You Can Call Me Al Qaeda


CNN is reporting that al Qaeda has, on a Web site, claimed responsibility for "bombing nightclubs and whorehouses in Indonesia." Meanwhile, an Indonesian man in police custody has confessed to driving one of the vehicles used in the bombing. No word yet on whom he claims to be working for (or whether it took torture to squeeze out that confession).

I'm willing to believe anti-"Jewish-Crusader alliance" terrorists are claiming responsibility for Bali—as opposed to Muslim Indonesians with specific, domestic goals or any of the other possible suspects. But this article, confidently headlined "Al Qaeda admits Bali blasts on Web," seems weirdly flimsy. Having read it, a fairer headline might have been, "Unknown persons on unnamed Web site say Al Qaeda bombed Bali."

For starters, CNN doesn't provide a link to the purported al Qaeda Web site, or much information about it. (I couldn't find any links to the site elsewhere.) It only says it "has been used in the past by al Qaeda to claim responsibility for attacks, including the synagogue fire in Tunisia in which mainly German tourists died, and strikes on two ships in Yemen."

It offers this translated passage from the Web site: "By attempting to strike a U.S. plane in Saudi Arabia and by bombing a Jewish synagogue in Tunisia, destroying two ships in Yemen, attacking the Fialka base in Kuwait, and bombing nightclubs and whorehouses in Indonesia, al Qaeda has shown it has no qualms about attacking inside Arab and Islamic lands." Yet the article doesn't make clear whether they've reprinted the entire message or just a portion of it—pretty important, since if that's the whole thing, it reads more like commentary than confession. Is it common for al Qaeda to refer to itself in the third person, or to refer to itself as "Al Qaeda" at all?

CNN then quotes Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who says he's seen a translation of the statement. But he has little to say about it—only, "It's a hijacking of Islam. It's a distortion of Islam." He does offer some typical White House "proof": "I think anybody looking at the evidence of everything that's been happening over the last 10 years, and particularly the last 18 months, would have to say this has all of the hallmarks of an al Qaeda operation."

What does al Qaeda mean these days? Are all Islamic militants who have issues with the U.S. and its allies al Qaeda? Do all al Qaeda terrorists have the same goals? Are they taking orders or working alone? Does Wolfowitz have the answers to these questions?

Labeling the Bali attack "al Qaeda" seems mostly a way to portray it as another battle in a global attack on the West fought by a well-coordinated army of Islamic militants. That may be a politically useful way to conceptualize what's happening, but does it reflect reality?

CNN's next article will no doubt have that answer.