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Friday, 13 October, 2000, 16:24 GMT 17:24 UK
The West in danger
Protest in Jakarta
Protestors have targeted US embassies around the world
By Middle East analyst Tim Llewellyn

With Arab world anger against Israel and sympathy for the Palestinians at its highest point since the intifada - the Palestinian uprising of the late 1980s - Israel and its close ally the United States are on maximum alert for possible terrorist operations.

The British, too, closely identified in the Middle East with US foreign policy, are vulnerable as well.

An Islamic group attacked Western tourists in Luxor three years ago
Arab regimes are virtually helpless to act in any but rhetorical or diplomatic ways against Israel and its supporters, short of using the oil weapon if matters deteriorate much further.

But Arab and Islamic radical groups, particularly the latter, have already proved that they can strike lethally in the West itself and against Western commercial and human targets.

Terror target USA
1979: Islamic students hold 52 hostages at US Embassy in Tehran
1983: Suicide car bomber blows up US embassy in Beirut, killing 17 Americans
1983: Shiite suicide bomber kills 241 US soldiers at Beirut barracks
1986: Pan Am Jumbo seized in Pakistan. 20 killed
1988: Pan Am Jumbo explodes over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270
1998: US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania bombed, 224 including 12 US killed
The attacks in Yemen on the USS Cole in Aden, for example, and the explosion at the British Embassy in Sana'a, are ominous signals that the process may already be under way, two weeks into the latest Palestinian-Israeli crisis.

American intelligence has been keeping a close eye on a group in Yemen calling itself the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army, which is opposed to the use of Aden harbour by US and Royal Navy warships and has carried out kidnappings of foreigners.

Ironically - the Israelis are making little mention of this now - Yasser Arafat himself had done much until the present crisis blew up on 28 September to suppress violence against Israeli civilian and other targets in the occupied territories and Israel itself.

Osama bin Laden
Osama bin Laden: America's Enemy Number One
His security forces had arrested scores of members of the radical Islamic group Hamas, whose military wing had carried out a number of suicide bomb attacks inside Israel in the early to mid-1990s.

They could be active again by now, with the practical and emotional support of the large majority of Palestinians in the territories, who would not normally join or regard themselves as sympathisers of such organisations.

But outside Israel and the Palestinian territories, more and even greater danger to the West lies across the Middle East itself and overseas: to its diplomatic missions; commercial organisations; airliners; airports; and to the ordinary everyday traveller or resident in the region.

The US lists 16 of what it calls terrorist groups in the Middle East, seven of them Islamic - including Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories; Hizbollah in Lebanon; and the Islamic Group in Egypt.

Holy War

Many of these are linked with perhaps the most notorious organisation of all, al-Qaida, based in the Taliban-ruled areas of Afghanistan and led by the man who must be by now be the American Public Enemy Number 1: Osama bin Laden.

Hezbollah is still regarded by the US as a terrorist group
Bin Laden, a Saudi dissident, fought against Soviet forces in Afghanistan, and, like many of his associates has used the military skills and contacts acquired there to launch what he terms a jihad (Holy War) against the US.

The Americans hold him responsible for the simultaneous bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in August 1998, in which 301 people were killed, 12 of them Americans.

Hezbollah, the Iranian and Syrian-backed Lebanese guerrilla group responsible for removing Israel's forces from south Lebanon, has also been implicated in attacks against Israeli targets in Buenos Aires, in 1992 and 1994.

Historical lessons

It is thought by Western intelligence sources to have trained members of radical Shiite Muslim factions from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

Americans and Saudis recall in this context the 1996 attack on Khobar Towers, a building housing American military personnel near Dhahran, the oil-producing and mainly Shiite region of eastern Saudi Arabia. A truck bomb killed 19 US Air Force personnel and more than 500 Americans and Saudis were injured.

The Egyptian Islamic Group, which killed 58 tourists at the Valley of the Kings at Luxor in Upper Egypt three years ago, has been quiet lately, as have the Palestinian groups, both secular and religious.

Security has been stepped up in Yemen
Egyptian security forces cracked down ruthlessly on Islamic groups and anyone even marginally involved or likely to be involved in such cells or operations; so did Mr Arafat's copious security agencies.

But there are many historical lessons that disaffected sympathisers of the militarily and politically weak can strike deep into the hearts of the powerful and strong if they feel the cause is worthwhile.

These lessons include:

  • The seizure of the US hostages at the US embassy in Tehran in 1979

  • The Western hostage agonies of the 1980s

  • The Palestinian hijackings and assaults that coloured the 1970s and 1980s - until Yasser Arafat officially denounced such actions at America's behest at a special UN General Assembly in Geneva in 1988

  • Islamic militants' actions against Western interests in the 1990s

There can be no doubt that this weekend the Palestinian plight has evoked outrage among Arabs from the Atlantic to the Gulf, from the palaces to the street. Activists inside and beyond the Middle East will have taken note.

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