- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 1, 2004

The year 2003 ended with the United States on high alert for terrorist strikes at home and abroad. The alert continues into 2004, a sobering reminder of our shared peril.

While traveling in Southeast Asia in 2002, a counter-terrorist cop told me, in a tone as tough as his stare: “We’ve been targets longer than you. I don’t say this to insult. … America has joined our war.” He was specifically referring to the Jemaah Islamiya/al Qaeda threats to Indonesia and Singapore.

His blunt words, however, echo a common insight. At the moment, every corner of the world, if not directly touched by conflict, is close to the line of fire.

Though 2003 may prove to be the pivotal year in the U.S. war on terrorism, 2004 presents presidents, diplomats and generals with an array of security challenges. Here’s the upside: Most of the challenges are being confronted. The post September 11 United States — aware of the world and active in it — has brought hope and spine to people pursuing just peace and the rule of law.

Here are a few of the more notorious challenges:

U.S. homeland: Look for the terrorist alert levels to fluctuate from elevated to high. September through early November is a particularly sensitive time, with the September 11 anniversary and a presidential election. Al Qaeda would cast its vote with terrorist threats.

Iraq: The “central front” is a fatal attraction al Qaeda can’t resist. Low-level fighting will continue.

Turkey: Al Qaeda’s attacks in 2003 opened “a new front” in Turkey. Turkey’s moderate Islamic government now claims it has severely damaged al Qaeda’s Turkish organization. In 2004, Turkey will demonstrate it is not a “soft target.”

Iran: The tragic earthquake in Bam is the current news, temporarily displacing the student and business-led revolt against the ayatollahs’ regime. The earthquake, however, demonstrates that after 24 years of theocracy, Iran remains a Third World flop. The students will make that point later in the year.

Indonesia: Arrests have damaged Jemaah Islamiya, especially nabbing terror facilitator Hambali. Indonesia, however, is a fractured state. The Aceh rebellion will continue.

Pakistan: Islamist fascists covet Pakistani nukes. They are also vexed that the Pakistani Army has helped police Taliban sanctuaries along the Afghan border. Pakistan’s intelligence service combines insidious political corruption with Islamic fanaticism. Given its domestic instability, there may be more assassination attempts on President Pervez Musharraf. Pakistan also confronts nuclear-armed India in Kashmir. Pakistan is an “A List” challenge.

Chechnya: Russia’s ugly war often disappears from view, except when terrorists bomb Russian towns. Moscow hopes Chechnya will stabilize in 2004. It isn’t likely.

China vs. Taiwan: Native Taiwanese clamor for formal separation from China. “Hard nationalism,” however, is Beijing’s current ideological glue, so the mainland isn’t about to accede to Taiwanese demands. Taiwan faces 400 missiles China is ready to fire. The United States buffers Taiwan and China’s clash, but it knows it needs China as an ally in the war on terrorism. Washington will cool Taiwan’s ardor, but probably provide it with new defensive weapons (diesel subs among them).

North Korea: Nut case Kim Jong Il has seen Libya fold on nuclear weapons, but this starving Stalinist state is an “A List” nightmare. China is a critical diplomatic force in successfully policing North Korea. It’s another reason the United States tilts toward Beijing vis a vis Taiwan.

Zimbabwe: Dictator Robert Mugabe has turned an agricultural breadbasket into an economic basket case. South Africa says it intends to stay out of Zimbabwe’s “internal affairs.” That could change in 2004 if Zimbabwe spirals into chaotic civil war.

Venezuela: President Hugo Chavez combines the worst in Juan Peron and Napoleon. His paratrooper ego approaches that of his greatest living icon, Fidel Castro. Venezuela will smolder in 2004.

European Union clashes: No, this isn’t a security challenge per se, but it’s interesting. The collapse of the E.U.’s constitutional convention will resonate through 2004. Watch for “new Europe” (Poland, Spain, et al.) to flex political muscles at the expense of “old Europe” France.

Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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