‘Return to Flight’ shuttle mission has much to prove

(Note: This was originally published at the Globe and Mail, where I worked)

Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian to walk in space and now the director of NASA’s robotics program, is standing at a podium, ready to talk about the Canadian technology that will help ensure the safety of the next shuttle, Discovery, which is set to launch on Wednesday. But first there is something he wants to do. “These are the seven people we killed 2½ years ago,” he says, pointing at a picture of the crew killed when the Columbia shuttle exploded Feb. 1, 2003, scattering their remains and the pieces of NASA’s shattered reputation over much of Texas.

Is there a catch in Mr. Hadfield’s voice as he says this? Of course not. He is, after all, a former test pilot and Canadian Air Force colonel who has flown on two shuttle missions and worked as ground support for dozens of others, and so the words are spoken in a firm, fighter-pilot kind of voice. At the same time, it’s clear he wants to recognize those who lost their lives that day.

And so he says a few words about the men and women on STS-107: about Kalpana Chawla, who was born in a small town in rural India and was her country’s first astronaut; and about Ila Ramon of Israel, son of a Holocaust survivor and the first Israeli in space. And the rest of the crew: mission commander Rick Husband; flight surgeon Laurel Salton Clark; specialist David Brown, who put himself through college by working as a circus acrobat; Air Force Lieutenant-Colonel Michael Anderson, one of the first black Americans to join the space program; and shuttle pilot Willy McCool.

In an interview later, Mr. Hadfield said the coming flight isn’t meant as a tribute to the crew; it’s a resupply mission for the International Space Station, he said, and a chance to see if the upgrades and changes made to the shuttle since the Columbia explosion work. In other words, the “Return to Flight” mission is about doing just that: getting back to business. “The purpose of a spaceship is to fly in space,” he said. “We’re not in the business of just dreaming about space flight, we’re in the business of space flight.”

At the same time, it is clear that Mr. Hadfield feels a deep sense of responsibility toward the Columbia crew. “It’s true, we did kill them,” he said in his blunt, no-nonsense way. “And I’m just as responsible as anyone else here. It was not a random act of God, it was a sequence of incorrect decision-making. I made my own particular best judgment based on what I knew and I was wrong.” NASA, he said, “decided based on all our engineering judgment and knowledge that [the damage caused by a piece of foam]wouldn’t be a problem. And we were wrong.”

Former astronaut Marc Garneau, the first Canadian aboard a shuttle and now director of the Canadian Space Agency, said he believes some of those involved in the current mission will see a successful launch as a kind of tribute to the crew of the Columbia, a way of showing that NASA has learned from the accident that led to their deaths. “I think once the shuttle is proceeding with its mission, there will probably be some comments made in that regard, that this means they did not die in vain,” he said.

Like the Challenger explosion some 17 years earlier, the Columbia disaster transformed the shuttle program in an instant. Instead of a heartwarming story of man’s ability to rise above his earthbound existence, it became a story about how NASA had become complacent about the risks. The next two years were spent in a frenzy of self-examination, as the agency tried to determine how such an event could have taken so many experts by surprise.

During that time, NASA has struggled to do three things: first, find out why the Columbia exploded when it was assumed to be resistant to damage; second, change its design so that nothing similar can happen again; and third, launch another shuttle to prove that the program can still accomplish its fundamental task of getting astronauts to space and back safely.

“Everybody wants to just get past this and get back to doing what they do for a living, which is send people into space and bring them back,” said Iain Christie of Ottawa-based Neptec, whose company made the camera that will inspect the shuttle. Unlike its sister ship Challenger, which blew up shortly after launch in 1986, the Columbia was destroyed just a few minutes away from its scheduled landing at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

A suitcase-sized piece of foam came off the shuttle’s external fuel tank and hit the wing, leaving a hole — which NASA didn’t think was all that important at the time. But when the shuttle was re-entering the atmosphere, Mr. Hadfield said, “a blowtorch of superheated plasma came screaming in through that hole and melted the wing,” and the shuttle exploded. NASA says it is satisfied it understands how the incident occurred and can prevent it in the future.

However, the shuttle must be sent up again to prove conclusively that it is safe to fly. And even after all the modifications — including more than $1.4-billion (U.S.) spent to add heaters to the fuel tank to prevent a buildup of ice that could break off, and to change the way that the protecting foam is applied to the tank — something unexpected could still put the shuttle in harm’s way.

“There is no magic spaceship that is 100-per-cent safe,” Mr. Hadfield said. “We know this is not a perfect vehicle or a vehicle without risk — you can’t ever say something is without risk. But NASA has decided that we understand the risks and that we are prepared to fly again.” The seven astronauts, however, will strap themselves in knowing that a recent task force report found NASA had failed to fulfill three of the goals set out after the Columbia accident.

Those goals were to: ensure that no ice or foam would come loose from the fuel tank; make sure that if anything did hit the shuttle, it wouldn’t cause any serious damage; and if there were any damage, find a way for the astronauts to repair it before their return. According to Mr. Hadfield, those three goals were virtually impossible to meet completely. “We can’t take it to zero,” he said of the chances that something might damage the shuttle. “We can try to minimize it, but we can’t get rid of it completely. And if we do get some kind of damage, there are some holes that we simply can’t repair once we’re up there.”

If something knocks a hole the size of a stop sign in the shuttle’s wing, as the piece of foam did to the Columbia, “we can’t just get out there and throw a bunch of Bondo on it,” he said. Mr. Hadfield and others in the space program say so much study and analysis has been done over the past 2½ years that this shuttle launch could be one of the safest in the aircraft’s 25-year history. “I am confident that this is the safest launch ever attempted,” he said. “Far safer than a shuttle mission has ever been before.” In fact, he said, “I would be far more comfortable flying on this one than I should have been flying on the first two.”

Even the members of the Stafford-Covey task force (otherwise known as the Independent Return to Flight Task Group, set up by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board and staffed by former astronauts) said that the shuttle was safe to launch, Mr. Hadfield said — “safer than the ones they flew on.”

Perhaps the biggest struggle for NASA since the Columbia explosion has been coming to grips with all the things that it suddenly realized it didn’t know. According to Mr. Hadfield, “there have been over 10,000 incidents of debris hitting the shuttle during launch” over the 112 flights leading up to the Columbia mission. Why did a piece of foam cause so much damage that one time?

Paul Cooper, a vice-president at MDA Ltd. of Brampton — which built the Canadarm — says the piece of foam would have had to be exactly the right size and come off at exactly the right time to hit the shuttle’s wing in such a way as to damage it so badly. The odds of that are almost impossible to calculate.

“I watched the footage of that foam over and over,” Mr. Hadfield said, “and I decided that we didn’t need to do anything.” So did most of the other NASA engineers who saw it. Now, NASA says it has come as close as it can get to ruling out a similar accident. NASA administrator Michael Griffin — a physicist and engineer — said the shuttle will still be at risk, but at least the risk is known. “Before, we were flying at risk of foam and ice,” he said, but “we really did not know how serious it was. Now we know, and we hope it will be much less because of the changes we have made. But the risk will not be zero.”

The Ingram Christmas Letter for 2004

Another Christmas arrives to find Toronto largely snowless – although we got just enough to make the lights look pretty, after what was one of the warmest Novembers since the Pleistocene Era (not to be confused with the more malleable Plasticine Era). Many of the T-shirt-clad people lining the street for the annual Santa Claus parade no doubt felt sorry for poor old St. Nick, in his ermine-trimmed coat and boots (synthetic ermine, of course), but I expect that plenty of others were more than a little thankful for some global warming. Everyone into their SUVs – and whatever you do, don’t stop idling!

The various members of the Ingram family (eastern Toronto division) made it through the year with their usual aplomb, thanks to careful planning, a few lucky breaks, and the occasional 20-dollar bill slipped to a teacher along the way. We had quite the generation gap this year, with Zoe in Grade One (she’s six) and Caitlin in Grade 10 (she’s 15) – Zoe was learning that the round part of a “b” goes to the right and the round part of a “d” goes to the left, and Caitlin was learning about polynomials (whatever those are). Meaghan, meanwhile, was playing the flute and learning French and all the other joys of Grade 6.

We spent some time in sunny Florida, courtesy of Becky’s mother and father, where the girls learned to play shuffleboard, Zoe enthralled the gathered throng at the weekly sunset “drum circle” on the beach with her interpretive dance (that’s her on the right) and we saw the famed Lipizzaner stallions. Caitlin experienced the rollercoaster at Busch Gardens while on a school trip to Virginia Beach (that’s her on the right), Zoe learned to ride a two-wheeler (she didn’t hit that car, in case you’re worried) and Meaghan made some new friends at camp. Oh yes, and she also turned eleven. The girls practiced their diving and puttered around in boats, and even chipped in to do some painting at the cottage.

In between there was plenty of jumping in the pool (not our pool, alas), some beautiful sunsets, and a little golf (thanks Bob), not to mention naps for both young and old. In the fall, Meaghan and Zoe got dressed up for Hallowe’en (Caitlin’s too old for that sort of thing, of course) and so did some people who should know better. Later, there was time set aside for squeezing through caves and walking in the woods, or sitting in trees and the wearing of pretty hats. And now we are quite ready for Christmas, with all the various treats prepared, including the ginger cookies and the star-cookie Christmas trees. And the girls have decorated not just their own Christmas tree but their cousin Jessica’s too and have met Santa.

And so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut Jr. used to say. Another year filled for the most part with fun and frolic (and the occasional splinter, bee sting, hacking cough, vomiting spell, heart surgery, etc. — but let’s not talk about that). If you have a lot of free time on your hands and feel like surfing through some more pictures of the Ingrams, you can find some at mathewingram.com/photos. If you want to drop us a line using that newfangled e-mail thing all the kids are talking about, Mathew is at [email protected] and you can reach Becky at [email protected]. We here at Ingram and Co. wish you and yours all the best of the season.

The Ingram Christmas Letter 2003

It’s that time of year again! The Ingrams have been busy this year — in one of the highlights of the year, Caitlin, who is in Grade 8, took part in a student walkout in support of the teachers at her school, who were on a “work to rule” campaign to get a better contract. About 400 students walked out at Joseph Howe in Scarborough, and Caitlin actually got quoted in a story about it in the local paper! “I don’t think that, as kids, we should have to be doing this,” she said. A budding trade unionist in the family 🙂

In other news, there were balloon animals, and also lots of birthdays, of course. Zoe had fun in her Sparks group (they’re like starter Brownies, and Becky is a group leader) and fun swimming in the lake, and dressed up as a pirate for Halloween. She also got to sit on the throne during the Christmas party and looked quite regal — like she belonged there! Zoe and I also went for a walk in the woods at Thanksgiving, and it seems like we had a deep conversation, but for the life of me I can’t remember what we talked about. I assume I was sharing the made-up names of various plants just like my mother taught me 🙂

In the summer, there was jumping practice at the lake in Muskoka, and some swimming time at my family’s cottage in the Ottawa Valley, and a windy day on Rouge Beach near our house for Zoe and her friend Cynthia. There were also rainbows, and Becky and her brother Dave coordinated a reunion of what they called their “Tin Can Navy” — a group of friends who all had cottages near each other in Muskoka, and drove around in their aluminum boats delivering newspapers and generally getting up to no good 🙂

Caitlin graduated from high school and looked thoughtful about her future. She also took a trip to Nova Scotia with her cousin Christopher, and they did a tour of the province (or at least some parts of it) with their uncle Jack, who lives there. Meaghan dressed up for Halloween as a rocker and posed along with Zoe in her Dalmation outfit (she also likes to pretend she’s a dog sometimes, up to and including barking at strangers in the grocery store).

We got an impromptu flute concert from Caitlin and Meaghan in the kitchen, and Meaghan, who is in Grade 5, also wrote about the best Christmas gift she ever got, which was the time her grandmother surprised her by visiting us one Christmas when we lived in Calgary. This year, Meaghan got to explore her love of snakes at the annual Globe and Mail Christmas party, and we had an early pre-Christmas at our house in Toronto, where the three girls dressed up in their matching Christmas nightgowns.

For Christmas proper, we all got together at Becky’s family cottage in Muskoka, including all 10 grandkids (Note: I realize the photo linked to there doesn’t show all of them, but I assure you they were there). It was a bit of a tight fit, but somehow we managed it! Meaghan and Zoe even got to have a bath in the big tub together. And that’s about it for our year — hope you and yours had a great one as well. And just remember, while you are doing whatever you are doing, Zoe is planning to take over the world 🙂

Merry Christmas from the Ingrams for 2001

Hey, thanks for dropping by — whoever you are. And all the best of the season to you and yours, from us and ours. “Us” is Becky and Mathew and Caitlin and Meaghan and Zoe Ingram. No longer the Calgary-based Ingrams, we have made the big trek back to the centre of the known universe in Toronto, where we have a lovely little house near the Rouge River, down by the lake — with a lovely view of the nuclear generating station.So since we’re way too disorganized to get actual paper Christmas cards out in time, this is an electronic Season’s greeting from our family to yours.

As we write this, we’ve just had a little bit of wintery weather — a rare event in Toronto this season, which has seen more double digit days than any other December in recent memory. It just doesn’t seem right to be putting up Christmas lights in a T-shirt. But the snow is already going. Maybe Santa will have to bring the ATV instead of the sleigh.

In case you haven’t seen them for awhile, here’s a review of where the kids are — and no, this won’t be one of those letters that talks about how Caitlin just got accepted into Harvard at the age of 12, or how Meaghan won a Rhodes scholarship, or Zoe danced Swan Lake in her Christmas pageant… although I should mention that Zoe recently became a magician’s assistant for a day at a Christmas party, out in the country at a tree farm, where we also went out into the field and cut down our magnificent Christmas tree. Caitlin spends a little too much time on MSN Messenger with her friends for our liking, but other than that is turning into quite the young lady (except for sometimes that is).

Meaghan is also growing up fairly quickly, but while she likes to wear a dress now and then, she also loves to do 8-year-old things like play with snakes like the ones they had at our company Christmas party, where the girls got to ride on a toy train and meet Santa. Zoe, meanwhile, is a bossy 3.5-year-old (no surprise there), and manages to get everyone in the house to do what she wants, even if they would rather not. She has made lots of friends at play school, and even won the award for Most Improved Play-doh Animal, a coveted… oops. Sorry about that.

There’s a few more pictures here if you want to have a look at them (go on — you know you want to). Or you can send an e-mail to Mathew at [email protected] or one to Becky at [email protected] or to Caitlin at [email protected] — you get the picture. Zoe might take a little while to respond, but don’t let that stop you.

Who is Osama bin Laden?

(Note: This was originally published at the Globe and Mail)

By now, everyone who has been following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon has probably heard the name Osama bin Laden. President George W. Bush has said that he is a prime suspect in the terrorist attacks, just as he was a prime suspect in the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 and in dozens of other terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies, ships and other assets. Some viewers may even have seen Mr. bin Laden on television, a wiry man with a long beard, dressed in traditional Muslim robes, speaking into a microphone or walking out of a tent in the mountains surrounded by men carrying semi-automatic rifles. But just who is Osama bin Laden?

As far as anyone can tell, Osama (or Ussamah) bin Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden was born in Saudi Arabia in 1957 to a prominent businessman from Yemen and his fourth wife. Mr. bin Laden has 22 half-brothers who control various branches of the family empire (the Syrian group, the Lebanese group, the Egyptian group, the Jordanian group, and so on) – a conglomerate that does business throughout the Middle East and is worth about $5-billion (U.S.). Mr. bin Laden’s father Mohammed was a close friend of Saudi King Abdul Aziz, and made his early fortune by being granted an exclusive contract to build all the religious structures in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and until 1967 in the city of Jerusalem as well. From this Mr. bin Laden expanded into road construction, farming, telecommunications, petrochemicals and a range of other businesses.

According to one account, the bin Laden sons went to the same schools as the various children of King Abdul Aziz – as well as other Middle Eastern luminaries such as King Hussein of Jordan, the Kashoggi brothers (whose father was one of the king’s doctors) and actor Omar Sharif. Like his half-brothers, Osama bin Laden worked for awhile for his father’s company, and reportedly had a reputation as a bit of a party boy who liked to stay out late and drink in Jeddah, the political hub of Saudi Arabia.

Those party days came to an end, however, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and a large number of Saudi men went to support their Muslim neighbours. Osama bin Laden used his family’s money and construction equipment to dig tunnels and trenches in the mountains and to create a network of training camps and rebel bases. Like most of the “mujahideen” rebel groups, he was financed and trained in part by the U.S. government, which spent $6-billion or so trying to defeat the Soviets.

After the Soviet troops finally pulled out of Afghanistan, Mr. bin Laden went back to Saudi Arabia and continued building roads and other projects – but he would say later that his commitment to a radical and violent interpretation of Islam, to the idea of a holy war, started in Afghanistan. Even though he and his mujahideen fighters were working with (or for) the U.S. to repel the Soviets, Mr. bin Laden and others saw the U.S. as equally oppressive to Muslim peoples in the Middle East, and as soon as the Russian threat was gone, Mr. bin Laden turned his attention to the U.S. “crusaders,” who he blamed for helping Israel oppress the Muslims in Palestine and for corrupting the royal government of his home country of Saudi Arabia.

Through the 1980s, Mr. bin Laden continued working in construction, on projects that included an 800 kilometre road from Port Sudan to Khartoum in Sudan – a war-torn country controlled by a radical Islamic military regime. The bin Laden group also reportedly built a number of oil pipelines, which are now being used to transport oil from a field in the southern region of the country, a project that is partially owned by Talisman Energy of Calgary. Mr. bin Laden later moved to Sudan, and continued building his business empire, moving into agriculture and even pharmaceutical production.

Sudanese leader Omar el-Bashir has maintained that Mr. bin Laden was an ordinary businessman while he was in Sudan, helping to build roads and schools, but U.S. and international authorities became convinced he was engaged in financing terrorism and training Muslim terrorists. In 1998, in retaliation for attacks on two U.S. embassies, the U.S. destroyed what it said was a chemical weapons factory controlled by Mr. bin Laden – a plant Mr. bin Laden said was a pharmaceutical manufacturing facility.

Although he was known to the U.S. government already, his first real appearance on the international scene was when he granted an interview to British journalist Robert Fisk of The Independent in 1993. At the time, he was building the Port Sudan road, using the same bulldozers he had used to build a network of guerrilla trails in Afghanistan – but already, some of his fellow mujahideen had gone to fight in Bosnia and Mr. bin Laden was suspected of helping to finance that battle between Christian Serbs and Muslim Croats. In 1993, the World Trade Center was bombed, and the world started to become familiar with the name Osama bin Laden.

The following year, the rest of Mr. bin Laden’s family distanced themselves from their half-brother: Bakr Mohammed bin Laden, the leader of the family group, expressed the family’s “regret, denunciation and condemnation of all acts that Osama bin Laden may have committed” (one of Mr. bin Laden’s uncles denounced him again this week in comments to Associated Press, and sent the family’s condolences to the victims in the U.S.). The U.S., meanwhile, was putting pressure on the Sudanese government to distance itself from Mr. bin Laden and his ilk, and finally the country pressured Mr. bin Laden to leave. He decided to return to Afghanistan, where he helped the radical Islamic group known as the Taliban to take control of the country, and in return was offered the protection of the government.

From most reports, Mr. bin Laden has helped to set up a network of training camps and supply depots in the hills of Afghanistan, and moves from camp to camp at random to avoid potential attacks. He has a heavily fortified family compound in Kandahar, but rarely spends much time there – preferring to stay in a network of caves and tents in the hills, guarded by a group of devoted followers including his 16-year-old son Mohammed. He reportedly has satellite phones in the caves, which he uses to keep in touch with various radical Muslim groups, as well as other electronic equipment including fax machines and computers that are powered by electric generators. Mr. bin Laden’s group is known in Arabic as al-Qaeda, or “the base.”

The United States has tried to pressure the Taliban to hand over Mr. bin Laden, but they have refused, denying that he is involved with any terrorism. Several sources have reported that two years ago, his daughter (he has 20 children from four marriages) married Mullah Mohammed Omar, the leader of the Taliban – and at the same time, Mr. bin Laden married the daughter of a highly-ranked leader in the Taliban government, the two marriages further cementing his ties with the ruling party in Afghanistan. Some foreign security experts believe that such ties make it unlikely that the Taliban will hand over Mr. bin Laden, no matter how much the U.S. threatens.

In a series of interviews he has given, including one with ABC News reporter John Miller in 1998, as well as in public statements – such as the death sentence or “fatwah” he issued in 1998 against the U.S. – Osama bin Laden has made it clear that he believes that virtually any action taken against any American, civilian or military, is justified by his holy war. He said “We do not have to differentiate between military or civilian. As far as we are concerned, they are all targets, and this is what the fatwah says . . . . The fatwah is general (comprehensive) and it includes all those who participate in, or help the Jewish occupiers in killing Muslims.”

In the 1998 fatwah, Mr. bin Laden says that: “We – with God’s help – call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God’s order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it. We also call on Muslim ulema, leaders, youths, and soldiers to launch the raid on Satan’s U.S. troops and the devil’s supporters allying with them, and to displace those who are behind them so that they may learn a lesson. . . . The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies – civilians and military – is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it.”

Asked by an interviewer if he is a terrorist, Mr. bin Laden says “Terrorism can be commendable and it can be reprehensible . . . terrorizing oppressors and criminals and thieves and robbers is necessary for the safety of people and for the protection of their property. There is no doubt in this. Every state and every civilization and culture has to resort to terrorism under certain circumstances for the purpose of abolishing tyranny and corruption.” The terrorism his group practices “is of the commendable kind for it is directed at the tyrants and the aggressors and the enemies of Allah . . . terrorizing those and punishing them are necessary measures.”

How can you fight an enemy you can’t see?

(Note: This was originally published on the Globe and Mail website)

In the wake of one of the most horrific terrorist attacks on the United States in recent memory – perhaps even in history – one of the obvious questions is: Who is responsible? And what kind of action will the U.S. government take, or should it take, if and when it finds out? President George W. Bush has made it clear what he wants to do: He said in a statement that he intends to “hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts.” But how will the United States go about doing that? That is even harder to answer.

International security expert Ian Lesser of Washington-based RAND Corp. said the attack has all the earmarks of what is often called the “new” terrorism – including “the high lethality, the symbolism of the targets, the suicide of the attackers involved” and the fact that “no group has taken credit or claimed responsibility.” The problem with such attacks, Mr. Lesser said, is that it is often difficult to figure out how to retaliate, or even who exactly the government should be retaliating against.

In the past, Mr. Lesser said, terrorism was primarily conducted by organized groups such as the Red Brigade or the Irish Republican Army, whose primary aim was “the liberation of Group X or the freedom or interests of a particular country or group.” They tended to take credit “because they wanted to call attention to their cause,” said Mr. Lesser, “but modern groups have systemic, often religious agendas, and as far as they’re concerned the act itself is enough – and they may see themselves as answerable only to God,” which helps explain why they often involve suicides.

Security experts say the first target of suspicion in such a well-organized attack against the United States is Osama bin Laden, a Saudi exile and prominent supporter of Islamic terrorism who has been implicated in dozens of attacks on U.S. institutions – including a previous attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. Living in Afghanistan, where he has been protected by the fundamentalist Taliban government, Mr. bin Laden reportedly warned several weeks ago that he was preparing some kind of major strike.

John Sigler, an adjunct professor of political science at Carleton University and a specialist in American foreign policy and Middle Eastern affairs, said a warning has been circulating in intelligence circles that Mr. bin Laden was planning an attack – but the assumption was the attack would likely take place in the Middle East, not inside the United States itself. “They’ve been warning for 30 days about a suspected Osama bin Laden attack in the Middle East, and U.S. forces have been on high alert… but nobody had envisaged this kind of multiple hijacking attack” on U.S. targets.

Prof. Sigler said that the attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon was “extremely sophisticated” and that within the international terrorism community “most of us can’t put the finger on anyone but Osama bin Laden.” There were early reports that an Arab group, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, had claimed responsibility, but Prof. Sigler said such an idea was “laughable.” Osama bin Laden’s group is one of the only groups that could put together such a well co-ordinated plan to attack several targets at once, Prof. Sigler said.

Several observers have pointed out that in the wake of the attack on the Federal building in Oklahoma, many terrorism experts also pointed the finger at Osama bin Laden, but bomber Timothy McVeigh turned out to be a decorated U.S. Special Forces veteran associated with the anti-government U.S. “militia” movement. Prof. Sigler said militia groups might have the ability to mount such an attack “because many of them have a Special Forces and intelligence background,” but he still thought it was more likely to be Osama bin Laden. “I can see militia attacking the Pentagon and the State Department, but the World Trade Center isn’t a government centre.”

And why does Osama bin Laden hate the United States with such intensity? Prof. Sigler said the Islamic fundamentalist “doesn’t hate America at all – he hates a specific American policy, which is the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia.” Troops have been stationed on bases in Saudi Arabia since the 1991 Persian Gulf war, Prof. Sigler said, despite repeated warnings from security experts that this policy would create even more tension with fundamentalist groups. “A lot of people advised [President]Bush’s father not to put troops in Saudi Arabia,” Prof. Sigler said, because groups such as Mr. bin Laden’s oppose having non-Muslim troops guarding Islamic holy sites.

When it comes to retaliation, the RAND Corp.’s Mr. Lesser said, the problem for the U.S. government is that the new terrorism involves such a diverse network of groups and often even individuals, as opposed to the kind of state-sponsored terrorism that the United States has been used to in the past. One of the problems with rushing to pin the blame on Osama bin Laden, he said, is defining “who is part of bin Laden’s group? Is it the people standing with him in the cave in Afghanistan? The group of people running things in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere? People who share his aims? Or people who took him as inspiration?” It makes retaliation “a very complicated equation,” Mr. Lesser said.

Mr. Bush and some of his advisers, such as Vice-President and notorious hawk Dick Cheney, may see the appalling attacks on the United States as a declaration of war – but with whom? And how do you fight an enemy you can’t put your hands on? That is the dilemma that confronts the U.S. now.