The caller to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington sounded ominous. `This is Yasir Arafat,' he said. `And I'm going to blow up the National Zoo.'
Welcome to the `phony war' that has been played out in numerous cities across the United States, and elsewhere around the world, since the onset of Operation Desert Storm. Each day brings new bomb threats and terrorist scares. Someone has just seen Abu Nidal at a popular shopping mall. There is a suspicious box in the lobby of a federal building. `Iraqi agents' have been spotted casing the Alaskan pipeline. A caller identifying himself as `Saddam Hussein' has just threatened to `burn down' Germantown, Md. The mayor of Detroit has declared a state of emergency over the `terrorist threat' and called on the governor to activate the National Guard.
Despite the flood of threats and `suspicious-person' sightings, there were no significant terrorist incidents in or against the United States in the nearly seven months between the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait last August and the onset of the ground campaign on 23 February. Although terrorist incidents were up sharply around the world--numbering over 150 between 16 January and 23 February--only one was directly linked to Iraq. In that incident, a bomb being transported by two Iraqis to an American target in the Philippines detonated prematurely, killing one of them.
All of the other incidents appear to be `sympathetic' actions by terrorist groups indigenous to the countries where the incidents occurred. Some were designed to show solidarity with Iraqi, but most apparently were efforts to grab headlines and to exploit the unusual amount of attention being devoted to any terrorist incident. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) attacks in mid-February on the British prime minister's residence, Number 10 Downing Street, and on two London train stations, according to British investigators, probably had taken months to plan, and were simply part of the ongoing war in Northern Ireland.
The absence of Iraqi-backed terrorist violence was in direct contrast to the predictions of many observers, who believed that the outbreak of war in the Gulf would be accompanied by the opening of a so-called terrorist `second front' by Saddam Hussein. The apprehension over potential terrorist attacks hit the airline industry particularly hard, in both the United States and Western Europe. Tourism dropped significantly. One London hotel reported only four rooms occupied shortly before the commencement of the ground war. Some travel agencies said business was off as much as 75 percent. In February, a U.S. jetliner bound for London reportedly departed with only one passenger in the tourist cabin.
By the time the ground war began, the State Department already had issued war-related travel advisories for Indonesia, Peru, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Tanzania, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, Nigeria, India, Israel, Sudan, Tunisia, Syria, Mauritania, Bangladesh, Djibouti, Yemen, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates and had recommended that all non-essential travel to these countries be deferred. Many American companies took the advice to heart and imposed major restrictions on corporate travel. One result was a boom in alternative means of `face-to-face' communication, such as teleconferencing. Teleconference companies were unable to keep up with demand.
Although it certainly made sense to avoid travel to countries in the theater of conflict and to Islamic nations where there was a high possibility of anti-American demonstrations or terrorist attacks, the drastic falloff of travel within the comtinental United States and to other areas of the world like Latin America and the Far East certainly was not warranted. In February, to stimulate domestic travel, First Lady Barbara Bush took a highly-publicized commercial flight to Indianapolis. Nevertheless, it will take a long time for the travel and tourism industries to recover.
On 23 February, as coalition forces drove into Kuwait and Iraq, Saddam Hussein once more called on Arabs around the world to strike at U.S. and other coalition targets. The U.S. State Department issued a new worldwide alert to all U.S. missions and military bases advising them to be prepared for terrorist attacks. But in the first days of the land offensive, there were only scattered reports of violence, and none of major significance.
Even if Iraq finally were able to launch the long-rumored `second front,' the big question remains: Where were Saddam Hussein's terrorist legions in the first six weeks of the war? There are several possible answers. It may be that he held them in reserve, waiting to unleash them only after his Scud missiles were gone, when he had no other means of projecting power beyond his own borders. By the same token, it may be that the terrorist threat was overestimated from the beginning, and that many of the groups under Baghdad's control or that supported Saddam Hussein possessed only marginal capabilities, or willingness, to carry out attacks on Iraq's behalf.
The most likely answer, though, is that the steps taken by the United States and its allies to thwart and preempt terrorist operations were enormously successful. Beginning with an unprecedently high level of intelligence and police cooperation between coalition partners, the deliberately underpublicized counterterrorist campaign also included the tightening of visa and border controls, `hardening' many potential targets and removing others from the `line of fire,' the expulsion of Iraqi diplomats and other suspected troublemakers, and the disruption of terrorist communications, travel plans, and financial sources. The long delay from the onset of the crisis in August to the actual commencement of hostilities in mid-January gave U.S. and coalition officials time to plan and prepare for the worst.
The fact that two of the most prominent state sponsors of terrorism are hostile to Iraq also may have helped: Syria is a coalition partner and Iran is officially neutral. Even Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, another prominent state sponsor of terrorism, has remained on the sidelines. He is said to resent Saddam Hussein's personal prominence as well as his bid to seize the leadership of radical forces in the Arab world.
In the final analysis, the history of things that don't happen is often the most difficult history to write. It's impossible to prove a negative. But this much is certain: Saddam Hussein missed by many miles the opportunity to use terrorism effectively to coerce and intimidate the coalition partners and to influence their policies. The threat of Iraqi-sponsored terrorism created a pervasive global climate of fear, but perhaps that was just the thing needed to convince the United States and its normally complacent allies to put aside past differences and to implement the kinds of security precautions and procedures necessary to reduce their exposure to terrorist attacks.
The end of the war, however, as Pentagon and State Department officials have long warned, may represent just the beginning of the real terrorist threat. The Gulf War has re-energized every radical and terrorist organization in the Middle East and may well yet spawn a generation of terrorist attacks designed to `avenge' Saddam Hussein and those, like the Palestinians, who looked to him for deliverance. That is why one of the peace conditions imposed on Iraq at the cessation of hostilities must be not only the expulsion of all terrorists from Iraq but also meaningful (i.e., verifiable) assurances by the government in Baghdad that it will not aid and abet terrorists in the future or permit them to operate from Iraqi soil.
The Palestinians remain the wild card. There were, at the beginning of the war, more than 120,000 Palestinians in Kuwait, many of whom collaborated with that nation's Iraqi occupiers. As a result, the exiled Kuwaiti government has indicated that many if not most of them will be expelled once the legitimate government is restored and fully functioning. Many Israelis, moreover, will long remember Palestinians on the West Bank cheering Iraqi Scud missiles as they streaked toward civilian targets in Israel. In view of the alliance by Yasir Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) with Saddam Hussein, and their support for his crimes against Kuwait, it would be unthinkable for the PLO, as it presently is constituted, to be granted any significant role in shaping the postwar Middle East. Only if Arafat and the other collaborators are removed can the PLO's claim to speak for the Palestinian people be given any real recognition. Until then, the PLO and its Palestinian supporters are likely to end up as two of the biggest losers in the conflict.