Prague, 12 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Armed with perhaps little more than knives, terrorists yesterday hijacked four planes, turning three of them into bombs that struck at the heart of the U.S. commercial and defense systems. Thousands of lives are feared to have been lost.
As the nation begins to deal with the aftermath of the biggest-ever terrorist attack on U.S. soil, one of the questions being asked is, "How will the U.S. respond to an as-yet-faceless foe?"
RFE/RL put this question to Philip Sabin, professor of strategic studies at King's College Department of War Studies in London.
He says that the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush now faces two opposing pressures:
"One is to identify clearly -- in ways that can be made public in part -- the perpetrators, so that any response is seen as legitimate. The other contrary pressure is the urge to do something. We've seen blanket media coverage and it's going to be difficult to resist calls to attack, particularly when the suspicion is that it's someone like [Saudi-born extremist Osama] bin Laden."
Observers say how the U.S. responds depends largely on who the perpetrators turn out to be.
Some say the fact that all preparations for the attack appear to have avoided detection by intelligence services suggests it had backing from a sovereign state opposed to the U.S.
Or, as Sabin says, it could also point to a maverick and previously unknown terrorist group.
In a televised address last night, Bush said he would make no distinction between the terrorists and those who harbor them.
Sabin says this clearly implies retaliatory strikes.
"If, let's say, the Afghans refuse to give up bin Laden, and he is clearly identified as being behind it, then the Afghans will be in line for some kind of action. I think the legitimacy of that will be seen as much clearer if the Afghan government -- it could be someone else -- is seen as shielding the perpetrators. The problem will come if innocent civilians are killed in response, but it is unlikely that the U.S. would engage in like-for-like retaliation."
Bin Laden is thought to be behind the U.S. embassy bombings in eastern Africa in 1998. While there is as yet no public proof linking him to yesterday's attacks, bin Laden has emerged as a chief suspect.
Nigel Vinson is research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense Studies (RUSI) in London.
"If it transpires it's a state actor -- which, frankly, is highly unlikely -- the response is straightforward: air cruise missiles and possibly land forces against that state. However, that's extremely unlikely. What's more likely in the short term is that targets, possibly in Iraq -- simply to vent frustration -- and also the alleged headquarters of bin Laden in Afghanistan, will be hit by cruise missiles and or aircraft, but this would simply be a case of carrying out punitive raids."
He says the longer-term implications are far more fundamental -- and a long-term response may be the United States simply turning its back on the rest of the world.
"We already know that Bush was keen to disengage forces from some theaters of operation -- in Haiti, East Timor, the Balkans. This may propel at an even greater rate the feeling of isolationism in the U.S., and more importantly, a desire to replace the U.S. in potential regional flash points -- for example in China-Taiwan, or in the Mideast -- with more beefed-up regional powers, such as ... Japan, Europe, some Arab countries."
In response to the attack, NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson said the alliance and the international community must "unite their forces in fighting the scourge of terrorism." And the European Union promised to help U.S. efforts to eradicate terrorism.
But Vinson says the nature of the attack means such increased international cooperation need not contradict any growing isolationism in the US.
"In this case, the Achilles heel of the U.S. is the very fundamental democratic and commercial aspects of its global presence. It's not its military forces, its ballistic defense, it's the very infrastructure of the country itself. That can't be tackled at a national level, which would seem to concur with the messages coming out of NATO."
Observers note that the attack could also have ramifications for Bush's plans to develop a missile defense system -- plans which so far have come in for strong opposition from Russia and China. But it is unclear whether it will strengthen the hand of the supporters or the critics of the defense system.
Vinson says that yesterday's attack could push back the system's deployment date. Critics could point out that the U.S. would still be vulnerable to attacks such as yesterday's, even with a missile shield.
But he adds that it could equally strengthen the hand of the system's supporters.
"The means of delivery may be irrelevant. The fact that they were prepared to kill and maim on such a wide scale is indicative of the fact that America is and will be vulnerable to ballistic missile attack. I suspect that supporters of missile defense will be spurred on by this event."
He says that over the medium term the U.S. is likely to divert resources away from conventional defense towards protection against attacks on air traffic control and other key systems.