After Mombasa

The response to the Kenya attacks captures the moral uncertainty of the war on terror.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

‘We must be vigilant, we must be resolute’, says today’s UK Sun, calling on Western powers to ‘renew’ the war on terror in the wake of the suicide bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Kenya, and the near-miss missile attack on an Israel-bound jet at Mombasa airport.

According to the Sun, ‘The bloody hand of terrorism delivered a heavy blow to the world yesterday’, and ‘make no mistake’, the attacks in Kenya were ‘aimed at all of us’ (1).

Following yesterday’s attacks, politicians and commentators around the world called for ‘vigilance’, ‘determination’ and ‘action’ against the scourge of terrorism. But when it came to the question of what exactly the West is acting against, how it should act, and whether its action will cause more problems than solutions, the answers were a lot less forthcoming.

Many tried to fit the Kenyan attacks into a pattern of recent terrorist attacks. ‘New York, Bali, now Kenya’, said one report, as if there was an equivalence between the destruction of the World Trade Centre that killed 3000 people, the blowing up of a Bali nightclub that killed nearly 200, and the deadly but scrappy attacks on an Israeli-owned hotel in Africa that killed three Israelis and nine Kenyans.

There are similarities – in all three attacks, innocent civilians were killed by terrorists. But there are big differences. The 11 September attacks were a strike on America’s homeland and even the Bali bombings took place in a largely Westernised tourist zone (albeit in a turbulent country). These latest attacks were in the horn of Africa, where violence and instability are widespread and where small groups have been launching attacks on Western tourists since long before 11 September.

Amid the flurry of demands for ‘action against the terrorists’, there has been much uncertainty about which terrorists the West is supposed to be acting against. John Sawe, Kenya’s ambassador to Israel, says there is ‘no doubt’ that al-Qaeda was behind the Kenyan attacks (2). But according to a Bush spokesman, ‘It is premature to say whether this was the work of al-Qaeda or not’ (3).

There is circumstantial evidence that al-Qaeda may have been behind these latest attacks. Al-Qaeda is known to have networks in that part of Africa and it bombed the US Embassy in the Kenyan capital Nairobi in August 1998, killing 219 people (with a further 12 being killed in a simultaneous attack on the US Embassy in Tanzania). But many seem to have jumped from the circumstantial to the certain, without hard evidence.

Even if al-Qaeda was behind these latest attack, it is far from the kind of ‘spectacular’ that could be grouped with ‘New York and Bali’. As Tim Hames argues in The Times (London): ‘If [al-Qaeda] could really set out its stall, it would stage a “spectacular” in the heart of London, Paris or an American city… For al-Qaeda to run a terrorist campaign in East Africa is akin to a man knocking down a gnome in his own garden.’ (4)

Matters were complicated further when a group calling itself the Army of Palestine claimed responsibility for the attacks – though this didn’t stop some from playing the al-Qaeda card. The Guardian‘s Jonathan Freedland claimed that, since the attacks targeted Israelis, ‘Overtly now, the al-Qaeda and Palestinian campaigns have been fused’ (5).

Others went a step further, tying ‘all the terrorists’ together. ‘Whether it was al-Qaeda or Hamas or al-Fatah doesn’t matter’, said the Sun. ‘They are all enemies of civilisation.’ (6) Writing in the Guardian, Giles Foden described terrorism as an ‘immeasurable…hydra-headed challenge’ (7).

In the space of 24 hours we went from the London Evening Standard billboard claims that ‘Al-Qaeda bombs hotel in Kenya’ to facing an indefinable, many-headed enemy, which could be anywhere and everywhere. The demands for action were the easy bit – the question of whom to act against was a different matter entirely.

Then there was the issue of whether the West should act at all. After the Kenyan attacks, many commentators claimed that it is the war on terror itself that fuels these disparate acts around the world, and that further anti-terror action might destabilise things even more.

‘Anti-American, anti-Western sentiment in the Muslim world has hardened since the US began its war on terror’, says one editorial, claiming that ‘if anything, the scope of the terror threat seems to be expanding’: ‘Who now will book a hotel package, board a flight or bop on down to the beach disco without pausing to wonder just how safe they will be?’ (8).

Giles Foden sees the need for tackling terror, but raises concerns that ‘every course of action that might be taken in that offensive seems likely to end up entwined in the [terrorists’] cause’ (9). Or as an American journalist put it, ‘Should we bomb back in response to Kenya and risk further antagonising the Muslim world? [Or] should we hold back and risk sending a message that these kind of attacks are okay with us?’

These responses to the Kenyan attacks capture the moral uncertainty at the heart of the war on terror. For all the demands for vigilance and resolution, for all the claims that the West is taking a stand against all-encompassing evil, there is still caution over what kind of action to take. In the same breath that commentators call for some kind of stance against the terrorists they raise the possibility that we might end up making terrorism worse.

The end result are demands for action, ranging from the half-hearted to the hysterical, that sit uneasily with widespread concern about the consequences – and a war on terror that worries as much about fuelling the enemy’s campaign as combating it.

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:

spiked-issue: War on terror

(1) ‘We will win’, Sun, 29 November 2002

(2) Hotel bombed as missile fired at jet, Daily Telegraph, 29 November 2002

(3) Hotel bombed as missile fired at jet, Daily Telegraph, 29 November 2002

(4) The attack in Kenya is al-Qaeda’s cry for hype, The Times (London), 29 November 2002

(5) For Israelis – and Jews everywhere – fear is now international, Guardian, 29 November 2002

(6) ‘We will win’, Sun, 29 November 2002

(7) Not again, Guardian, 29 November 2002

(8) The terror spreads – but agreement on how to fight it is lacking, Guardian, 29 November 2002

(9) Not again, Guardian, 29 November 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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