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S.L. a tempting terrorist target, expert says

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The Salt Lake 2002 Winter Olympics may be a tempting target for terrorists looking to strike the United States again, according to an expert on the Middle East who has served as a fact-finder for the Central Intelligence Agency.

The terrorists' next target could be anyplace, said Richard Robison, of Salt Lake City, but he doubts terrorists would be "foolish enough to go back to the same cities."

But he believes Salt Lake City could be a potentially devastating target.

"In February 2002, Salt Lake City will host the world in the Winter Olympics. Looking at the past, and the way that these terrorist groups have operated, they generally require a certain period of time to prepare for the next event."

With the period remaining between now and the Winter Games, he added, "I would hope that Salt Lake realizes that they have a tremendous challenge facing them."

Planners concerned with security "should be planning accordingly," he said.

"I hope the people realize here it's a whole different ball game now."

Robison lists his experience as including 20 years in the Middle East, Russia and Washington, D.C. He was a U.S. Foreign Service officer in the Iran-Iraq War and later assisted the CIA's Gulf War Task Force. He has worked closely with Arab leaders. During the build-up to Operation Desert Storm, his reports were used to brief the president.

Robison said he believes President Bush is right, that "this is going to be a long, drawn-out and probably very bloody war. And I'm not sure it's a war we can win with a sword."

He thinks the terror attacks are driven by a perception that the United States is engaged in a military occupation of the Persian Gulf oil lands. That is the message of the main suspect in last week's devastating attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Osama bin Laden. In addition, Iran's supreme spiritual leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called for the world's Muslim leaders to attack the United States. In an Islamic conference in Teheran a few years ago, Khamenei called for them to rise up and drive the satanic Americans from the Islamic countries of the Persian Gulf.

Though Iran's secular president, Mohammed Khatami, favors a more normal society, the country is actually in the iron grip of the Islamic hard-line leaders, said Robison.

"The hardliners are the ones that run much of the terrorist training worldwide," he said. Iran's rulers are "really not our friends." They are allied with bin Laden in opposing U.S. interests in the region.

Bin Laden was originally trained by the CIA, and he helped the Mujahideen "freedom fighters" of Afghanistan in their war against Russia.

"He knows the Americans very well. He also knows the importance to the world of the gulf oil," Robison said.

Bin Laden, along with Iran, the Taliban, which runs Afghanistan, and others are planning "to use terrorism to put enough pressure on the United States" to drive the country from the Persian Gulf region, he said.

If they succeed, Iran likely wants to move into the power vacuum and control the oil of the gulf.

Another motivation is to drive the United States into abandoning its longtime ally, Israel.

Terrorists are seen as "superheroes" in Islamic villages and towns throughout the Middle East, he said. Experienced older people like Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat fear the American reaction, but younger Palestinians are happy about the attacks.

"The terrorists believe that the Americans, as they said many times, do not bleed well," he said. They think this country eventually will back down.

However, the terrorists misjudged America's resolve, he believes. "Make no mistake, the United States has to respond militarily to these attacks.

"Whether it will have the desired results in the long run is a huge question mark. Personally, I don't believe it will lead to a lessening of terrorism."

America's response may reduce terrorism for a time, "but it will only be for a time."

Still, the United States has little choice, according to Robison.

"We cannot submit to the demands of the terrorists. We can't withdraw from the Persian Gulf. It would be disastrous for the world for us to do that," he concluded.

"We can't withdraw our support of Israel and leave them to the winds of Islamic extremism. And so as a result, Americans should be ready for a very difficult road ahead."

E-MAIL: bau@desnews.com