Fighting back against terrorism. US takes close look at base security
American military installations overseas are big, bustling symbols of United States might. As such, they have become increasingly tempting targets for terrorists. US bases in West Germany are particularly vulnerable, as Sunday's bombing of a store for American military personnel in Frankfurt, West Germany, reveals. But government officials say they are also worried about US posts in Greece, the Philippines, and Australia, among others.
Ironically, the Frankfurt explosion occurred while a US government team studying base security was in the area. It was the fourth such major attack in recent months, according to the Pentagon.
In August a bomb at the Rhein-Main Air Base, also near Frankfurt, killed two Americans. A few weeks later three bombs exploded at US installations in West Germany's Saarland, with no injuries. And in early fall a car belonging to an Air Force officer was blown up in Greece.
Sunday's bombing shows that such terrorist attacks are becoming more concerted, government officials say. As of Monday morning, no one had claimed responsibility for the act, which injured 34 people. But the Pentagon was assuming it was the work of the self-named Red Army Faction. The RAF said it was responsible for the earlier Rhein-Main and Saarland bombings and claims to be part of an alliance of European terrorist groups that have made military bases their No. 1 targets.
In the last year attacks against NATO targets have indeed seemed on the upswing. Besides the Red Army Faction's German bombings, the group Direct Action has been active in France.
The self-styled Fighting Communist Cells have claimed credit for at least nine bombings of NATO military installations in Belgium. Early this year, a new group calling itself ``Popular Forces of the 25th of April'' took responsibility for four actions in Portugal, including a grenade attack against six NATO ships in Lisbon.
``There is no question in my mind that we do have a network at work,'' says Dr. Yonah Alexander, a terrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University.
On the plus side, Pentagon officials say, Sunday's Frankfurt bombing shows that lax security is not really the issue there. A bomb-laden BMW exploded in an area on the fringes of the military shopping center, behind a wall. It had not entered the area closest to the center, which is guarded by two checkpoints. ``They didn't get to where they could have caused the most damage,'' says a Pentagon spokesman, Comdr. Bob Prucha.
But some members of Congress in fact have doubts about the toughness of security at US bases overseas. Earlier this fall, the General Accounting Office began a study on the vulnerability of US bases at the request of Sen. Jim Sasser (D) of Tennessee, senior Democrat on a military construction subcommittee.
Two big US installations in the Philippines -- Clark Air Force Base and Subic Bay Naval Base -- are sources of major concern. At Clark, for instance, guard towers around the base's perimeter, supposed to be manned by Philippine soldiers, were found empty during a recent visit by a Senate Democratic staff member. Much of the perimeter fencing was missing, apparently stolen by Filipinos living near the base.
A US Air Force base near Athens also worries some members of Congress because of alleged lax security. The base runways are right next to those of Athens's civilian airport.
US installations in West Germany are always a concern, government officials say, because there are many in a small area, and they are highly visible. On the plus side, they say, the budget this year includes $56 million for improved security at bases in Germany that house Pershing 2 medium-range nuclear missiles.
Though they are reluctant to talk about it, some officials also say that some US bases in Australia may need beefed-up security. One, code-named ``Casino,'' is located near Nurrungar, South Australia, according to author Daniel Ford in his book on nuclear command and control. Casino receives transmissions from early-warning satellites and consists of highly exposed antennas and transmitters that present extremely vulnerable targets, according to Mr. Ford.