Articles

This is a new kind of war

Evening Standard, 15 October, 2002

I was in Kuta beach in Bali 30 years ago, fresh from covering the spring offensive of the Vietnamese war. Even without the contrast of war and peace, Bali was strikingly exquisite. There were no hotels, no bars, no shops to speak of in Kuta - just a few tiny guest houses built around courtyards. The beaches were empty, save for a few fishermen. It really was a form of paradise, untouched by the demands of Western tourism.

I never dreamed then that the bloodshed I had seen in Vietnam would decades later be seen in Bali, the numb expressions of ordinary people caught in the full blast of destruction. But this outrage is a new and - from my then perspective - unimaginable form of war. It signifies the harnessing of terrorist methods to the wider cause of aggressive Islamic fundamentalism, aimed at destabilising the West and all it stands for.

Bali has been broken on the horrific wheel of terror that threatens to roll around the world. It may be unlikely that such an outrage would be perpetrated in the same place twice (except in New York, which is bound to remain the principal target) but that will not stop people cancelling any plans to visit the island, or the rest of Indonesia, for many years to come.

But how can one stay a step ahead, when the target keeps moving? War zones used to be defined by inter-state conflict: you could number and identify them. Now there are no safe havens: everywhere is the next potential battlefield.

It is not yet certain that the Balinese outrage was the work of al Qaeda. But it seems at the very least likely that it was done by a group associated with the Bin Laden gang and inspired by its creed of bringing fear to exponents of Western selfbelief. The principal target was a bar which catered for Australians, and Australia has been one of the most courageous supporters of the American-led War on Terror since 11 September.

The Kuta bombing was no amateur affair, but a very sophisticated bomb - and it took place on the second anniversary of the al Qaeda attack on the UCole in Aden harbour. It was designed to kill as many innocent people as possible.

Together with the attack on a French supertanker off the coast of Yemen a few days ago, it suggests a switch of targets, away from American symbols towards those that are integral to the global economy and cause maximum anxiety precisely because one never knows where the havoc will strike again.

We know that Bin Laden's people rejoiced in the economic disruption as well as the civilian deaths caused by the 9/11 attacks. Now the terrorists seem to be targeting the global economy directly - oil and tourism are two of the largest international businesses. They didn't care whether the tanker was French or German. We are all Crusaders to Islamic terrorists.

A few weeks ago I took part in a televised debate on the War on Terror. I was on the side that defended the war and said that it was not of our making but that since it had been forced upon us on 11 September, we simply had to fight it. One of the witnesses we called was Peter Bergen, the author of an excellent book on al Qaeda, Holy War. Bergen declared that everyone in that studio audience was a target for al Qaeda; to my dismay some people in the audience actually laughed.

We lost the debate by a depressingly large margin - but Bali shows that he was right. That is the world we are in, like it or not. I wonder quite how many atrocities it will take until this comes home to people whose response to any intervention on the side of the US is to oppose it.

I am reminded of an extraordinary prophecy made by Peggy Noonan, a former speechwriter of President Reagan, in 1998. She wrote: "Something's up. And deep down, where the body meets the soul, we are fearful ... I don't mean there's a depression coming, I mean we live in a world of three billion men and hundreds of thousands of nuclear bombs, missiles, warheads; it's a world of extraordinary germs that can be harnessed and used to kill whole populations ... Three billion men and it takes only half a dozen ones to harneand deploy. What are the odds it will happen? Put it another way; what are the odds it will not? Low to nonexistent, I think."

There is no escaping this war. Whatever the many faults of the West - our greed and our arrogance and our carelessne- we did not seek it. It has come to us and it will come again. But we have to fight it because we are all potential targets.

There is no such thing as the deterrence that worked so well in at least the major theatre of the Cold War (it did not stop proxy wars, as in Vietnam, of course). In the studio debate Peter Bergen also pointed out that "al Qaeda do not believe that God is on their side. They know God is on their side." In the face of that kind of certainty, there can be no conciliation.

Things can and will be done. Impossible and intractable though it seems now, there must be and there will be real movement towards a comprehensive settlement to the struggle between Israel and the Palestinians. But those who say that such a settlement is the necessary first step to dealing with either Saddam or global terrorism deceive themselves. It is not solidarity with the wretched Palestinians that inspires the war of al Qaeda. Rather it is the succeof the Western model that is so enraging.

Bernard Lewis, one of the great scholars of Islam, recently wrote gloomily of the prospects for the Islamic world without democratisation: "If the peoples of the Middle East continue on their present path, the suicide bomber may become the metaphor for the whole region, and there will be no escape from a downward spiral of hate and spite, rage and self-pity, poverty and oppression."

He could have been writing of the men who conducted the outrage in Bali. Their aims are not susceptible to argument and concessions; they want to destroy the open societies of the West.

In our grief over those hundreds of innocents who died, we must face the fact that there is no solution but the determined isolation and destruction of their murderers. It will not be easy or quick: but there is no other way.

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