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Bombings may spur antiterror unity { May 19 2003 }

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from the May 19, 2003 edition
Bombings may spur antiterror unity

Nations tighten ranks after attacks in Morocco and Saudi Arabia show terrorists target more than the US.

By Howard LaFranchi | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WASHINGTON The recent surge in terrorist bombings around the world is a violent reminder that the targets of Islamic extremism are much broader than America alone.

The Sept. 11 attacks convinced Americans that Al Qaeda sees the US as its principal enemy. That is still true. But the strike in Casablanca, Morocco, on Friday - targeting a Spanish cultural center, the Belgian Consulate, a Jewish community center, and a cosmopolitan hotel - as well as the recent bombings in Saudi Arabia demonstrate how radical Islam is fixed on other totems as well. These include Western influences in Muslim culture, economic globalization, and modernization in general.

In one sense, that reality makes vanquishing groups like Al Qaeda seem all the more daunting because their targets are so diffuse. But the most recent bombings may also bring more of the world together in trying to quell terrorism. To the extent that such attacks continue and include non-American targets, they reinforce the notion temporarily lost during the animosity over the Iraq war that much of the world is vulnerable to terrorist violence and that strong international cooperation is needed curb it.

"These tragic events ... have been a massive jolt to Saudi Arabia, to the US, to all peace-loving people around the world that we have to redouble our efforts and we have to pursue the terrorists vigorously," said Adel Al-Jubeir, the foreign policy adviser to Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, in a recent Washington press conference.

To be sure, that kind of we're-all-in-this-together argument allows Saudi Arabia to deflect attention from its role in the rise of Al Qaeda, some say. But others note it's also true that part of the reason attacks occur in nations like Saudi Arabia and Morocco stems from their efforts to boost ties to the non-Muslim world.

Why these targets

Saudi Arabia, for example, is seeking entry into the World Trade Organization, while Morocco, a country with a progressive Islamic regime but an underbelly of religious radicalism, is on track to sign a free-trade agreement with the US this year. Last week's bombings in Riyadh and Casablanca, which together killed more than 70 people, have not been directly linked to Al Qaeda, although they show the earmarks of its operations, US officials say: use of suicide bombers, and nearly simultaneous explosions at multiple sites.

Other evidence linking the terror group to the bombings has begun to emerge. On Sunday, Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef said that three of the attackers who died in the Riyadh blasts were identified as men already being sought by Saudi authorities investigating a large weapons cache linked to Al Qaeda. Prince Nayef also announced the arrest of four suspects in the bombings, but offered no further details.

At the same time, Moroccan officials point out that in a February tape attributed to Osama bin Laden, the Al Qaeda leader reserved special wrath for the North African country for its close ties to the US and openness to non- Islamic influences.

With suspicions falling on the organization that experts say appears to be extending its cells around the world, countries are returning to a focus on the war on terror. The new attention, for some, is a way to get over splits with the US on Iraq. France on Saturday raised the level of its security alert, while French President Jacques Chirac said that "events [like the Riyadh and Casablanca bombings] can only reinforce our common determination to battle without pause against international terrorism."

Even before the most recent attacks, France's ambassador to the US, Jean-David Levitte, was playing down the Franco-American rift over Iraq while emphasizing Franco-American cooperation on terrorism. He likes to point out that President Bush has told him he considers France one of the US's best allies in the war on terrorism.

The clear hope in countries like France and Germany that opposed the war in Iraq - in part because they saw it as a diversion from the war on terrorism - appears to be that the US will return to a focus on international cooperation.

Criticism of Bush grows at home

At home, the Bush administration is already facing criticism on the issue. Democratic presidential candidates, in particular, are chiding the White House for its handling of the war on terrorism. In an appearance in Iowa Saturday, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida said the administration had "let Al Qaeda off the hook" with the focus on Iraq.

Such comments may indeed revive broader criticisms that the war in Iraq could hurt the war on terrorism, while also adding pressure to repair foreign ties to better fight global terror.

"Remember it was people like Brent Scowcroft [national security adviser to the first President Bush] who before the war in Iraq said, 'Hey, wait a minute, don't divert your attention when we haven't won the war on terrorism yet,' " says Lawrence Korb, a former Reagan administration official now at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "Their point was, you don't want to alienate the people you need to fight the war that involves the biggest threat to your national security."

Mr. Korb says the Iraq war's "triumphalists" jumped on the absence of any Al Qaeda attacks during the war as evidence of group's weakness. But he says that conclusion must now be reassessed.

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