by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
International, 24 November, 2000
Secretary William Cohen toured the Middle East last week with the
message: "We’re not leaving".
Reassuring as this may be for
some, Cohen found himself on the defensive during his trip,
grappling not only with continuing threats of terrorism but also
with criticisms of US policy towards Iraq and what the American
news agency, AP, delicately described as "Arab perceptions of
a pro-Israel tilt since violence erupted between Israelis and the
"They have called upon us to
be fair," an American remarked during the tour, referring to
officials in the United Arab Emirates. "They’ve said: Can
you at least be fair, when you criticise Arafat for something, can
you also at the same time criticise someone on the other
Last week President Bill Clinton
applied to Congress for $750 million in "emergency aid"
for Israel and the two Arab countries that have made peace with
it: Egypt and Jordan. The lion’s share - $450 million - will go
to Israel. Of this, $200 million will pay for the withdrawal from
Lebanon last May and the rest will protect Israel against the
latest Iranian missiles. Egypt will get $225 million and Jordan
Lest anyone perceive a pro-Israel
tilt in this, the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, is
complaining vigorously - having previously demanded $800 million.
As the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict deepens, the American presence in the Middle East is
becoming a mixed blessing for the host countries.
Some of the Gulf states still feel
threatened by Iraq (and potentially by Iran), and welcome US
protection for that; others, such as Egypt, Jordan and Yemen, see
economic benefits in their relationship with the US.
Cohen’s tour took in Egypt,
Israel, Jordan, Oman, and the Emirates, plus three countries -
Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait - where American forces are now on
"Threatcon Delta", the highest state of alert. The
security measures also have an economic impact: Dubai is estimated
to be losing $50 million a year from the suspension of port visits
by the US Navy.
Security in Kuwait has been
stepped up following the discovery of a suspected plot to attack
American and British forces in the country. Six Kuwaitis are under
arrest but a Moroccan, thought to be the group's explosives
expert, is still at large.
In Saudi Arabia on November 17, a
British man, employed at a military hospital, was killed and his
wife was injured when their car blew up in the centre of Riyadh.
The cause is still being investigated.
Last August, a gunman opened fire
on two cars carrying British employees of BAE Systems who were
working at King Faisal air base. That attack was said to be
In 1995, five Americans were
killed by a car bomb at a US military headquarters in Riyadh. The
following year, a truck bomb near Dhahran killed 19 US Air Force
personnel and injured more than 500 Americans and Saudis.
It would, perhaps, be reassuring
for the Americans if the blame for all these incidents could be
laid at the door of Usama bin Laden: there would be no need to
look for a motive, beyond saying that he orchestrated and funded
But once the existence of
indigenous terrorist groups is admitted, their motives have to be
considered. If the experience of Yemen is anything to judge by,
such movements arise from a particular view of Islam where the
presence of westerners in a Muslim country is seen as a corrupting
influence. The Afghan war - regarded as a stupendous victory over
a superpower - was a formative experience for many of those
involved, and also provided them with technical skills.
Specific aspects of western policy
- towards Iraq and Israel, for example - provide a justification
for their actions and help them to gain sympathy among a wider
section of the population.
The Yemeni authorities say they
have now identified one of the two suicide bombers who attacked
the USS Cole in Aden harbour on October 12 and are close to
identifying the second.
The man had acquired
identification documents, including a boating licence, under an
assumed name but the photographs on them were genuine. He was a
Yemeni, born in Hadhramaut, who lived in Aden. The other bomber is
also said to have been Yemeni.
FBI investigators in Yemen, now
reportedly satisfied with progress, have begun to scale down their
The extent of any outside
involvement is still unclear, but the attack seems to have been
mainly the work of the local mujahideen - veterans of the Afghan
war - whose efforts to hit western targets in Yemen date back to
the early 1990s. According to the Yemen Times, one of the bombers
may have been implicated in the 1998 attack on the US embassy in
The attack on the USS Cole may
have succeeded more by luck than design. It emerged last week that
the $1 billion warship was undefended while refuelling in Aden:
the guards’ weapons were not loaded and they had orders not to
shoot unless fired upon. There are also growing doubts about the
competence of the bombers.
A previous attempt to blow up the
American destroyer, USS Sullivans, last January, allegedly failed
because the attackers’ boat almost sank under the weight of
explosives. According to one report, the craft that hit the USS
Cole was home-made and powered by a farm tractor’s engine.
Yemeni sources say the group
failed in at least two other attacks. In November, 1999, they had
planned to bomb a convoy of US military personnel heading to
Yemen's National Center for the Removal of Land Mines. This was
foiled when Yemeni security forces discovered explosives about a
mile from the hotel where the Americans were staying. Another
failed attempt allegedly targeted the Royal Hotel in Aden, where
most of the 30 American servicemen were staying.
In the course of the Cole
investigation the Yemenis have recaptured an escapee who was
arrested for the 1992 bombing of two hotels in Aden, which killed
an Austrian tourist and a Yemeni hotel worker. killed were in a
bomb explosion at the Gold Mohur hotel, Aden. On that occasion the
bombers were believed to have been objecting to the presence in
Aden of US military who were then helping with the Somali relief