Why Bush and bin Laden need each other

To keep the terror talk alive.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

Yesterday, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair sent tanks to surround Heathrow airport, in response to a ‘specific’ terrorist threat. US authorities warned the American public that a nuclear, biological or chemical attack may be ‘imminent’.

On the other side of the line, Arab satellite TV channel al-Jazeera broadcast a tape allegedly from Osama bin Laden, who called on Muslims to ‘target Americans and Jews in every corner’.

But at the time of writing, apocalypse is not yet upon us. And both London commuters and the Muslim masses seemed to go about their business pretty much as normal.

There seems to be a strange kind of complicity between Bush, Blair and bin Laden. They talk their terror talk to each other, through the world’s media. Bin Laden’s tape helps to back up Bush and Blair’s terror warnings; Bush and Blair’s terror warnings help to back up bin Laden’s threats. (Now, when it seems to suit their purposes, all insist that this latest tape really is bin Laden.)

But what all of this has to do with anything that is happening, or might actually happen on the ground, is anybody’s guess.

Today’s papers are plastered with yesterday’s terror threats. The Daily Mail carries the headline, ‘Heathrow in their sights’. ‘As Britain goes on highest alert, bin Laden issues chilling threat…WAR CRY’, shouts the Daily Mirror. ‘BIN LADEN: WE’LL KILL FOR IRAQ’, said the Sun, which also had stories headlined ‘War Zone Heathrow’ and ‘US Braced for Nukes’.

Of course, we are not party to the ‘increase of intelligence chatter’ that prompted Cobra, the UK Cabinet Office’s national emergency committee, to give authority for troops to be sent to Heathrow.

From 6am, 450 guardsmen, backed up by tanks and 700 extra policemen surrounded the airport and increased security in towns and villages on the Heathrow flight-path (1). Many commentators have concluded that al-Qaeda plans to shoot down an aeroplane with a missile, as it allegedly tried to do with an Israeli aeroplane taking off from Mombasa, Kenya, in November 2002.

But UK officials managed only to confuse the issue. A Blair spokesman said first that ‘This is an ongoing operation in relation to a specific threat’ – but then said that it was not specific (2). Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir John Stevens said, somewhat obliquely: ‘This is an alert for the whole of London – what you see at Heathrow is the obvious part of it.’

Stevens defined the level of public anxiety that was appropriate to these specific threats – quite high, but not too high. ‘I don’t want people to panic’, he said, ‘people should not be alarmed, they should be alert’.

But these constant terror alerts seem to be having a mixed effect on the British public. Around Heathrow yesterday, some were obviously worried. ‘I’m a bit freaked out’, one woman told The Times – ‘A big tank with a big gun just went past. It’s a bit full-on, isn’t it? You don’t have the army at Heathrow for no reason.’ (3)

But many were reported as being fatalistic, or sanguine – ‘It’s a little bit over the top today’, said one taxi driver (4). Others suggested that the warnings were a cynical PR set-up to help the Bush/Blair case for war against Iraq.

And in the USA, while homeland security secretary Tom Ridge advised families to create a ‘disaster supply kit’ to help them survive an aftermath of a nuclear strike, there are no reports of panic buying.

In fact, the US authorities’ warnings seemed to find more affirmation in bin Laden’s taped statement than in the reaction of the American public. The CIA director’s warning that: ‘We place no limitations on what al-Qaeda might do to survive’, found an echo in bin Laden’s ranting claim that: ‘We have to fight a war and God will give us the victory.’

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on terror

(1) The Times, 12 February 2003

(2) Financial Times, 12 February 2003

(3) The Times, 12 February 2003

(4) The Times, 12 February 2003

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Topics Politics


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