Terror in Kenya

Published : Dec 20, 2002 00:00 IST

Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network is blamed for the attacks on a hotel, jointly owned by nationals of Israel and the United States, in Kenya.

IN the last week of November, Kenya once again was the scene of a serious terrorist attack, the second in four years. This time the attack occurred in the coastal city of Mombasa, one of the country's premier tourist destinations. The attack on the United States Embassy in Nairobi in 1998 was the first big strike launched by the Al Qaeda network, to announce its arrival on the global stage. More than 200 people were killed in that attack.

The target in Mombasa was a hotel owned jointly by Israeli and U.S. nationals, frequented mainly by Israeli tourists. At least 15 people were killed and 80 injured in the car-bomb explosion. According to eyewitnesses, a car driven by two suicide bombers broke through the barricades of the hotel. One man triggered an explosion in the car, which rammed into the building while the other blew himself up in the hotel. Among the dead were nine Kenyans.

In an apparently coordinated attack, around the time the suicide bombings took place, two rockets were fired from just outside the Mombasa airport. They narrowly missed an Israeli chartered jet carrying more than 260 tourists going to Tel Aviv. There are also unconfirmed reports that a light plane circled over the hotel when it was being attacked and dropped two bombs, two of which landed in the hotel premises.

The operations had all the tell-tale signs of a sophisticated Al Qaeda operation, similar in many respects to the attacks against the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. Senior Kenyan officials were quick to point their fingers at the Al Qaeda. The Kenyan Ambassador to Israel, John Sawe, said that he did not have "any doubt" that the organisation led by Osama bin Laden was responsible for the strike.

Around a dozen people were picked up for interrogation, most of them of Pakistani and Somali origin. Kenyan and Israeli officials indicated that those arrested immediately after the bombings were not attached to any terrorist groups.

The first group to claim responsibility for the Mombasa attacks was the hitherto unknown "Government of Universal Palestine in Exile The Army of Palestine". But the claim was not taken seriously by either U.S. or Israeli intelligence officials.

The main suspect at this juncture is the "Al Ittiyad al Islamiya", a militant group based in southern Somalia and known to have close links with the Al Qaeda. Kenya and Somalia share a long porous border. Since the mid-1990s, Somalia is without a government. The chaotic situation in the country, along with the presence of warlords and groups sympathetic to the cause of militant Islam, has made the country an ideal base for groups like Al Qaeda. The U.S. government and some of its European allies had organised Task Force 150, a naval unit that patrols the East African coast, to capture Al Qaeda activists escaping from Afghanistan. However, till date, the task force has not captured a single Qaeda operative or intercepted illegal arms shipments.

Djibouti President Ismail Omar Gelleh said in the third week of November that it was the job of local and Western intelligence agencies "to track it and determine if there is something that is happening in the region. There is always the danger that there is a residue of terrorist cells in the region". The small nation of Djibouti, located in the Horn of Africa, plays an important role in the U.S.' `war against terror'. It serves as a military and logistical base for the U.S. and its allies, to help them monitor neighbouring countries like Somalia. There are around 6,000 German troops based in Djibouti.

The Americans have also been active in Yemen, where they now have a sizable military presence. Yemen, the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden, is near the Horn of Africa, across the Red Sea. The recent killing of an alleged Al Qaeda leader along with the Yemenis who were travelling with him in a car by a missile from a U.S. predator drone (pilotless plane) has infuriated the country's people. The targeted killing of the Al Qaeda activist, who incidentally was an American citizen, have also raised legal and ethical questions about U.S. tactics in the `war against terrorism'. Israel has also been targeting Palestinian activists, but this has not stopped the resistance or for that matter the spread of suicide bombing. "Assassination as a norm of international conduct exposes American leaders and Americans overseas," said Jeffrey Smith, a former legal adviser to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

THERE were other warning signals of an imminent terrorist attack on U.S. and Israeli targets. In the last seven months, the number of Western targets coming under attack has significantly increased. Recently, CIA chief George Tenet had to concede that the threat from Al Qaeda and associated groups was as serious as before September 11. U.S. soldiers and civilians are targeted in countries such as Kuwait, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. In his latest message that came out in mid-November, which was certified as authentic by Western intelligence agencies, Osama bin Laden criticised U.S. support for the Israeli government. Bin Laden said: "For our people in Palestine are being killed and have been suffering all kinds of torture for more than a century. If we defend our people in Palestine, the world goes up in arms and allies itself against Muslims under the banner of combating terrorism."

If Al Qaeda is really behind the recent incidents in Mombasa, then this is the first time that it has chosen to target Israeli interests. There have been criticism in the Arab world about Al Qaeda's exclusive focus on the U.S. despite Israel being the "core" problem for the Arabs. Arab observers feel that the Mombasa attacks were Al Qaeda's riposte to these criticisms. The Palestinian Authority (P.A.) has successfully dissuaded its citizens from carrying out any attacks against Israeli interests outside the occupied territories since the beginning of the 1980s. In the 1970s, East Africa was an arena where the Israeli secret service, Mossad, and Palestinan resistance groups confronted each other on a regular basis. There were hijackings, killings and kidnappings.

In 1976, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) made an attempt to shoot down an Israeli passenger plane in Nairobi airport. The rockets to be used were fortuitously discovered by the Kenyan authorities half an hour before the scheduled departure of the plane. In 1979, PFLP activists hijacked a Lufthansa passenger plane from Mogadishu. The bloodletting and the violence reached such a level that the Israeli government and the Palestinian leadership reached an understanding to cease their cloak-and-dagger activities in the region. Both sides have stuck to the agreement until now.

There have been few operations against Israeli targets since the beginning of the 1980s, barring the attack against the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires. Observers feel that the decision of Al Qaeda to open a front against Israel will have new implications. In the 1970s, violence between Israeli security agencies and the Arabs had spread to Europe.

A veteran diplomat said: "The Americans have entered a dark tunnel in their fight against terrorism. They cannot go after everyone. If similar terrorist attacks are repeated, it could make the Bush administration enhance its date for attacking Iraq. This will only give a fillip to terrorism. People are not scared of dying. Palestinians are giving them an example. Palestinian confrontation against the Israeli occupation forces is giving others courage. Israel is the real issue, not America."

The Palestinian leadership has made it clear on several occasions that it is totally against the fundamentalist ideology of Al Qaeda. The secular credentials of the Palestinian leadership are beyond doubt. The diplomat said that it was the P.A. that is keeping militant Islamic organisations like the Hamas in line. "If Arafat leaves, Hamas will take over," warned the diplomat.

However, he pointed out that the question of religious fundamentalism was not confined to the Arab or the Muslim world. There are several U.S. commentators who feel that the Bush administration's policies are driven by an agenda set by Zionist and Christian fundamentalists.

Meanwhile, the Kenyan economy, already in the doldrums, is bound to be further affected by the recent events. "When the elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers," said an African diplomat, referring to the Arab-Israeli struggle and the U.S.' `war against terrorism'. Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, speaking after the terrorist attack in Bali, blamed the rise of terrorism and militancy in her country on a "superpower that forced the rest of the world to go along with it".

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