Was bin Laden behind Bali

The response to the bombings revealed al-Qaeda's hold on the Western imagination.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

In the wake of the Bali nightclub bombing, US security officials claim that ‘a taped message from Osama bin Laden was the trigger for Indonesian terrorists to launch [the] devastating attack’ (1).

Referring to the audio tape broadcast by Middle Eastern TV station al-Jazeera on 6 October 2002 – which allegedly contained bin Laden’s voice calling on Muslims to launch attacks on ‘the criminal gang at the White House’ (2) – the officials claim that bin Laden may have been issuing ‘instructions to [his] supporters to begin a new campaign of attacks’, which could have been taken up by Jemaah Islamiyah, an Islamic fundamentalist group based in Indonesia which is known to be a fan of al-Qaeda (3)

But when the tape was aired one week ago, the Bush administration questioned whether it was bin Laden’s voice at all, instead attributing it to his lieutenant ‘Ayman al-Zawahiri, not the al-Qaeda leader’ (4).

According to CNN, US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld ‘cast doubt on the authenticity of [the] audio-taped statement attributed to Osama bin Laden, saying there was no way to tell when the tape was recorded’ (5), and sticking with his belief that ‘bin Laden could be anywhere or could be dead’.

Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said the tape was ‘a source of concern’, but that ‘the [security] alert level remains at its current elevated status. No changes have been made to it’ (6).

Yet now US officials are flagging up a link between the tape and the attack on Bali, with one claiming that ‘this is too close to be a coincidence’. Perhaps in the absence of any other intelligence, US officials are jumping on the previously questionable recording to convince themselves of a link between bin Laden and Bali.

After the Bali bombing, a senior official claimed ‘there are a number of reasons that you have to say that it might be al-Qaeda [who bombed Bali]. They’ve been in Indonesia, they’re all running from Afghanistan, they’ve got to go someplace’ (7).

This sounds more like joining-the-dots than a convincing argument that al-Qaeda was behind the Bali bombing. Not so long ago, the US authorities celebrated the scattering of al-Qaeda from Afghanistan as a success. In May 2002, US General John Keane said that one of the war on terror’s ‘biggest successes’ was ‘chasing al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan’.

‘There is no longer a safe haven for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan’, he said. ‘There are no base camps left, there are no training camps left. [We] have reduced al-Qaeda to small groups hiding in the mountains’ (8).

Yet now many claim that it is the reduction of al-Qaeda to ‘small groups’ that makes it such a potent danger. ‘They are more disparate and independent’, said one security expert after the Bali bombing. ‘This gives them more room to launch attacks on American and Western interests.’

Some US officials and commentators are also pointing out that, just days ago, Australia was warned that it might be the target of a terrorist attack. ‘We have known for some time that al-Qaeda affiliated terrorists intended to attack Australian interests’, says one journalist, citing Australia’s support for the war on terror and its support for East Timor’s separation from Indonesia as possible reasons for having ‘incurred the wrath of bin Laden’.

But Australia had been warned that ‘an al-Qaeda terrorist cell may have been set up with a brief to attack targets inside the country’ (9). Terrorism experts claimed that ‘two or three al-Qaeda operatives’ have been sent to Australia, with the aim of launching attacks in Sydney – indicating that Australia, ‘like Europe and North America, may have an enemy within’.

In response to such warnings, the Australian government set up ‘two new anti-terrorist units based in Sydney’, comprising ‘a 300-person Incident Response Regiment trained in dealing with chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive incidents’ (10).

Despite the ‘told you so’ tone of some of today’s coverage, there seems to be little to tie together the pre-Bali warnings to Australia to watch out in places like Sydney and the indiscriminate bombing of young Australian tourists in a Bali nightclub.

Instead, the warnings to Australia seemed to fit in with some of the wilder intelligence claims about al-Qaeda having ‘super cells, in locations stretching from North Africa to South-East Asia’ (11) and ‘everywhere, from Brussels to Bagram’ (12), rather than being a prediction of something like the Bali atrocity.

The Bali bombings may have been carried out by the Indonesian group Jemaah Islamiyah, and that group may have links with al-Qaeda. But the spontaneous response of Western officials and commentators to the events in Bali captures the place that al-Qaeda now holds in the Western, and particularly the American, imagination – where every problem or attack around the world is instantly linked to al-Qaeda, a grouping which is said to become more dangerous the more amorphous and disparate it is.

‘Everyone tries to tie everything into 9/11 and al-Qaeda’, said an FBI official recently (13), criticising the way that US officials ‘shout al-Qaeda’ at the hint of trouble abroad. Now the same thing is happening in response to Bali.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

Australia’s 10/12, by Jennie Bristow

(1) Cowardly, wicked and barbaric, Scotsman, 14 October 2002

(2) The new threats from ‘bin Laden’, BBC News, 6 October 2002

(3) Cowardly, wicked and barbaric, Scotsman, 14 October 2002

(4) McVicar on the al-Zawahiri tape, CNN, 9 October 2002

(5) Rumsfeld downplays bin Laden tape, CNN, 7 October 2002

(6) White House press briefing by Ari Fleischer, 10 October 2002, White House News

(7) Bush calls for global reaction to terrorism, Reuters, 13 October 2002

(8) US says al-Qaeda seeking haven, Washington Post, 26 May 2002

(9) New terror warning for Australia, CNN, 10 October 2002

(10) New terror warning for Australia, CNN, 10 October 2002

(11) Al-Qaeda forming new cells worldwide, Mike Boettcher, CNN, 31 July 2002

(12) Terror network fragmented, but it’s also ‘everywhere, from Brussels to Bagram’, Jonathan Weisman, USA Today, 25 June 2002

(13) ‘FBI: just 200 hardcore al-Qaeda, Rebecca Carr’, Palm Beach Post, 27 July 2002

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Topics Politics


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