Protecting the presence

Protecting the presence

by Brian Whitaker

Originally published in Middle East International,24 November, 2000

US Defense 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 Palestinians".

"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 side?"

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 $75 million.

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 non-political.

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 them.

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 operation.

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 Nairobi.

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 operation.