Freelancing in the U.S.

How worried should we be about suicide bombers in the U.S.?

A chilling possibility considered credible by many experts, but thus far ignored by the media, is that suicide bombers could be exported to America. All the necessary elements ? bombs, bucks, and bodies ? could easily come together on our soil to target innocent civilians in crowded public areas.

While President Bush has been pushed to pressure Yasser Arafat in order to maintain a consistent message for the war on terror, there is another reason for not coddling the Palestinian leader that hits much closer to home.

“If it appears that Arafat was successful with suicide bombings, it will give an incentive to other Islamic terrorists to hit American civilians,” warns Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum. Given the teetering positions of the administration over the past few weeks, it’s not entirely clear where Colin Powell will stand during his Mideast trip, but he stated on Meet the Press that dealing with Arafat is inevitable.

Although the rash of suicide bombings ? which stopped once the Israeli Defense Force commenced its incursion of Arafat’s Ramallah compound ? made the media elite in this country clamor for a peace accord, it actually moved the Israeli people firmly into Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s hawkish camp. The latest Jerusalem Post poll indicates Sharon’s military actions enjoy 68 percent support among Israelis. If Sharon backs down, it will not be in response to popular pressure from his own people.

If Powell forces Sharon to accede to any significant Arafat demands, the secretary of state runs the risk of fostering a perception that the suicide bombings were beneficial to the Palestinian cause. What’s to stop other terrorists from reasoning that if America so fears a suicide bombing in Israel, then even greater damage could be inflicted by such an attack in the United States?

American targets have already been declared fair game in a flier allegedly published by the Palestinian Leadership Committee, a terrorist umbrella network consisting of Hamas, Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigade, and Arafat’s own representatives, among others. Many in the intelligence community believe the document to be authentic, which would mean that plans are underway to attack Americans overseas, or possibly here in the United States.

The ease with which suicide bombings could be launched in America has caused many experts to take notice. “Suicide bombings [in the United States] are a very real problem facing us,” insists Pipes. The Heritage Foundation’s Ariel Cohen, a foreign- policy expert, goes one step further in remarking, “I’m surprised it hasn’t happened here yet.”

The necessary materials for the bombs are already here, as is a terrorist infrastructure to provide aid and comfort for would-be suicide bombers. Former CIA agent Stanley Bedlington, who lived in the Middle East for several years, notes, “Terrorists can make these bombs with stuff they buy at a hardware store or steal from a construction site.” In other words, there would be no need to smuggle contraband past customs officials, eliminating one potential hurdle.

Although not exactly crude, the personal bombs are cheap. Receipts discovered in the Ramallah compound show that the total materials for each cost around $150. Suicide bombings are an incredibly cost- effective method of terrorism, especially when the perpetrators don’t value life. The only element missing from the equation is the steady stream of young bodies ? and that’s all the terror groups view these teenagers as ? that Palestinian terrorists have in abundant supply.

Despite efforts to keep out suspect characters in the wake of Sept. 11, there are a disturbingly high number of points of entry for would-be suicide bombers. The most often-discussed method is coming in by way of Canada, the weakest link in our border security. “Canada has been pretty free and open about letting people come in from all over, including the Middle East,” says Steve Johnson, an immigration expert for the Heritage Foundation.

Unlike in America where people seeking political asylum have a significant burden of proof, Canada’s policies are so liberal that most refugees are allowed to stay. “Canada’s political asylum policies have actually gotten looser since Sept. 11,” says Mark Krikorian, of the Center for Immigration Studies. Once in Canada, getting to America is as simple as getting your picture taken and driving a car. Refugees in Canada are given the same driver’s licenses as citizens, and that’s the only identification required to gain access across the border into the United States.

But since many potential suicide bombers are teenagers with no criminal history, they could enter our country on a travel visa. For those with no record, “it’s still relatively easy to get into America, at least on a tourist visa,” Johnson points out. Krikorian, however, believes that obtaining a travel visa from the Middle East is considerably harder since Sept. 11, but he readily acknowledges that “a sophisticated, committed group could still get terrorists into the United States.”

Some radical Muslims can enter the United States without even obtaining a travel visa under a visa waiver program available for citizens of many western European nations, several of which have massive Muslim populations. More Muslims live in Germany, for example, than in the Palestinian territories. France also has a large Muslim presence, primarily immigrants from former French colonies in northern Africa. Both of these countries were home to September 11 hijackers, and still have strains of militant Islamic groups within their borders.

Shoe-bomber Richard Reid was headed to America under the visa-waiver program, which merely requires citizens from exempted nations to carry a passport. All travelers coming in under a visa waiver still have to undergo a screening, but Krikorian labels that process “insufficient,” and he recommends scrapping the program altogether.

Once in the America, would-be suicide bombers can tap into the extensive network of various terrorist groups who have sleeper cells in the United States, including Hezbollah and al Qaeda.

If suicide bombers do strike here, such attacks in the United States would have far more devastating consequences than in Israel, because American security is not designed or planned with suicide bombers in mind.

With sprawling malls and countless subway stations, America is ripe with tantalizing targets for suicide bombings. Detection equipment to locate people strapped with bombs would be prohibitively expensive, and there obviously isn’t enough manpower to secure every popular public area.

We’ve already prepared ourselves for the very real possibility that terrorists want to strike us again, but we’re not ready to handle what Israel has dealt with in the latest intifada ? suicide bombers.

In order to maximize their effectiveness with limited resources, police operate under two assumptions that simply don’t apply in suicide bombings: 1) criminals are not willing to take their own lives in committing a crime, and 2) crimes are rarely random acts.

The most-covered non-celebrity crimes in recent times have been those which did not fit a predictable mold. Why? Because there wasn’t much we could have done to prevent those acts. Think Colin Ferguson, who killed 6 and injured 17 on the Long Island Railroad in 1993. Or five years earlier, Laurie Dann, the deranged woman who walked into a suburban Chicago second-grade classroom and shot six children, killing an eight year old. These senseless shootings fostered a palpable air of helplessness and exposed how vulnerable we are when evil does not follow established patterns.

There’s no guarantee that suicide bombers won’t strike America even if Powell perfectly handles the Mideast crisis. But there can be no doubt that the risk we face would increase exponentially if suicide bombings are perceived as an effective tool in battling a democracy.

It is admittedly hard to conceive of suicide bombings on American soil, but the same could have been said for commercial jets slamming into the World Trade Center. Even as the military and law enforcement adapt their strategies to fight the threat of suicide bombings, Johnson offers a sobering thought: “You can’t prevent every terrorist action, you can only prevent most of them.”

? Mr. Mowbray is a freelance writer.

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