An ominous warning about the Gulf states

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The timing and target of Saturday's suicide bombing in the Gulf state of Qatar point to an attack either masterminded, or inspired, by al-Qa'ida. The bombing, in which a British man died, came on the second anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq, and the intended victims were Western expatriates - many of them British - staging a play in a local theatre. The attack also occurred just days after a taped message from the Saudi dissident who is purportedly the al-Qa'ida leader in the region urged militants to wage holy war against "crusaders" throughout the Gulf.

The timing and target of Saturday's suicide bombing in the Gulf state of Qatar point to an attack either masterminded, or inspired, by al-Qa'ida. The bombing, in which a British man died, came on the second anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq, and the intended victims were Western expatriates - many of them British - staging a play in a local theatre. The attack also occurred just days after a taped message from the Saudi dissident who is purportedly the al-Qa'ida leader in the region urged militants to wage holy war against "crusaders" throughout the Gulf.

If "crusaders" include employees of Western business or military interests and their families, then it is not surprising that extremists should turn their focus on Qatar. It is the closest ally of the United States in the Gulf, and hosts the largest American military base in the region outside Iraq. Indeed it is from here that the invasion of Iraq was co-ordinated.

Under the present Emir, energy-rich Qatar has welcomed Western investment and become a place where conservative Islam coexists with branches of British and American chains such as Next, Debenhams and Starbucks. By the standards of autocracy in the Arab world, Qatar has a relatively benign ruler who has balanced a cosy relationship with America with such initiatives as funding the creation of al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite television network. In security terms, however, Qatar and the other hitherto peaceful Gulf states represent the soft underbelly of the Western presence in the Middle East.

The death and injury toll from Saturday's attack was mercifully low. But Western governments cannot discount the possibility that it marks the start of a campaign of violence which, perhaps in answer to George Bush's supposed democratic domino effect, is spreading out from Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

It would be premature to forecast that the Gulf states are poised to become the new crucible of al-Qa'ida-inspired terrorism. But the violence in Qatar gives renewed credibility to the view that the US-led invasion of Iraq may have turned not only Iraq, but also the surrounding region, into a breeding ground for a new generation of Islamic extremists.

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