America anticipates defense against terrorism

By Catherine Dilworth
February 28, 2002

America’s defense against future terrorist attacks could include pre-emptive strikes against countries that help terrorists. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz offered no details about where or when such attacks might occur. “We’ve already lost enough Americans. We’re not going to lose any more by hesitating,” Wolfowitz told a group of defense contractors Tuesday.

Pentagon officials have said repeatedly that no decision has been made about when or where the next U.S. action will be. Speculation in recent days has focused on Iraq, which President Bush named last month as part of the “axis of evil” with North Korea and Iran. Wolfowitz is viewed widely as one of the strongest voices within the Bush administration in favor of military attacks intended to overthrow Iraq’s president, Saddam Hussein.

Documents found in Afghanistan have left U.S. military officials surprised at the size and sophistication of a group in Southeast Asia linked to the al-Qaeda terror network.

The group, Jemaah Islamiyah, is an extremist Islamic network that shares al-Qaeda’s anti-American ideas. It has connections in Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines. Some Jemaah Islamiyah fighters were sent for training in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan.

“It’s a lot larger or more robust than we thought,” the Pentagon official said, briefing reporters on the condition of anonymity.

A crackdown in December and January by several governments in the region exposed a plot by Jemaah Islamiyah to attack U.S. naval and other facilities in Singapore. Some information on the plot was gleaned from evidence discovered by U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

People also were detained in Malaysia and the Philippines about the plot. Officials said they found large caches of explosives in those countries. There are no signs that al-Qaeda’s surviving senior leaders are headed to that part of the world, or any other, for the moment.

Wolfowitz said he worries that Americans are beginning to act as if the threat from terrorism is over. “Dozens of al-Qaeda fighters remain alive within Afghanistan, although the military campaign there has severely disrupted the group,” Wolfowitz said.

“The success is only interim success. There is still a great deal of work to be done,” Wolfowitz told the conference. “I do fear the country has not absorbed that the conflict is far from over.”

Saudi-born fugitive Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network has lost its safe haven in Afghanistan because the U.S. and Afghan military removed its Taliban militia protectors, the unidentified defense.

The official said the al-Qaeda leaders have not gone to lawless Somalia, as once feared. Officials still don’t have a fix on bin Laden, the network’s fugitive leader, he said.

He said there’s evidence the group may begin to function in a decentralized manner, with local “franchises” conducting terror attacks without waiting for direction and funding from Afghanistan.

“If this trend continues, future attacks probably will not be as sophisticated as the Sept. 11 suicide hijackings,” the official said. Groups may also have to turn to for money to local sources such as robberies.

The official estimated that at least several hundred al-Qaeda fighters had been killed or captured in Afghanistan, but he emphasized U.S. officials have no clear count.

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Catherine Dilworth

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