By Russell Berman - 03/23/11 07:23 PM EDT
American military intervention in Libya increases the risk of a reprisal terrorist attack by the Libyan leadership in the U.S. or Europe, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee told The Hill.
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) backs the multinational campaign to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya, saying he agrees with the Obama administration’s assertion that it is in the U.S.’s long-term national security interests. But he warned of retribution from Col. Moammar Gadhafi, who before a brief rapprochement with the U.S. had a history of involvement in terrorism.
Senior U.S. officials have also acknowledged the heightened risk. Among U.S. and coalition officials, fears that Gadhafi will seek to carry out terrorist attacks on American or Western targets in retaliation are "very, very legitimate," Gen. Carter Ham, chief of U.S. Africa Command and commander of the coalition operation, told reporters Monday during a Pentagon briefing.
Though commanders have yet to see evidence Gadhafi is planning such attacks, "we have to operate under the assumption he would like to see that happen," Ham said.
What's more, coalition officials are mindful the situation could allow al Qaeda to "establish — or re-establish — a foothold" there, Ham said.
Gadhafi’s government was implicated in the bombing of a nightclub in West Berlin in 1986 — which prompted President Ronald Reagan to order retaliatory military strikes — and the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. The Lockerbie bombing led to years of U.N. sanctions until Libya renounced terrorism in 2003. The State Department listed Libya as a state sponsor of terrorism until 2006, when the Bush administration began a process of normalizing relations with the Gadhafi regime.
“Our counter-terrorism, law enforcement, intelligence and Homeland Security communities are staying vigilant and are taking steps to prevent any attempts, here or abroad, to exploit the current situation in Libya,” said Matthew Chandler, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, in a statement responding to King’s comments.
The chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), also noted Gadhafi’s history of terrorism. "In assessing U.S. security interests and objectives, the president must also keep in mind Gadhafi’s attacks on Western targets resulting in the deaths of Americans in the 1980s,” she said in a statement Sunday.
John T. Bennett contributed to this article.