big hits anymore. Yet the cumulative impact of the string of smaller strikes from Bali to Mombasa can be just as telling, making it appear that terrorists can hit anyone anywhere and the threat to the U.S. and its friends is global. Some experts worry too that the current taste for soft targets might be intended to divert attention while al-Qaeda prepares a spectacular attack.


The scariest aspect of Mombasa was that terrorists fired a simple, shoulder-launched SAM at a commercial airliner. For the first time, terrorists showed that they are able and ready to shoot down vulnerable civilian planes anywhere as they take off or land, when a heat-seeking missile can easily lock onto a plane’s engine.

The Mombasa shooters used an antiquated Soviet-era SA-7 Strela that missed only because of equipment malfunction or operator error. Shoulder-launched SAMs are efficient and easy to fire and require little instruction; al-Qaeda trainees were taught how to use them in the Afghan camps. The U.S. supplied hundreds of shoulder-fired Stinger missiles to the mujahedin fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan; Washington was so concerned about their potential for trouble afterward that it offered as much as $100,000 per missile to try to buy them back. But shoulder-fired missiles made in Yugoslavia, Pakistan and China slosh around the weapons black market, where they sell for a few thousand dollars each.

Some military planes are equipped with automatic anti-SAM systems, and the U.S. Air Force has just awarded its first contract to equip its cargo planes with such devices. But no commercial airline, with the possible exception of Israel’s El Al, has been willing to spend the estimated $3 million per plane that it would take to protect its aircraft. U.S. officials believe such systems will have to be put on civilian airliners–especially if one is shot down.


The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan resulted in the capture of a country but not bin Laden. Yet while al-Qaeda may be weakened, it’s more elusive. The organization has dispersed, decentralized and delegated decisionmaking downward. Its leaders have shown immense skill in adapting to the more difficult working environment, relying on a looser network with more local initiative. Small-scale attacks on unprotected targets with simple weapons don’t need the direct approval of superiors. Ideas have been implanted among Islamists that can be worked into plans by independent cells and free-lance jihadists.

Mombasa highlights the diffuse configuration of terrorism today. In Kenya, sleeper cells or refugees from Afghanistan or remnants of the embassy-bombing conspiracy still operate. Several suspects from the 1998 plot are still at large, including two Mombasa-based men who, according to court records, bought the suicide truck. Locals may have relied on al-Qaeda coordinators to bring in weapons and then conducted the attack themselves.

As intelligence agents from three countries comb the Mombasa rubble, an area group in their sights is the extremist al-Ittihad al-Islami (AIAI), based in Somalia. With 2,000 members, it is the largest, most powerful radical band in the Horn of Africa and has been funded by al-Qaeda in the past. Its aims and activities have focused on Somalia, but U.S. intelligence has uncovered AIAI cells in Kenya. “It is possible this was the work of AIAI, done in concert with al-Qaeda,” says an American intelligence agent.


If Al-Qaeda is indeed responsible for Mombasa, it will mark the first time the group has deliberately spilled Israeli blood. Osama bin Laden has railed against Israel for years but never struck against its people. The Mombasa attacks followed anti-Israeli references on his latest audiotape. For the administration of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, these attacks offered evidence to back up its long-standing argument, now gaining ground in Washington, that Israel’s problems with the Palestinians are simply a subset of a world-terrorism conspiracy. On the same day as the Mombasa attacks, when Sharon’s Likud Party was holding a primary, six Israelis were gunned down in the town of Beit Shean. “Terror is indivisible,” said the Israeli Foreign Ministry on Thursday. With Mossad on the job, Israel warned the terrorists, “our arm is long.”

The most potentially explosive connections experts are searching for is between al-Qaeda and Palestinian groups. Was al-Qaeda acting as a subcontractor for the Palestinians? Though CIA officials consider it a long shot, they haven’t ruled out the possibility that Hizballah, a practitioner of suicide bombing, with a history of terrorism against Jews abroad, sponsored the mission. A 2001 State Department report warned that Hizballah, along with al-Qaeda, exploited Africa’s permissive environment of open borders, lax financial laws and wide availability of weapons.

Israeli experts maintain that they have found no concrete cases of direct cooperation between al-Qaeda and Palestinian groups. A Hamas leader in the occupied territories told Time, “Our battle front is here, not in Africa.” Nor has Israel uncovered indications that the Palestinians want to internationalize the conflict. Even the most radical of them have resisted cooperation with al-Qaeda, says French terrorism expert Roland Jacquard, because they fear bin Laden’s religious zeal would damage the national-liberation legitimacy of their cause.

It is more likely, Jacquard and others believe, that al-Qaeda is trying to piggyback on the Palestinian conflict to broaden its appeal and its pool of recruits beyond the militant religious fringe. It’s in al-Qaeda’s interest to make Washington and Jerusalem a single, indistinguishable enemy to draw support for its anti-U.S. campaign from nonreligious Arabs angry at the conflict with Israel. The terrorists may also hope Israel will strike back in ways that will trigger a backlash among those moderate Muslims whom the U.S. is trying to enlist in a war against Iraq.

The big lesson of Mombasa is that terrorism is in constant metamorphosis. That is, above all, what defines it after 9/11. And with so many possible targets and so many jihadis willing to die, counterterrorism often remains a deadly step behind.

–Reported by Bruce Crumley/Paris, Ilona Eveleens/Mombasa, Aharon Klein and Eric Silver/Jerusalem, J.F.O. McAllister/London and Elaine Shannon, Mark Thompson and Douglas Waller/Washington

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