After Bali, the need to understand

About the author
Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international-security editor, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His books include Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on twitter at: @ProfPRogers
Although the major focus of security analysts in recent months has been on the US policy towards Iraq and the probability of war within three to four months, some observers have also been concentrating their concern on developments in Afghanistan and the evolution of al-Qaida and its associates.

Indeed, within UK intelligence circles there is said to be a common view that the US determination to terminate the Saddam Hussein regime has become so central that other developments are being missed.

Since the massacre in Bali four days ago, this view has become more widespread. But if we are to get a deeper idea of what is really happening, we need to look at a number of events and developments of the past two weeks, perhaps best placed in the context of earlier analyses concerning Afghanistan and al-Qaida (also see an earlier article).

Yemen, Kuwait, Pakistan…and US plans for Iraq

There are four incidents, in addition to the bombings in Bali, which are particularly relevant. The first is the attempt to destroy the French supertanker Limburg off the coast of Yemen. The method of this attack was very similar to that employed in the assault on the USS Cole missile destroyer in Aden harbour, South Yemen, almost exactly two years ago, which killed seventeen US sailors and caused $350 million of damage.

Initially the Yemeni authorities denied that the Limburg had been attacked, stating that there had been an on-board explosion, but this is now discounted. What is perhaps more significant is that the tanker survived the attack primarily because it was of recent construction involving the ‘double hull’ design. This gives a tanker much greater resilience, whereas an older tanker could well have been destroyed in the attack.

The second incident occurred two days after the Limburg incident, when a pair of gunmen fired on two groups of US marines training on Failaka Island off the Kuwaiti coast. One marine was shot dead and another injured before the attackers were killed. The incident has caused dismay among US officials in the region, not least as it now appears that the assailants had direct links with al-Qaida and had trained in Afghanistan.

The latter remains to be seen, but what is really remarkable is that the attackers were able to get firearms on to the tightly controlled island, acquire a pick-up truck and then breach a secure training area. Such an attack is simply not meant to happen, and indicates that US troops in Kuwait, ostensibly a supportive state, are actually at risk long before a war with Iraq starts.

The third incident is the recent success of the United Action Forum in elections in Pakistan, especially in western provinces, not least in the North-West Frontier Province where it gained a majority of seats in the legislative assembly. Although the Forum denies links with al-Qaida, it has campaigned vigorously on the basis of opposition to US involvement in the region. Its success does not present a substantial threat to President Musharraf’s firm control of Pakistan but it does demonstrate the extent of popular antagonism to US policies.

The fourth incident takes us away from al-Qaida and back to Iraq. It relates to reliable reports (for example in the International Herald Tribune) that US action subsequent to the intended destruction of the Saddam Hussein regime now leans towards the military occupation of Iraq, pending the eventual establishment of some kind of client regime.

Such an occupying force would clearly include substantial numbers of US troops, entail a protracted search for any weapons systems that had been hidden by the current regime, and also involve the renovation of the Iraqi oil production facilities. This, in turn, would ensure that US enterprises have a dominant role in the development of Iraq’s oil reserves – the largest in the world after Saudi Arabia.

Al-Qaida spider, American fly?

If we now put these four incidents into the wider context of the activities of al-Qaida over the past year, we can get a sharper awareness of what is happening worldwide.

It remains the case that few members of the al-Qaida leadership have been killed or captured, and that its dispersal from Afghanistan was a setback but was by no means unexpected.

Moreover, al-Qaida is best seen as part of a much wider and quite loose alliance of radical movements, although it has a central role for many other groups, not least in terms of training and finance. Al-Qaida, and its associates, have been remarkably active, even before the recent attacks. These have included attempts against US embassies in Paris and Rome, at least one attempt to destroy a passenger jet, an attack on the US Consulate in Karachi, the killing of French naval technicians in the same city, attacks in Islamabad, the attempt to shoot down a USAF plane in Saudi Arabia, the bombing of the Tunisian synagogue and many more.

Perhaps most significant was the interception by the Singapore security forces of a plan to use several powerful truck bombs against the financial district of that city. This may have been planned in parallel with an attack on the airport at Changi, a key hub for south-east Asia.

What this all means is that the assumption that destroying the Taliban regime and disrupting al-Qaida in Afghanistan would greatly limit its capabilities was plainly wrong. If anything, the ‘war on terror’ of the past year may even have strengthened support for the organisation and its associates, support which is further boosted by continuing Israeli actions on the West Bank and in Gaza. While these have slipped away from the headlines in the Western press, they are reported in detail in the Middle East and Asia.

Indeed, one small item of news, so far missed in the Western press, is that the United States has offered the Israeli government twenty-four hours notice of an attack on Iraq (Defense News, 14 October 2002). From an American point of view this makes good sense, not least as a tactic for helping to keep Israel out of the war, but throughout the Middle East it will be seen as further proof, if any were needed, of the intricate links between the US and Israel.

It is in this context that the US plan to occupy Iraq should be seen. Again, from Washington’s perspective this makes sense – there is no point in destroying the regime only to see Iraq come apart in chaos. But from the perspective of al-Qaida, it merely proves their point; Iraq may be a secular regime but it is still primarily an Arab state and US occupation would be proof of one of al-Qaida’s long-term arguments – that Washington, along with Israel, seeks control of the region.

Indeed, there is an argument that one of the aims of the 9/11 atrocities was precisely to draw the United States more fully into the region. This has already happened in Afghanistan and in Central Asia – an American occupation of Iraq would, from al-Qaida’s perspective, be as close to a dream result as it could wish for.

Don’t just condemn, understand

This brings us back to the terrible events in Bali. Exactly who was responsible, and the extent of the connections with al-Qaida, may remain unclear for a long time, but one effect of the atrocity will be to renew a commitment to the war on terror – a war conducted primarily by military means.

This is understandable and should be expected – indeed it may be that one of the purposes of the attack was precisely this result. It is difficult to say this at a time of such suffering and loss of life, but if we respond solely by trying to redouble efforts to destroy al-Qaida and its associates, the effect may be simply to strengthen their support.

What we are still failing to do is to understand the root causes of the support for such movements. To seek to understand is not to condone in any shape or form, but it does raise the possibility of recognising the reasons for their enduring support and, in turn, offering some prospect for undercutting it.

The problem is that this different angle of vision would go right to the heart of policy towards Israel as well as the wider issues of the Western control of the Gulf region. The Bush administration is not remotely prepared to entertain such a consideration – it has to come from elsewhere.