David Miller Online
The USS Cole attack: A caution against overstating International Terrorism in the 21st Century.
While much of the world’s attention has been focused on the crisis in the Middle East and the change of government in
Yugoslavia over the past week, the attack on the USS Cole while on a refuelling stop in Aden has once again thrown the
spotlight on International Terrorism.
However, with the Israeli- Palestinian peace process at near breaking point and the transition of government in
Belgrade, one could almost be excused for overlooking this event and the fact that terrorism remains a factor in
international politics in the 21st Century.
While there have been no claims of responsibility for the bombing of the Cole, in which 17 US servicemen were killed,
Washington is adamant that the suicide bombing of its warship was the work of a terrorist group and has already
indicated that it believes the network of Osama bin- Laden to be that which orchestrated it.
Until evidence to substantiate these claims is produced, this position remains speculation, nevertheless the attack
serves as a demonstration of America’s ongoing and growing fixation with terrorism and with bin- Laden, who to many
Americans is its embodiment in the new Millennium.
This is not the first time the United States has held the Saudi born bin- Laden and his organisation, known as al-
Qaida, responsible for attacks on its military and people.
Bin- Laden is accused by Washington of planning and organising the 1998 bombings of its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania
in which over 300 people were killed and more than 5000 were wounded. The attack on the US air force barracks in Saudi
Arabia in 1996 was also attributed to this group as where attacks on US servicemen and installations in Somalia and
previously in Aden.
What arises from such attacks, including the Cole incident, is that the attention directed towards bin- Laden within the
United States heightens and this adds weight to the argument that he is the terrorist mastermind of the 21st Century.
This perception has become an official government line.
State Department documents acknowledge that the al- Qaida organisation has a global reach and is privately funded
through bin- Laden himself. They point to the fact that the strength of the group is not known.
There is speculation that from his base in Afghanistan, Bin- Laden could have between several hundred to several
thousand members under his command, which he can call upon to conduct his operations. The United States also maintains
that this group is developing chemical and biological agents for their arsenal.
Such a fear was the motivation for the cruise missile attack the US launched on a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, which
it maintained was a weapons manufacturing plant under the control of bin- Laden in 1998.
Therefore the most significant aspect that arises from the attack on the Cole is that this recent incident is one in a
series, which further adds to the American position that such attacks show the rise of a ‘new terrorism’. This new brand
of terrorism is regarded as being a more lethal brand than what has emerged in previous decades and has arisen
throughout the 1990’s.
It is regarded within the American media and government in particular as being constituted by the emergence of religion
as the predominant impetus for terrorist attack and the increasing technological skills that terrorist groups can call
The potential for the use of biological, chemical and even nuclear agents is also included in this equation along with
the role states such as Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan play in sponsoring and aiding terrorist groups.
It must be noted that the ‘new terrorism’ premise and what is believed to constitute has been the subject of intense
debate and criticism, however it is upon this formula that a widespread perception of terrorism has formed and why so
much attention continues to be focused on it.
However to overstate the power of terrorism is a dangerous thing to do. It is important to remember that terrorism is
not a leading cause of death and injury among American and Western people, in fact, the number of casualties it
inflicted during the 1990’s was a marked drop from those in previous decades.
For all the speculation of chemical or biological attack, there has been no copycat incidents following the 1996 Tokyo
Subway incident in which sarin nerve gas was released, and governments such as the United States have been guilty of
inflating the power of the terrorists to a point which is sometimes divorced from reality.
The mystique that already surrounds Osama bin- Laden is already well developed and continues to be whenever Washington
or one of its allies openly remarks that his organisation is a prime suspect for an attack. It must be remembered that
this is a man who in no way has the means to influence the foreign policy of the world’s remaining superpower, despite
his stated wish to do so.
Nevertheless with each incident and subsequent American media and government attention the aura around him grows. It is
not ironic therefore, that President Clinton has signed two Executive Orders relating to bin- Laden and the
Afghanistan’s Taliban militia, which provide him a sanctuary and that the US regards any statements he makes with the
Terrorism has been in existence for centuries and the Cole attack shows that this century will be no different. However
in this century the forces that shape terrorism have changed somewhat.
Given the explosion of violence in the Middle East, the turmoil of Yugoslavia and the recent outbreak of the Ebola virus
in Uganda, there are other areas of concern for people and policymakers to think about. When placed against this broader
backdrop of global events, terrorism and those responsible for it are merely small players in a very large arena.