U.S. Hits Suspected Terrorist Sites
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Retaliating 13 days after the deadly embassy bombings in East Africa, U.S. forces launched cruise missile strikes against alleged terrorist camps in Afghanistan and a chemical plant in Sudan on Thursday. ``Our target was terror,″ President Clinton declared.
In an address from the Oval Office after interrupting his vacation to return to Washington, Clinton said he acted to ``counter an immediate threat″ of more terrorist acts.
``Let our actions today send this message loud and clear: There are no expendable American targets. There will be no sanctuary for terrorists,″ Clinton said.
He said the attack’s timing was based on U.S. intelligence that a ``gathering of key terrorist leaders″ was planned Thursday at the site in Afghanistan. He called the site ``one of the most active terrorist bases in the world.″
Clinton said the facilities attacked were linked to Osama bin Laden, a Saudi millionaire whom Clinton called the ``preeminent organizer and financier of international terrorism in the world today.″ He said groups affiliated with bin Laden were behind the Aug. 7 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed more than 200 people, including 12 Americans.
According to a spokesman for Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers, bin Laden was unharmed in Thursday’s attack.
National security adviser Samuel Berger said U.S. officials were not targeting bin Laden and were unsure of his fate. ``We have no idea of bin Laden’s whereabouts or whether he was in the camp at that time,″ Berger said.
Reflecting worry about possible retaliation against targets inside the United States, Berger told reporters the FBI had issued an alert to ``all local law enforcement officials about the heightened degree of concern″ they should have for terrorist attacks.
The Federal Aviation Administration issued an advisory prohibiting domestic carriers from flying over the two countries. Foreign carriers with code-sharing agreements with U.S. carriers also cannot take passengers with a U.S.-issued ticket over the affected air space as well.
Some U.S. airports with international flights also implemented more stringent security measures in the wake of the military strikes. Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport added foot patrols, more canine units for bomb sniffing and more tow trucks to remove unattended vehicles.
At United Nations headquarters in New York, Ambassador Bill Richardson informed the Security Council that the United States acted in self-defense, in accord with the U.N. charter.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Thursday’s air strikes were part of an ongoing fight against terrorism and that Americans should not think it will be easily won.
``It is part of a long-term battle against terrorism, terrorists who have, in fact, declared war on us,″ Albright said.
A federal grand jury and the FBI field office in New York have been investigating bin Laden’s role in at least three terrorist attacks or plots, officials said. They said investigators are trying to determine whether he provided financial backing for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, an aborted plot in New York to bomb bridges and tunnels, and a November 1995 car bombing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that killed five Americans.
The U.S. strikes involved Tomahawk cruise missiles fired by Navy ships in the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea, according to administration and congressional officials. Between 75 and 100 cruise missiles were fired. No aircraft were involved and there were no U.S. casualties, said defense officials.
Clinton said he ordered the strikes based on the unanimous recommendation of his national security team.
``The countries that persistently host terrorism have no right to be safe havens,″ said Clinton, who interrupted a Martha’s Vineyard vacation in Massachusetts to rush back to Washington. ``No religion condones the murder of innocent men, women and children.″ Clinton planned to return to Martha’s Vineyard on Friday, the White House said.
The nation’s top intelligence officials warned ``that the prospect of retaliation against Americans is very, very high.″ One senior intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, ``People ought to understand that this is not a one-shot deal. There is a high probability of retaliation.″
Because of the nature of the U.S. confrontation with the bin Laden terrorist network, the administration would not discuss details of Thursday’s attacks. Defense Secretary William Cohen said they were carried out beginning at 1:30 p.m. EDT and took less than an hour.
Cohen said U.S. forces alone were involved in the attacks on what he called a terrorist training and support compound in Afghanistan, 94 miles south of Kabul near the Pakistani border, and on the Shifa Pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, suspected of making agents for chemical weapons, including VX nerve gas.
Television images from Sudan showed twisted girders, shattered concrete and orange-glowing flames from the El Shifa Pharmaceutical Plant, a fenced and heavily guarded complex in the Sudanese capital.
Lawmakers from both parties rallied behind Clinton’s decision. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., called it ``the right thing to do.″
``We just had to do it, we just had to,″ said Rep. Ike Skelton, ranking Democrat on the House National Security Committee. ``We’re quite sure the attacks in Africa came from these two places, and we had to strike back.″
Clinton telephoned several congressional leaders before the strikes, including Gingrich and Senate Republican leader Trent Lott of Mississippi. En route to Washington, Clinton again called congressional leaders as well as British Prime Minister Tony Blair, said White House press secretary Mike McCurry.
In a confluence of dramatic moments, Clinton announced the U.S. bombings on the same day that former White House intern Monica Lewinsky testified for a second time to the grand jury investigating her relationship with Clinton. On Monday, Clinton had made a nationally televised admission of having had sexual relations with Ms. Lewinksy.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., suggested that Clinton may have acted precipitously in an attempt to ``focus attention away from his own personal problems.″
Asked about that possibility, Cohen said, ``The only motivation driving this action today was our absolute obligation to protect the American people from terrorist activities.″ He said the administration believed it had to act quickly after learning that more terrorist attacks might be forthcoming.
A senior U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Sudanese target, the Shifa Pharmaceutical plant, is used to make precursor chemicals for the deadly nerve gas VX. The official said there is no evidence that the plant actually makes commercial pharmaceuticals. It is fenced and guarded by the Sudanese military.
Berger said bin Laden had financed the Sudanese military-industrial compound of which the chemical plant is a part.
The sites in eastern Afghanistan are all part of what the intelligence official called the largest and most extensive Sunni Muslim ``terrorist university″ in the world. The official said the site operates with the blessing, if not the outright support, of the Taliban, the group that controls Afghanistan.
The timing of the strikes _ 7:30 p.m. in Sudan and 10 p.m. in Afghanistan _ was chosen for three key reasons, the official said: The United States had information pointing to impending terrorist attacks coordinated by bin Laden’s organization; there would be a reduced risk of civilian casualties in Khartoum at that time of night, and U.S. intelligence was informed that there would be more terrorists at the training camp in Afghanistan than usual. The training camp, spread over six sites, was said to include as many as 600 terrorists and trainers.
In Khartoum, Interior Minister Abdul Rahim Mohammed Hussein said two American planes dropped about five bombs in three or four attacks on a privately owned factory in an industrial part of the capital.
``It is not chemical weapons. It is a factory for medical drugs,″ he told CNN.
Hundreds of rock-throwing protesters shouting ``Down USA″ stormed the empty U.S. embassy in Khartoum, which had been closed since January 1996.