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The Washington Monitor

By John Sitilides1 <>, Executive Director, The Western Policy Center

Washington, D.C.
Friday, August 28, 1998

U.S. Strikes Expose Emerging Regional Threats

The American strikes against a terrorist complex in Afghanistan and a chemical weapons facility in Sudan point to the growing danger posed by the emerging anti-western, transcontinental network threatening the security of Western countries such as Greece. However, this perilous development opens the door for Greece and Turkey to help their Western partners in the difficult period ahead, if a serious effort against international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is to be sustained.

Terrorism has been a fact of Greek life since the mid-1970s, when the November 17 group emerged to attack American diplomats and Greek businessmen associated with pro-western interests. In June 1997, the State Department re-emphasized the close cooperation between Washington and Athens in curtailing terrorism by offering up to $2 million for information leading to the arrest and conviction of individuals or organizations committing terrorist acts against American individuals or property, under a joint program initiated in 1984. Though shooting incidents and low-level bombings have been the hallmark of terrorist activities in recent years, Greece now faces new external terrorist threats, from both the high seas and its own neighbors.

In and around the waters of maritime nations in southeast Asia, such as Indonesia and the Philippines, militant groups have sought to achieve political aims through terrorism on the high seas. In the past nine months, at least three oil tankers have been hijacked in the area and their cargoes siphoned into adjacent ships. The notorious 1985 raid of the Achille Lauro by Palestinian Liberation Front terrorists seeking to stage a suicide attack on an Israeli port still haunts the Mediterranean region.

Now, Jane's Intelligence Review reports that cheaper, smaller, and more reliable missile technology and greater ease in naval mine deployment have caused the world's powers to take notice, especially as active naval terrorism threats have developed in areas as far-flung as Somalia, Algeria, the Persian Gulf, and Latin America.

The eastern Mediterranean theater continues to be a potential target, this time of Egypt's radical Muslim group Gama'a al-Islamiya, reportedly responsible for the assassination of President Anwar Sadat. Gama'a has staged attacks on civilians and tourists in Egypt, including the November 1997 murders of 58 foreign tourists in Luxor. The group struck at cruise ships along the Nile River on four occasions from 1992 to 1994, and some terrorism experts believe it is poised to attack maritime traffic through the Suez Canal and resume its activities on the Nile.

Terrorism experts warn that the Bosporus, and the Aegean and Black Seas astride the straits, may become another future hot spot. The January 1996 seizure of a Turkish passenger ferry by pro-Chechen gunmen revealed the growing vulnerability of the region's seas to maritime terrorism and served as a reminder that violence on the high seas may not be restricted to Greek-Turkish confrontations.

Warring factions in Kosovo or southeastern Turkey may find tactical support or renewed public attention to their cause, as did the Chechnyans in the ferry seizure, in such high seas terrorism. As currently deployed, the naval forces of both Greece and Turkey remain largely ill-equipped and unprepared for small-scale combat against terrorists using fast boats with heavy machine guns and boarding parties to prey on larger vessels.

On land to the north, Greece is rightfully concerned about the spread of terrorist cells in Albania and Bosnia with links to Islamic militants such as Osama bin Laden, the target of the U.S. strikes in August. Joint U.S.-Albanian raids in June and July against a suspected Islamic terrorist organization in Tirana resulted in the arrests of four men suspected of working for bin Laden, and American security services reportedly seized a large quantity of documents during the arrests. Several senior U.S. intelligence officials have been quietly visiting Albania, investigating links between the arrests and the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed over 250 people and injured thousands.

The CIA is believed to have handed over the four suspects - all Egyptians - to anti-terrorist officials in Egypt. Western security experts suggest that bin Laden may have made an alliance with Islamic militants linked to the Egyptian-based Jihad group, which released a statement before the bombings specifically threatening retaliation for the arrests in Albania.

The State Department has previously described bin Laden as "one of the most significant sponsors of Sunni Islamic terrorist groups" and accused him of establishing terrorist cells in Bosnia, as well as in Chechnya, Somalia, Yemen, and Tajikistan. Though Washington has not publicly linked bin Laden to activities in Albania, the CIA fears that the country is a safe haven for those who share his objectives. The possibility that bin Laden's network is active in Albania also raises concerns about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the Balkans, which are torn by ethnic and religious strife.

The urgency with which Washington views these matters was reflected in President Clinton's actions on July 28th on the basis of Executive Order 12938, originally issued on November 14, 1994, to deal with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the means of delivering them. Under new administration policy, the secretary of state is empowered to impose a cutoff of U.S. trade and assistance to any nation that contributes to the use, acquisition, design, development, production, or stockpiling of such weapons or missiles capable of delivering them.

As evidence builds that bin Laden was preparing to employ chemical weapons against U.S. or other Western targets, Washington will seek to increase pressure on the Taliban militia, which controls most of Afghanistan and shelters bin Laden, to allow Western intelligence organizations to operate in the region in order to apprehend him.

American relations with the Taliban are poor. Washington may need to look to Afghanistan's neighbors to the north - that is, the former Soviet republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan - to deliver a message to the Taliban that support for terrorism and weapons proliferation will prevent these poor, backward nations from effectively attracting desperately-needed Western investment and assistance. Though the Central Asian republics have varying political and economic interests, one important unifying element that could help consolidate an anti-extremist front is their historic Turkic culture.

In the early 1990s, Ankara failed to effectively exploit the collapse of the communist Soviet system in Central Asia, where some Turkish strategists believed the foundation for an Asia-looking Ottoman sphere of influence could be established some 2,000 miles from Turkey's easternmost border. Turkey did seek to overextend its reach far beyond its immediate vicinity, where it perceives a threat from countries as small as Armenia and Cyprus, but it failed to adequately consider the complex economic ties between the Central Asian republics and Russia, as well as the republics' strong religious bonds to the Islamic nations of southwest Asia. In the end, Turkey was unable to achieve its ambitious goal.

Nonetheless, Turkey remains the West's best-positioned agent, both geostrategically and culturally, for bringing Afghanistan's Turkic neighbors together. Certainly, the United States and Europe would prefer that their ally Turkey perform such a role, rather than Russia, the West's main rival and the republics' recent oppressor, or Iran, one of America's most dangerous enemies and the region's main proponent of Islamic fundamentalism and international terrorism.

Turkish government and intelligence officials have been meeting in recent weeks with Afghan opposition leaders to help establish an anti-Taliban front that will challenge bin Laden's militant Sunni movement, which is a threat to Iran's hegemonic aspirations as a Shiite Islamic power. Turkey is thus poised to contribute to American interests in isolating international terrorism and choking the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in this dangerous part of the world.

Greece has an equally significant role to play, with thousands of American servicemen still stationed in and around Bosnia, too close to terrorists and their lethal weaponry for comfort. Greece's ability to choke off any and all supply networks - financial and material - to terrorist cells in Albania and Bosnia can help protect Western forces and strengthen Greek security and diplomatic flexibility in the simmering Balkan tinderbox. As it prepares to host the 2004 Olympics, Athens will be especially alert to the threats posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and an increased willingness by terrorists to use them to achieve otherwise unattainable goals.

In the wake of the American strikes against bin Laden and his organization, Greece spoke out in favor of increased global cooperation to combat international terrorism. There is already room for stepping up efforts with Albania, whose prime minister recently boasted of his country's cooperation with U.S. and other Western security services. Turkey's anti-Taliban efforts offer a productive role to its Western allies and serve its own self-interest by ensuring that Sunni fundamentalism does not spread to its own citizenry, 98% of whom are Sunni Moslems.

As always, national security remains the paramount consideration of every government's foreign policy. Greek and Turkish efforts to assure their own security and assist the United States and other Western partners in attaining shared objectives in this regard will be an important part of bilateral and multilateral developments in the months ahead.

1[The Western Policy Center is a public policy corporation promoting U.S. geostrategic interests and Western institutions in southeastern Europe by strengthening the debate on American foreign policy toward NATO allies Greece and Turkey, and toward Cyprus. Based in California since 1994, the Center opened new offices in Washington, D.C. in February 1998.]