Once again, Africa has become the battleground for somebody else's war

Bin Laden cares as much about the oppressed of Africa as other outsiders who fight wars there - he couldn't give a damn

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We were driving from the airport to the hotel when the obvious thought struck home. We were sitting ducks. There were about 60 of us in two coaches without a policeman anywhere in sight. This was Morocco in September, not long after al-Qa'ida had attacked a synagogue and killed several tourists in Tunisia. Had even a single gunman appeared and fired at the bus there would have been no escape. I kept my fears to myself. But by the time we'd checked in at our hotel, and noticed the men in plain clothes who hung around the lobby all day with no apparent purpose, my wife too sensed our vulnerability. The plain clothes men should have reassured us but ended up having the opposite effect. Against suicide attackers they wouldn't have stood much of a chance. The hotel, like most of the others along the seafront, had no security precautions. No metal detectors, barriers, not even a cursory search of those entering the building.

We were driving from the airport to the hotel when the obvious thought struck home. We were sitting ducks. There were about 60 of us in two coaches without a policeman anywhere in sight. This was Morocco in September, not long after al-Qa'ida had attacked a synagogue and killed several tourists in Tunisia. Had even a single gunman appeared and fired at the bus there would have been no escape. I kept my fears to myself. But by the time we'd checked in at our hotel, and noticed the men in plain clothes who hung around the lobby all day with no apparent purpose, my wife too sensed our vulnerability. The plain clothes men should have reassured us but ended up having the opposite effect. Against suicide attackers they wouldn't have stood much of a chance. The hotel, like most of the others along the seafront, had no security precautions. No metal detectors, barriers, not even a cursory search of those entering the building.

That night and every night that followed we heard what sounded like gunshots from the direction of the beach. I asked a hotel porter and he said it was probably policemen testing their weapons. Whatever the source of the firing the effect was deeply unsettling. I am well used to travelling in dangerous places and sizing up the risks posed by fanatics, drunken gunmen, murderous soldiery. But on a holiday with my wife and child I am in a very different frame of mind. Pretty much like those Israeli tourists must have been in Mombasa and the Australians, British and others who were enjoying themselves in Bali. The holiday mind consciously sets out to detach itself from worry.

But while we have been preoccupied with attacks on London or other major centres at home, the terrorists have kept the initiative, striking where we are most vulnerable. The declaration of Bin Laden that this was a war with no "innocent victims" carried with it the implicit promise that this was also a war without borders. For all the talk about globalisation we are in fact confronted with a shrinking world. Where is left that is safe for the holidaymaker?

As al-Qa'ida or its surrogates strike, all that expands is our paranoia. Unfortunately it is paranoia based on a pretty simple fact: we are not totally safe anywhere. Not at home and not in many of the places we might want to go on holiday. After Mombasa how safe are the tourists resorts in North Africa or in places like Gambia and Senegal? What about my beloved Cape Town which has seen its fair share of domestic bombing attacks directed by local fundamentalists?

In Africa part of the problem is that we are dealing with a continent without meaningful borders. Colonial rule imposed arbitrary lines on the map, dividing tribes and kingdoms. But the people established their own routes to subvert the intentions of the colonial overlords. In the Horn of Africa generations of smugglers and warlords have undermined the notion of the nation state with borders that can be defended and monitored. I agree with the analysis that suggests the Mombasa attackers probably came south, from the direction of Somalia, across one of the least patrolled borders in the world in a region awash with illegal weapons. For all the boasts about the efficiency of the new generation of satellites, smuggling surface-to-air missiles from Somalia into Kenya is clearly a lot easier than anybody imagined.

It is also easy for the men carrying these weapons to blend into the local population in a place like Mombasa, or indeed any African community where there is a sizeable Muslim component. Africa is not a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism but it takes only a small group of locals to provide the necessary logistical and intelligence support: what matters for the attackers is not standing out from the crowd. In Kenya, Tanzania, parts of South Africa, large chunks of west Africa, there are Islamic groups that share bin Laden's world view, and which might be pre-disposed to giving help to friends from out of town.

The tourist never gets a hint of this. The Africa of the tourist is a place suspended far above the realities of local life. Poverty is kept at the gate, crammed into the shanty towns glimpsed on the way from the airport, perhaps a faint odour of sewage or burning rubbish carried on the wind into the air-conditioned coach, or seen in the hands of the street children thrust through the windows of minibuses stalled in traffic.

The Kenyans butchered in Mombasa earned their living by dancing for the tourists. But like the game drive this "taste of the real Africa" is in fact a fantasy designed to appeal to the most idealised vision of Africa. The Africa of the western imagination is divided into conflicting stereotypes: a place of endless war and famine (we keep away from those bits) or a place of great animal migrations and smiling locals. The former provides the background in which the likes of al-Qa'ida should be able to flourish; the latter draws the target into range.

What Mombasa has shown, and the attacks on the embassies before it, is that Africa is once again being made the battleground for somebody else's war. Osama bin Laden cares as much about the oppressed of Africa as any other outsider who has come to fight his wars on the continent, which is to say he couldn't give a damn. In the Cold War, the West and the Soviets used Africa as their proxy slaughterhouse. Tens of thousands of Africans died or were starved as their corrupt leaders sought the favour of Washington and Moscow.

Yet in much of the coverage of the bombings I've failed to notice any attempt to individualise the African dead. We can be sure that they were poor and that they had lived all their lives in a country that is a byword for corruption. But they end up as a small footnote amid the welter of coverage about the implications for the war on terror (ie the implications for Westerners).

Who were these victims of al-Qa'ida and what does our indifference to their identity and lives say about the world in which we live? It doesn't say anything that we did not already know. There are lives and there are lives. Unlike them we have the money and the power. We have choices.

I am sure Mr Bush will be demanding that African governments join him in the war on al-Qa'ida. But perhaps that is something he should have thought more about at the last G8 summit when Africa was given a pittance to tackle its crisis of debt and poverty.

I don't happen to believe that flooding Africa with more cash to be siphoned off by corrupt elites is the answer. But I do know that if the response to the Mombasa attacks is defined solely by immediate security concerns, we can forget about removing the sea in which al-Qa'ida finds nourishment.

What is true of Africa is true also of the other places in which poverty and state corruption inspire rage. You can send all the special forces and spies you have, but it won't matter at all if we don't start to fight the political and economic battles. If we can't do it for reasons of idealism and justice, we might try for simple self-interest.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent

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