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Carnage has experts pointing finger of blame at usual suspects

Wednesday, September 12, 2001

By Dennis B. Roddy, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

On a day when the world came calling amid cataracts of flame and hatred, those who study terrorism pointed quickly to the usual suspects, but the sheer scope of the attack -- dwarfing the body count at Pearl Harbor -- left them scratching for perspective.

"This is the most catastrophic terrorist attack against anyone anywhere, ever," said Stefan Leader, a Washington, D.C., security and terrorism consultant for the Department of Energy.

Leader said the operation appeared to have been carried out with extraordinary security and believes it was the work of a terrorist cell with possibly 10 members maximum.

Even terrorism experts left skittish by erroneous speculation six years ago that blamed the Oklahoma City bombing on Middle East militants didn't hesitate yesterday to suggest that Islamic militants -- notably Osama bin Laden -- likely had some role.

"Of course we suspect him. He hates us; he has a lot of followers; and he has a lot of money," said Mark Pitcavage, a researcher for the Anti Defamation League and a nationally recognized expert on political extremism.

By yesterday's end, apparent bomb blasts struck the outskirts of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, the nation that has harbored bin Laden and his terrorist group.

United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed and burned in Somerset County, 80 miles east of Pittsburgh, likely was hijacked as part of the terrorist attacks, experts said, but either crashed during a struggle for control or ultimately was not needed.

"My guess is there were four planes because they wanted to be sure one of them hit its intended target and they succeeded beyond their wildest expectations," Leader said.

That a terrorist cell got past airport security in not one but four instances -- taking control of fuel-laden jetliners and successfully flying them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon -- also indicates a level of sophistication found in only a few known terrorist organizations.

"It would probably be a mixed group of individuals, I would say, religiously motivated," said Peter Probst, a former CIA official who also worked at the Pentagon as an expert in low-intensity conflict.

Probst, who is now vice president at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, said several attacks of a similar scope have been thwarted in years past, but kept unpublicized to protect intelligence sources.

In those instances, Probst said, the U.S. government has often pressed the governments of nations in which the cells are based to intercede and prevent the attacks from being carried out.

Probst pointed to recent "rumblings and rumors" of potential attacks against U.S. targets, including an interview bin Laden gave to an Arabic language newspaper in London several days ago in which he hinted at forthcoming strikes against the United States.

While experts uniformly ruled out domestic terrorist groups, such as far-right militias or white supremacists as potential suspects, some American citizens already have been linked to Middle Eastern terrorists. Kelvin Smith, a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife officer, is serving a prison sentence for training terrorists linked to those who first attacked the World Trade Center. Smith was accused of training the group at a retreat in Perry County, near Harrisburg, in the early 1990s.

And some elements in the American far-right have reached out to terrorist groups that share their hatred for Jews.

Yesterday, August Kreis III, head of the Potter County-based Posse-Comitatus and an official with the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations, posted a notice glorifying the attacks on his Internet site.

Using his Racial Identity religion's term for God -- Yahweh -- Kreis proclaimed "Hallelu-Yahweh! May the WAR be started! DEATH to His enemies may the World Trade Center BURN TO THE GROUND!"

Kreis had reached out to Middle Eastern terrorist groups and has linked his Web site to a stridently anti-Israel Islamic radio station.

He was, however, rebuffed in his initial attempts to put together links, experts said. "They told him, 'We have governments, armies and God behind us. We don't need you,'" said one ADL researcher who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Today, there seemed little doubt someone larger than an isolated hater was behind the day America crashed and burned.

"I can't tell you that we're upset," Kreis said, quickly adding, "We had no knowledge of what was going to happen if that's what you're asking. People aren't stupid."

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