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World: Experts Discuss Link Between Bali, Yemen, And Kuwait

  • Ron Synovitz

U.S. President George W. Bush and Indonesia's defense minister have both said they think there is a link between the Al-Qaeda terrorist network and the Bali bomb attacks that killed more than 180 people during the weekend. Bush says there appears to be an emerging pattern of concerted terrorist attacks which include the Bali blasts, the attack on a French oil tanker off the coast of Yemen, and recent attacks on U.S. Marines in Kuwait. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz takes a closer look at suggestions that the world is in the midst of a new wave of global terrorism.

Prague, 15 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush says a wave of violent attacks around the world during the last two weeks appears to be part of new pattern of global terrorism.

Bush said yesterday that the emerging pattern includes the bomb explosions on the Indonesian island of Bali during the weekend that killed more than 180 people. He said the pattern also includes recent attacks against U.S. Marines in Kuwait and against the French oil tanker "Limburg" off the coast of Yemen:

"Clearly, the attacks in Bali, I think we have to assume it's Al-Qaeda. We're beginning to hear some reports that are more definitive than that, but I'll wait for our own analysis. But clearly, it was a deliberate attack on citizens who love freedom. Citizens from countries which embrace freedom."

In the past, officials from Jakarta have publicly rejected suggestions that Al-Qaeda has active cells on Indonesian territory. But Indonesian Defense Minister Matori Abdul Djalil said yesterday that he thinks Al-Qaeda was involved in the Bali blasts: "In general, I see this as a professional group. I am not afraid to say, though many have refused to say, that an Al-Qaeda network really exists in Indonesia."

Some officials were more cautious. Indonesian Speaker of Parliament Amien Rais, speaking to journalists today in Bali, had this to say: "I have to respect the opinion stated by the minister of defense that, most probably, Al-Qaeda has been involved in the bombing in Bali. But I, myself, do not want to pinpoint right now because we have to work hard first to arrest the people involved, the perpetrators, the culprits, and only then we can be sure who did it."

Other experts on international terrorism say it is too early to be certain about new patterns of Al-Qaeda violence emerging. Among those who advocate more skeptical analysis is Philip Sabin, a professor in the Department of War Studies at King's College in London:

"It's probably going too far in terms of direct evidence for the Bali bombing. There has, of course, been a statement purportedly signed by [Al-Qaeda leader Osama] Bin Laden -- though that's very dubious -- which certainly congratulates the attack on the Yemeni tanker and seems, perhaps, to imply an endorsement of the Bali bombing. Then, of course, just because terrorist groups claim responsibility for something doesn't mean to say that they really did it."

Sabin says he thinks Bush has gone too far in linking Al-Qaeda to the Bali attacks at a time when FBI experts and other antiterrorism investigators are just starting their investigation there: "With the Indonesian bombing, it is far from clear that this is an Al-Qaeda activity. There is a lot going on in Indonesia, and has been for decades, which could lead a domestic group [to do this] -- perhaps attaching itself to the overarching Muslim-Islamic message of Al-Qaeda, but with no other connection to them."

Indeed, Australian Prime Minister John Howard's view on the Bali attack is that it was either an Al-Qaeda-directed operation or was "inspired by Al-Qaeda." Howard insists that intelligence reports show Al-Qaeda does have connections with cells that have been operating in Indonesia.

Sabin said Howard's use of the terms "directed" and "inspired" is necessary because there is a lack of intelligence data about the Al-Qaeda network itself: "We don't know enough about Al-Qaeda to know how far it is dominated by a central hierarchy that is aware of everything and controls everything. We don't even know whether [Al- Qaeda leader Osama] Bin Laden is alive, for example. It seems to me that there is likely to be quite a lot of local initiatives going on -- even within Al-Qaeda itself -- exploiting opportunities and the like. That's the nature of a terrorist organization. The more centralized it is, the easier it is to infiltrate and destroy."

On one hand, Sabin says an "Al-Qaeda-inspired" attack could mean violence that has been encouraged by the group's anti-Western rhetoric. But he says "Al-Qaeda inspired" also would have to include so-called "copycat" attackers whose motive may be nothing more than seeking international media attention:

"The copycat phenomenon is very well known. The people who carried out the Bali bombing, when they are found, need to be utterly punished. And any motive they had needs to be stopped. That's the key thing. Otherwise, the perception will arise among groups, and among individuals, that terror works. And that's the worst possible thing because then you really will get copycat violence."

Magnus Ranstorp, acting director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland, told RFE/RL that he also remains unconvinced about direct Al-Qaeda involvement in Bali. But he says that if the evidence confirms such a link, a new pattern of terrorist activity would, indeed, be emerging:

"If this is indeed Al-Qaeda, we have entered a phase where they are attacking economic targets. And particularly, trying to undermine trading and stability."

Ranstorp said he agrees that the attack on the "Limburg" oil tanker and the Bali blasts fit into the pattern of attacks aimed at disrupting economic activity: "We see with the attack outside of Yemen against the tanker that they also are focusing in on trying to raise prices. It has a huge impact on the insurance sector and on economies. We can see now, in the aftermath of the Bali attack, [that] certain stock exchanges [are] really taking a big knock in terms of the economic impact of this."

Indeed, foreign tourists have been flocking away from Bali since the weekend. The repercussions also are expected to have dire economic consequences for the rest of southeastern Asia. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad has warned that foreign investment into the whole region will be damaged.

Other observers say destabilization and possible fragmentation in Indonesia could spread unrest to neighboring countries like the Philippines and Malaysia -- especially if there is increased ethnic fighting and fresh waves of refugees moving out of Indonesia.

While Washington has been quick to link the attacks in Yemen, Kuwait, and Bali to part of an emerging pattern, U.S. authorities play down any connection between terrorism and a sniper in the Washington area who has killed nine people this month, including one person today.

U.S. authorities have warned since last year that there could be many "sleeper" cells of Al-Qaeda-trained terrorists within the territorial borders of the United States. In recent weeks, there has been a growing number of suspects arrested -- including the detention of U.S. citizens -- who allegedly were trained by Al-Qaeda at a camp in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

But investigators in the Washington area have rejected the idea that the sniper may be an Al-Qaeda-trained terrorist because the attacks have targeted individuals rather than major symbolic targets like the World Trade Center.

Although the sniper's attacks have spread fear among ordinary Americans, Sabin says U.S. authorities are correct not to spread unnecessary panic in the United States by announcing theoretical links between the sniper attacks and Al-Qaeda:

"It certainly shouldn't be ruled out that there is something beyond an individual derangement behind the sniper attacks. It is conceivable that this is part of a wider plan. However, we must be very, very careful. There is always a tendency for conspiracy theories to develop -- that every act around the world has the strings being pulled by some shadowy organization that is opposed to our interests. I personally think it very unlikely that the Washington sniper is governed by anything other than his own perverse sense of satisfaction."

Regardless of the identity of the sniper, residents of the Washington area openly admit that they are terrorized and that the sniper has disrupted their ordinary way of life.