Terrorism

BETWEEN IRAQ AND A HARD PLACE

The Bali aftermath complicates Bush's Saddam strategy,

JONATHON GATEHOUSE October 28 2002
Terrorism

BETWEEN IRAQ AND A HARD PLACE

The Bali aftermath complicates Bush's Saddam strategy,

JONATHON GATEHOUSE October 28 2002

BETWEEN IRAQ AND A HARD PLACE

Terrorism

WHEN THE FIRST anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks passed without incident last month, it became possible to believe the West’s war on terror was finally bearing fruit. Months of unfulfilled threats, foiled plots and dramatic arrests at home and abroad seemed to speak of momentum. With the remnants of al-Qaeda scattered and their Taliban protectors vanquished, the citizens of the First World could begin to breathe again. The U.S. government even felt free to turn its sights on an older enemy—Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.

Now, as forensic investigators in Bali sort through the ashes of those illusions, America and its allies are confronted with a challenge they had hoped to avoid—the prospect of having to wage two very different types of war at the same time. The devastating bombings in Indonesia, which killed nearly 200 and left hundreds— including Merv Popadynec, a 38-year-old engineer from Wynyard, Sask.—still unaccounted for, suggest al-Qaeda is a Hydra, rather than a serpent dealt a mortal blow in Afghanistan. And the Bali fallout complicates George W. Bush’s single-minded quest to conclude his father’s unfinished business in Iraq, where residents are preparing for a U.S. attack (page 22).

While there’s still no definitive evidence linking Osama bin Laden’s organization to the Oct. 12 blasts, suspicion has fallen on one of its alleged affiliates, Jemaah Islamiah (JI), a radical Muslim group which seeks to unite Indonesia, Malaysia and the southern Philippines in one gigantic, hard-line Islamic republic. The group, purportedly led by Abu Bakar Bashir, a grandfatherly 64-year-old Indonesian cleric, has been implicated in a number of other attacks in the region, and is accused of having sheltered two of the Sept. 11 hijackers. Last winter, authorities in Singapore arrested 13 JI members and claimed to have foiled an elaborate plot to bomb visiting U.S. Navy ships and several foreign embassies.

Terrorism experts are split on whether al-Qaeda had a direct hand in the planning and execution of the Bali bombing.

Over the last few months, many U.S. intelligence officials have become convinced that al-Qaeda operates as a loose alliance of regional groups, rather than under the control of a central command. In Bali’s rubble, some see the calling card of bin Laden (or, if he is dead, his replacement) in the use of C4 plastic explosives; others deem the attack too “counterproductive” to be his handiwork because it has deprived his group of a safe haven.

But regardless of whether the blasts, and other recent incidents like the attack on a French oil tanker off Yemen Oct. 6, and the killing of a U.S. marine in Kuwait two days later, were the work of al-Qaeda or like-minded products of their jihad

camps, Washington is finding it hard to ignore their reverberations. “It’s about the worst thing that could have happened from the President’s perspective because the Bali bombings prove that getting rid of Saddam won’t end terrorism,” says Charles Peña, a senior defence policy analyst with the Cato Institute, a Washington think-tank. And even if that lesson is wasted on American voters, says Peña, it won’t be overlooked by the many nations that are reluctant to buy into the United States’ latest Middle East adventure.

Further complicating matters was the admission by “axis of evil” charter member North Korea that it had a growing nuclear arsenal. All in all, it’s getting hard

The Bali aftermath complicates Bush's Saddam strategy,

JONATHON GATEHOUSE

to figure out who the West is supposed to fear the most—and how Bush can justify singling out Iraq for attack.

Bush and his supporters are now caught between Iraq and a hard place. Wesley Wark, a professor of international relations at the University of Toronto’s Munk Centre, says the price Southeast Asian nations like Indonesia will demand in return for their full-scale participation in a war against Muslim extremists in the region will be a go-slow UN-based approach to Iraq. If Washington takes swifter, unilateral action against Saddam, it runs the risk of exchanging one security concern for another, inflaming tensions in Islamic Asia and perhaps even desta-

bilizing “friendly” governments.

A scenario in which America and its allies fight a full-scale military campaign in Iraq while trying to quell a widespread terrorist insurgency in Southeast Asia is not a favourite of Pentagon planners, says Wark. Secretary of State Colin Powell may claim American forces can walk and chew gum at the same time, but the strain on intelligence resources will be enormous. “If they go to war against Iraq that will become the number one priority,” says Wark. “Everything else will be secondary for a time, possibly with grave outcomes.” Such concerns might be behind an apparent softening of Washington’s line last week, with the U.S. backing away from demands that the UN pre-authorize the use of military force if Baghdad fails to fully co-operate with weapons inspectors.

Meanwhile, American officials are frantically working behind the scenes to strengthen the government of Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri without stepping into the limelight as her puppeteers. Officials in Indonesia, the world’s

most populous Muslim nation, have long been reluctant to take action against radical elements for fear of again sparking the kind of popular uprising that drove the repressive Suharto regime from power in 1998. American offers of help, and alarms about impending terrorists attacks—Washington reportedly warned the Megawati government about a brewing bomb plot numerous times between early September and Oct. 11—were dismissed as attempts to frighten and manipulate.

Alan Dupont, a former Australian diplomat who now lectures on Asia-Pacific security issues at the Australian National University in Canberra, says the Bali bombing may prove to be a watershed event. “There has long been a widespread feeling in Indonesia, a vague anti-American, anti-Western sense that Muslims are threatened by the West,” he says. “I think now people recognize that there is a security problem and that they are going to have to do something about it.” But if the Americans are going to turn the populace’s horror over the attack to their advantage, says Dupont, they will have to devote significant diplomatic, political and monetary resources to winning Indonesian hearts and minds, reversing decades of distrust.

Solving the region’s security issues will be an enormous challenge, but the U.S. can count on the staunch support of Australians. The people behind the Bali blasts probably didn’t give much thought to the nationality of those inside the Sari Club that Saturday night, but the scores of Australian dead are fuelling that country’s anger and resolve to be on the front lines of the war against terror. “It’s really been a loss of innocence for us,” says Dupont. “In the past we’ve been largely isolated from such events because of geography. In many ways this is our 9/11.” With a new, multiple-front phase of the war on terror looming, Indonesia and Australia seem unlikely to be the last countries to face such painful epiphanies.

William Lowther