Terrorists, Guerrillas Now Pose Greatest Threat, NATO Says

LONDON -- When NATO's top brass gaze into their crystal ball, the threats they see looming in the 21st century are from insurgencies and "terrorism" rather than conventional warfare.

Military and civilian defense planners who once lost sleep worrying about Soviet tanks pouring across the North German Plain now lie awake pondering the use of biological or chemical weapons by extremists.

They also fret about more traditional sources of conflict such as the oil and gas wealth of the Gulf and the Caspian basin, or China's growing power.

"The World Trade Center bombing and the Tokyo metro attack show that the future that we worry about is not in the future; it's here," Admiral Harold Gehman, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander, Atlantic, told a conference in London this month.

Moslem militants tried in 1993 to blow up the twin-tower, 110-story New York City landmark, killing six people and injuring more than 1,000.

In 1995, members of a fringe religious sect put nerve gas in the Tokyo subway that killed 12 people and made more than 5,000 ill.

Both attacks could easily have had far higher casualty tolls, but experts say Western security planners have been slow to react to the new dangers.

"The significance of the World Trade Centre and Tokyo subway incidents has not yet got through to the international security community," said Paul Rogers, professor of peace studies at Britain's Bradford University.

Rogers was one of a panel of academics and policymakers who discussed sources of future conflict at the conference entitled "Security through NATO in the 21st Century, Vision to Reality," organized by NATO and Britain's Royal United Services Institute.

Much of the concern focused on what is known in strategic jargon as "asymmetrical war" -- high-tech powers with feet of clay confronted with elusive, low-tech guerrillas or extremists.

Harold Smith, an assistant for biological and chemical defense programs to U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen, said nuclear deterrence had stopped Iraq using its unconventional weapons against allied troops in the Gulf War and might deter North Korea from such forms of warfare.

But there was no such prospect of deterring militant groups bent on "destroying civilized societies," he told the conference.

He also cited the danger of "information warfare" -- attempts to paralyze the global financial trading system or Internet communications.