A carefully planned attack on soft targets

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The Independent Online
IN THE aftermath of yesterday's bombs in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, the word "terrorism" was being liberally used in Washington.

To many Americans the message from the media will have been clear: this was another episode in the decades-long confrontation with a shadowy international Muslim terrorist conspiracy.

But the lessons of two recent incidents argued against a rush to judgement. The Oklahoma bomb in 1995 was pinned on Islam, yet the culprits turned out to be American, white and Christian. And the downing of TWA flight 800 three years ago seems more likely to have been the result of a mechanical malfunction than some sinister Middle East cabal.

There seems little doubt that yesterday's attacks were carefully co-ordinated. But the word "terrorism" is not particularly useful in understanding either motives or culpability. It implies a meaningless malevolence, a randomness of method and target that is usually belied by the evidence. Most of the attacks against US targets overseas have a logic that is clear to the attackers and usually to the attacked.

Anyone who puts together several large car bombs and detonates them at the same time in two adjacent countries has a message and wants to be understood very clearly. They see themselves as being involved in a military conflict.

The motives for attacking two American embassies in Africa may be numerous but the fact that two attacks of considerable power were launched virtually simultaneously points to a well-organised group.

The targets chosen were relatively soft. Though all US embassies mount security precautions against attack, it is unlikely the embassies in Nairobi or Dar es Salaam would have erected the kind of physical barriers found in, say, Beirut.

Whoever carried out the attacks did not choose to target the much better- protected US facilities around the world.

It is possible, but unlikely, that the choice of target was dictated by a desire to strike back against US policy in the region itself. The US is regarded in Africa as having played a key role in the conflicts in Rwanda, Burundi and Zaire, and both Tanzania and Kenya house refugees and expatriates from these countries. But there is no indication that there is any organised group with the capability for this kind of attack.

More likely is that the attacks reflect a desire to strike back against the US for its policy elsewhere. The attacks coincided with another confrontation with Iraq over UN monitoring of its weapons of mass destruction, but there has been no indication that Iraq has attempted an attack on US facilities. US relations with Iran - to which the US government would usually point the finger after an episode like this - are relatively warm.

None of this means that the US does not have enemies. The State Department pointed to two recent warnings, both of which threatened action against US targets overseas. Earlier this week, an Egyptian group calling itself Jihad threatened to retaliate for American assistance in extraditing Islamists to Cairo from Albania.

Ayman el-Zawahri, leader of Jihad, is believed to be in Afghanistan with Osama Bin Laden, the radical Muslim leader who has emerged as one of the most influential leaders of Islamic groups opposed to the US. He told the press in May that American targets, both civilian and military, would be attacked.

The US accused Mr Bin Laden of being involved in the June 1996 attack on the Khobar Towers US military complex near Dhahran in Saudi Arabia. Mr Bin Laden has warned America that unless it withdraws from the Gulf, he would attack US military targets.

There have been other warnings to the US this year. In February, during the last confrontation between the US and Iraq, a group calling itself the International Islamic Front warned it would strike at American targets if the US attacked Baghdad.

The statement was signed by Mr Bin Laden and Mr el-Zawahri, among others. London-based newspaper Al-Hayat said the IIF - which also included Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups - was a newly-formed alliance, welded together by Mr Bin Laden.

At the same time, there have also been a series of high-profile extraditions of alleged Islamist radicals, part of a co-ordinated attack by Arab and Western governments on groups that they believe are trying to unseat and destabilise governments throughout the Middle East.

In June, Saeed Sayyed Salama, an Egyptian national who was reported to be an adviser to Mr Bin Laden, was extradited to Egypt, and Syria extradited 16 men to Algeria. These were said to follow an extradition pact between 22 Arab countries signed in April.

Though this was not directly connected to the US, there has been help from America for extraditions of alleged Islamist radicals in the past. Many of the governments concerned - Saudi Arabia and Egypt in particular - are key US allies.