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Published: Saturday, 10/20/2001

The question is what will terrorists do next?

Speculation abounds in the media, much of it foolish, about what America's next moves in the war on terror should be. We should devote some thought to what our enemies might do.

I was, for a time, the intelligence officer (S2) for a Special Forces company. In the military, we focus chiefly upon order of battle intelligence: Where is the enemy? In what strength? With what armament? But the S2 also tries to get into the head of the enemy leader. If I thought the way he thinks, and I possessed the assets he possesses, what would I do next?

Osama bin Laden's ultimate goal, which probably even he regards as a stretch, is to make the whole world like Afghanistan. A lesser included objective, which is eminently achievable, is to make every Muslim-majority country like Afghanistan.

In order to achieve this goal, bin Laden must break America's will to resist, without provoking a full exercise of American power. The terrorists also seek to reduce our power by inducing us to fritter it away chasing ghosts, and by isolating us from other countries.

Bin Laden's greatest asset is a stay-behind network of terror cells containing hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of potential terrorists. They've had plenty of time to case targets, build bombs, make plans.

But this is a wasting asset. Once a particular terror cell has launched an attack, it can't be reinforced or replaced. Heightened vigilance will make it difficult to replicate the success against high value targets. And the longer the cells lie fallow, the more likely the FBI will get a line on them. Osama has a “use it or lose it” problem that will increase with time.

There is little the terrorists can do to reduce U.S. military capabilities, but a great deal they can do to harm our economy. In this they are aided by the ease with which some Americans panic. Far more harm has been done to our economy by the refusal of many people to fly in the wake of Sept. 11 than by the terrorist attacks themselves.

Panic also causes a gross misallocation of resources. Consider the sky marshal program. There are about 17,000 law enforcement officers in the FBI, Secret Service, and U.S. Marshal's Service combined. There were more than 33,000 flights a day before Sept. 11. It would take the equivalent of two Marine divisions to put a sky marshal on every flight, a measure unnecessary if pilots were armed.

The force-multiplying effect of panic is what has made the anthrax campaign so successful. It has changed in ways harmful to the economy the way the Postal Service and most major corporations handle mail. All by putting a little powder in a couple of envelopes mailed to the right people.

Expect the terrorists to focus future attacks on targets where the panic the attacks induce will cause more economic harm and further misallocation of resources. For instance, attacks on commuter trains and drivers, on elementary schools. “He who guards everything guards nothing,” Frederick the Great said. The terrorists will attempt again to induce us, in our fearfulness, to guard nothing.

Though terror attacks are likely here, they are more likely abroad. The terrorists want to punish other nations for supporting us, to get them to withdraw from the anti-terror coalition. There is a large Muslim community in London, and the Brits have been more lax on internal security than we have been. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who gained unfortunate attention last month with comments about the superiority of western culture over Islam, has been America's foremost friend in Continental Europe. Expect an attempt to kill him.

But the terrorists can hurt us most in Saudi Arabia. A disruption in the flow of Persian Gulf oil would cause a gut-wrenching worldwide depression. Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein each have strong personal reasons for wanting to destroy the government of Saudi Arabia, which tends to be as lousy at security as it is at sharing the wealth. If I were Lloyds of London, I wouldn't want to be carrying life insurance on the House of Saud.

Jack Kelly is a member of The Blade's national bureau. E-mail him at jkelly@post-gazette.com.



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