Bombs awry

The United States has every legal and moral right to retaliate militarily against those responsible for terrorist attacks such as the August 7 bombings of American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya (see, "The Bomb Next Door," page 10), and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, that killed more than 250 people. In exercising that right to self-defense the United States also has a legal and moral duty to make sure that any military action is proportionate to the crime and to identify properly the guilty parties before it acts.

In justifying the August 20 U.S. cruise-missile attacks against the Afghanistan training camps of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, the Clinton administration claimed that it had compelling evidence linking bin Laden to the embassy bombings as well as to the Sudanese plant, which allegedly produced a rudimentary component for VX nerve gas. Moreover, the United States claimed that the missile attacks were necessary to forestall yet another terrorist action by bin Laden, a millionaire Islamic fundamentalist who is financing a holy war against the United States and its Middle East allies.

Some critics suggested that the resort to force was intended to divert attention from Bill Clinton’s ongoing legal and political problems. Those charges have not subsequently been substantiated, and the resolute but circumscribed nature of the U.S. military response earned the admiration of many. But now a growing body of evidence suggests that, although bin Laden’s connection to the embassy bombings justified the military strikes against his Afghanistan installations and forces, the destruction of the pharmaceutical factory was in all likelihood a hasty miscalculation based on unreliable intelligence.

Contrary to initial U.S. claims, the factory appears to have had no direct financial connection to bin Laden. Indeed, the administration now concedes as much. Worse, there exists no convincing evidence that the plant was surreptitiously producing material for chemical weapons. So far, the United States has refused to allow any independent examination of "soil samples" that reputedly provide physical evidence of a nerve-gas link. To do so, the administration says, would be to compromise espionage sources. However, British scientists familiar with the Khartoum plant have cast serious doubt on U.S. claims. It also seems that the "trace elements" of the chemical compound Empta, supposedly present in the soil samples, could be the byproduct of the factory’s pesticide manufacturing processes.

Thanks to the efforts taken by the United States to minimize casualties-as well as to much good luck-no one was killed in the pharmaceutical plant bombing. But a facility producing desperately needed agricultural chemicals and veterinary medicines for a war-ravaged area was totally destroyed. Unless the United States can more convincingly demonstrate that the plant was part of a terrorist network, it has a moral obligation to rebuild the facility. People of good will everywhere instinctively feel moral revulsion at terrorism’s wanton disregard of innocent life. The United States mustn’t squander support for its counterterrorist efforts by acting in a way that places the lives of innocent people at further risk. Nor can it afford to give further credence to the grievances that fuel terrorism by arrogantly failing to acknowledge when it has made a mistake.

Published in the 1998-10-09 issue: 

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