The upsurge in terrorist attacks on western targets around the
world over the past month, culminating in the bombings in Bali,
has fueled criticism of the Bush administration that its focus on
Iraq has sapped its effort against an undefeated al-Qaida.
Western intelligence services see Indonesia as both a haven and a target of Islamist extremists affiliated to al-Qaida. However, there was also no immediate evidence that the Bush administration's current concentration on Iraq had diminished its efforts against al-Qaida and its supporters in Indonesia.
During a visit to Jakarta in August, the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, announced the renewal of US military assistance, a $50m (£32m) package over three years. But the administration's critics say that resources are being drained from the worldwide campaign against al-Qaida and diverted to preparations for a war on Iraq, at a time when al-Qaida is not only still functioning but showing signs of a resurgence.
Bill Clinton and his former vice-president, Al Gore, have led the
charge against the Iraq policy. Mr Clinton broke with tradition
this month when he cautioned against pre-emptive, unilateral action
in Iraq and argued that "our most pressing security challenge" remained
al-Qaida. Mr Gore launched a scathing attack on President Bush's
foreign policy last month, saying a threatened war against Iraq
had distracted attention from efforts to fight terrorism, neglected
the need to stabilize Afghanistan, and alienated America's allies.
"The resulting chaos in the aftermath of a military victory with Iraq could easily pose a far greater danger to the United States than does Saddam," Mr Gore said.
The critics have also included Republicans, who point to the redeployment of special forces troops from anti-terrorist duties around the world to prepare for a possible invasion in Iraq. Intelligence sources have also claimed that overstretched CIA analysts have been put under pressure to produce evidence underpinning the administration's controversial claims of links between Baghdad and al-Qaida.
In a flurry of attacks this month, Abu Sayyaf guerrillas detonated a nail bomb in the Philippines, killing three including an American special forces soldier; an explosion on an oil tanker off the coast of Yemen on October 6 has been shown to have been a terrorist attack; and in Kuwait gunmen with suspected al-Qaida links opened fire on US marines, killing one and injuring another.
At the same time, al-Qaida has released two audio tapes - one a
recording of Osama bin Laden which could not be dated, and another
of his Egyptian deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, which was clearly made
recently and urged the organization's followers to carry out attacks
on American targets.
US intelligence officials quoted in the American press over the weekend warned that the latest attacks could represent the lead-up to another spectacular assault, comparable with September 11. At the very least, they have shown the capacity of al-Qaida and its supporters to carry out multiple low-level attacks around the world at the same time.
"I'm afraid you'll see a lot more of this," Richard Shelby, the most senior Republican on the Senate intelligence committee, told the New York Times. "We always warned that there would be more attacks because we have not finished off al-Qaida. We've disrupted it. We've had them on the run, but they are still around."
Senator Shelby's Democratic counterpart, Bob Graham, argued yesterday that the administration's campaign against Iraq "misstates our national priorities in a dangerous way".
"If this were 1938, the course advocated by the president - and endorsed in the congressional resolution - would be the equivalent of the Allies' declaring war on Mussolini's Italy but ignoring Hitler's Germany," he wrote in the Washington Post.
"We are turning our backs on the greater danger, and pretending
not to recognize that an attack on Baghdad could spark the wake-up
call to the terrorists sleeping in our midst."
The CIA entered the fray last week, when its director, George Tenet, declassified an official assessment that Iraq represented a "low" threat to the US, but could retaliate if attacked, possibly by supplying chemical or biological weapons to Islamic extremists.
In Whitehall there has been growing concern that the Bush administration has taken its eye off international terrorism by concentrating on a war against Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein.
From his public statements on September 11, Bin Laden made it clear he was seeking to provoke a war of cultures between Muslims and non-Muslims. Most analysts agree that that effort has so far been a manifest failure, but it could be given momentum if the US invades Iraq.
In his message broadcast last Tuesday, al-Zawahiri portrayed the gathering US campaign against Baghdad in that light. "The campaign against Iraq has an objective that is far beyond Iraq to reach the Arab and Islamic world," he said on al-Jazeera.
The Bush administration has argued that the possibility that terrorists might acquire weapons of mass destruction represents the biggest threat now looming over the US, justifying an urgent confrontation with Baghdad.
The president was bolstered last Thursday by overwhelming votes
in the Senate and House of Representatives authorizing the use of
force. The votes split the Democratic party between those opposed
to a war with Iraq, those who supported it, and those who believed
it was politically dangerous to oppose the president over a national
security issue in the run-up to congressional elections.
A New York Times commentator, Thomas Friedman, who has previously supported a hardline approach to Baghdad, argued that the increasing threat to Americans at home demanded more attention by the government.
"Frankly, I don't want to hear another word about Iraq right now. I want to hear that my president and my Congress are taking the real steps needed in this country - starting with sane gun control and sane economic policy - to stop this slide into over here becoming like over there."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002