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5 minute read
Kevin Fedarko

In the mind of every official or politician called upon to conduct a TWA-related press conference last week loomed the memory of the Oklahoma City bombing. The outcry against Muslims and Arabs initially kindled by that atrocity was swiftly silenced by the disclosure that the real culprits were Americans conducting a holy war of their own. And so when it came to pointing a finger at possible suspects last week, U.S. authorities recommended, in Bill Clinton’s words, “keeping an open mind.” Outside the public spotlight, however, it was a different story. The CIA immediately fired off secret cables to its foreign stations, ordering intelligence officers to comb their sources for leads. Agents quietly began checking the Athens airport, where the TWA flight originated, for security breaches. The names of all the passengers who flew the Athens-to-New York City leg, as well as those who boarded the plane in New York, were traced through computerized data banks for links with terrorist groups. The Israeli, Jordanian and Egyptian intelligence services were asked to run checks as well. The CIA was casting its net as widely as possible, considering suspects ranging from Colombian drug traffickers to disgruntled airline employees.

The focus, however, quickly turned to the Middle East. In recent years, even the most jaded U.S. diplomats have been stunned by the intensity of anti-American resentment in this part of the world–much of it stemming from uncritical U.S. support of Israel. Over the past 15 years, the U.S. has closed embassies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Sudan and Libya. Many remaining diplomatic outposts have turned into virtual fortresses. Part of the U.S. chancellery in Cairo is built to withstand a nuclear blast. In Beirut the ambassador travels in a military convoy protected by a machine-gun turret. “It has been a long time,” says a U.S. official, “since I have seen such strong anti-American feelings in the Middle East.”

Tracing this sentiment led investigators to a variety of suspects, any of whom may–or may not–be responsible. Among the candidates are Ramzi Yousef and his supporters. Yousef belongs to a new breed of Islamic zealot trained in the Afghan war. He was captured in Pakistan and extradited to the U.S. last year. Accused of masterminding a fiendishly elaborate plot to blow up U.S. passenger planes over the Pacific, Yousef is now entering his eighth week of trial in New York City. Counterterrorism experts fear remnants of his group may still be active.

Yousef and his allies have plenty of company on the wide-ranging suspect list. Hizballah, the radical Lebanese organization, restricts its military operations to Israeli territory. But some U.S. officials suspect that Hizballah may now be seeking revenge against the U.S. for supporting Israel, even after its army shelled a United Nations compound in the Lebanese village of Qana last April, killing more than 100 civilians. Threats have also come from Egypt’s Islamic Group, which has pledged to strike at the U.S. for imprisoning its spiritual leader, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman. Rahman, a blind Egyptian cleric, was convicted last year of plotting to blow up the U.N. and several other New York landmarks. He is serving a life sentence in Springfield, Missouri. Speculation also surrounds the hard-line Palestinian group Hamas, which has vowed to attack the U.S. for agreeing to extradite Musa Abu Marzouk, a top Hamas official, to Israel.

Another possibility is an extremist Saudi organization calling itself the Islamic Movement for Change. The group has already claimed responsibility for two attacks against Americans in Saudi Arabia. The first, in Riyadh in 1995, killed five Americans. The second, in Dhahran last month, took the lives of 19 U.S. servicemen. Clinton promised that those responsible would be punished. Last week a person claiming to represent the group faxed a note to a Saudi newspaper just hours before the TWA explosion promising to “respond in an extreme way” to the “threats made by the stupid American President.” Officials, however, were downplaying the letter’s significance.

Lurking behind all these groups, say U.S. investigators, may be the shadowy specter of foreign governments. Iran, known to sponsor a variety of radical Islamic groups, is viewed as the country most determined to oppose the U.S. presence in the Middle East.

In the end, however, those responsible will probably remain undetected for some time. “This is going to take a long, difficult investigation,” says a U.S. official. How long? In the case of Pan Am Flight 103, it took nine days just to determine that the disaster was caused by a bomb. Identifying the alleged culprits–who were eventually found to have been sponsored by Libya–took an additional three years of work. And because of protection from Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, the suspects were never even brought to trial. Unlike the 270 people they are accused of murdering, those men are walking the earth today.

–Reported by Scott MacLeod/Paris, Lara Marlowe/Beirut and Douglas Waller/Washington

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