Attacks on U.S. Soil
With Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2001; 1 p.m. EDT
Tuesday morning, Sept. 11, in a horrific series of events two hijacked planes hit and destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Center, one plane crashed into the Pentagon and another in Somerset County, Pa. Thousands are presumed dead or injured as emergency services and relief workers continue to make sense of the chaotic scenes. The FBI and authorities across the country continue to track down those responsible for the crimes.
Karl Vick, The Washington Post's Africa correspondent, was online Thursday, Sept. 13 to talk about reaction in Africa to the attacks on America.
Based in Nairobi, Kenya, Vick covers issues and events in eastern Africa, from the environment to politics.
The transcript follows.
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Karl Vick: Greetings. Been a while since I've been online, and the occasion isn't particularly African, is it? But the events of the week have touched folks here, too, as the questions seem to sense. Let's get to 'em...
Would you say the reaction in Nairobi is widely sympathetic?
Karl Vick: Yes, it is. Kenya historically has been quite sympathetic and admiring of the United States. It's like most developing nations, admiring the big mama and eager to visit (or more likely, move) there. "Can you get me a visa to your country?" is just about the most common question I hear.
That said, the relationship was sorely tried by the embassy bombing of Aug. 7 1998. It wasn't so much that Kenyans blamed the U.S. Rather, many were offended by the self-centered reaction of the Americans, who were conspicuous about looking after their own, even though 201 of the 224 killed by the truck bomb were Africans. It didn't help that the urban search and rescue teams helping search the private buildings where Kenyans were trapped were from Israel, while the later-arriving U.S. team (from Fairfax County, Va.) essentially confined their efforts to the embassy. This was a matter of protocol, but it was unfortunate. I remember thinking at the time that diplomacy was a casualty of the attack.
Long answer, but since then this tension has continued, as many Kenyans want to see monetary compensation from the U.S., which declines for legal reasons (giving cash apparently would constitute an acknowledgment of negligence). I still heard that mentioned on the streets of Nairobi this week, but generally people appear genuinely saddened and sympathetic.
Good afternoon, Karl, and thanks for joining us. We've been hearing about reaction to the attacks in the U.S. from Europe and the Middle East -- any discernible reaction in eastern Africa?
Karl Vick: Yes, the attack remains huge news here as everywhere. The story was the only one on today's Daily Nation, the largest paper in Kenya. The hammerhead, a live from the tomb over a huge color shot of the rescue effort at the WTC. The inside tease lists six inside pages of stories.
Have you detected any jubilation in Nairobi among any sections of the population, or is there universal revulsion? What have you heard about the response in Khartoum?
Karl Vick: In fact, there are some disturbing reactions among some Muslims. It was odd visiting the main mosque in downtown Nairobi yesterday. I mean, they did have a rather lethal bombing here three years ago, so you'd think they'd hesitate to suggest suchlike are good things. But it wasn't hard to find support for the attacks in NY and DC. I wouldn't say jubilation, but there was a good deal of satisfaction. Not universal, but ...
Rather like the reaction from Khartoum, actually. Officially, the government of Sudan was highly sympathetic. That fundamentalist Islamic government is desperately trying to get back in the good graces of the U.S., which has banned U.S. businesses from operating in Sudan because of its past terrorist links -- it welcomed bin Laden and his boys in 1991, treating them as honored guests for a few years.
At the same time, the semi-official press in Khartoum called the attack richly deserved. An excerpt from ALWAN:
"Yesterday, the U.S. witnessed the highest monument, that was established to
suck the blood of the poor and weak, collapsing and dissolving like salt.
"Yesterday, America, for the first time throughout its history, realized that
it is just a paper tiger that can do nothing except showing power against
the weak, enlarging its portrait and biography through forgery and lies."
What is the general consensus in Sudan among the Sunni Muslims that are the majority in that country?
Karl Vick: Dunno. The Khartoum press reflects Khartoum only, the ruling elite at best. As for the rest of the country, it really has no voice. I do know from visits to Khartoum that even there almost no one identifies himself or herself with the ruling National Islamic Front, which now calls itself the Congress Party. But that doesn't mean they don't share some sympathies with what everyone loves to call the Arab Street.
Sudan is a unique country, though: Really split between Africa and the Arab world. It's its own place. But I do know you don't get harangued about Israel there the way you do just across the Red Sea in Yemen, for instance.
New York City, N.Y.:
Would you describe the memorial garden in Nairobi, at the site of the embassy bombing, and say whether something similar might be appropriate in New York? Thank you.
Karl Vick: It's a modest little park, rather nicely done, on the busy street corner where the embassy stood. It's fenced, and you enter through a turnstile (the fee is 20 Kenya shillings, about 25 cents, and I sure wouldn't advise repeating that particular element) and enter a park that's got a hillock on the right -- a grassy knoll, actually -- and a piece of abstract art on the left. The stone path leads to a fountain, if memory serves, and beyond that is a stand-alone wall on which the names of the dead are engraved. A couple stone benches are around there too.
It's simple and pleasant, not innovative in the way of the Oklahoma Memorial. I can't imagine there won't be some structure of remembrance in NYC, and imagine that in its way it'll be as extraordinary and moving as this event.
Given the large Islamic populations in Africa and the United States's history of involvement in destabilization of certain governments or other conflict, I'm surprised there isn't more underlying sentiment that now we know what it feels like. Do you think that will surface?
Karl Vick: There are large Muslim populations in West African countries, but in Kenya, for instance, Muslims amount to less than 10 percent of the population, and are concentrated on the Indian Ocean, or Swahili coast.
I don't know how much the U.S. has destabilized West African countries. They tend to be former French colonies, and under the Frog thumb. But check out the following post, from the enchanting Francophone land of Mali....
I happened to be home for lunch shortly after the second plane hit the WTC. A colleague called to tell me to turn on my TV and I then watched for about 30 minutes with Amadou, our Malian cook and housekeeper. After about 15 minutes, by which time any possibility of accident had been wiped from our still uncomprehending minds, Amadou, who was as stricken as I but is much more reticent by nature, cautiously said, "I don't like to speculate, but I can't help but think of the Israelis (as authors) when I see wanton destruction like this." (I'm translating and paraphrasing, but not, I think, distorting).
One possible explanation of this guess of Amadou's is that he has been brainwashed with anti-Israeli sentiment; another would be that he had some complicated anti-Semitic plot in mind whereby the Israelis had orchestrated this as a means of cementing U.S. support in their cause. I am certain that it was not the latter and doubt also the former.
I would explain his speculation rather, by a combination of remarkable (though typical) geopolitical naivete (he doesn't know who is on whose side) combined with years of televised observations of the Israeli government's crushing oppression and wanton destruction of Palestinian civilians and their homes. That is, Amadou doesn't really even know where New York is, let alone how the U.S. lines up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What he does know is that when he sees massive and senseless seeming destruction of the property and lives of innocent people, Israel is most often the author of the destruction.
Amadou will never be a terrorist, even if the U.S. "response" to this attack includes the taking of more innocent Muslim lives than were taken in New York and Washington, D.C. But leaving aside the dubious ethical position of achieving vengeance no matter the "collateral" cost (trading innocent lives for innocent lives), does any thinking American believe that such retaliation (if done in anything more than a surgical, if not judicial, manner) will actually make them or their country safer in the future?
[I recognize, of course, that this is more of a statement than a question, but as I sit here so far from the destruction of New York and Washington, D.C., reading the thoughtless, vengeful smack coming from so many mouths, from the president on down, I can't help but wonder if it is ignorance or hubris that reigns. Whatever, it is clearly (for now, at any rate) not sober reflection. I could understand it if revenge were one of the major notes being struck, but it seems to be the only one, and it is not limited to our pea-brained president, who is so clearly out of his depth that I could understand his clinging to the most primitive approach.]
Karl Vick: Me I have no comment. We've already got enough layers and speculation here for an episode of The Capitol Gang.
I work for an African safari tour operator and am scheduled to escort a trip that will consist of travel agents to Nairobi in early November. Should I expect any problems in Kenya as an American tourist with other American tourists?
Karl Vick: Nah. People here quite like Americans and positively love tourists. The first has money and the second has come to spend it. You'll be most welcomed.
New York, N.Y.:
If America responds violently to terrorism around the world, to what degree will Kenya be affected? Are there many terrorist groups in Kenya?
Karl Vick: I should think there are, yes, but they don't really make themselves known. I mean, the guys who blew up the embassy here started moving here four years before the bombing. They really were secret agents, or "sleep agents" as I heard Gen. Wes Clark call them the other day.
But I can't imagine Kenya will be in for it again. It was a bystander in the embassy bombing, which of course was aimed at America, and Uncle Sam's guard has been way way up ever since. It's no longer a target of opportunity.
Have you sensed any concern among neighboring countries that harbor Islamic fundamentalists, such as Somalia and Sudan, that they are potential targets for retribution?
Karl Vick: Sudan seems a bit nervous, not so much for fear of retribution. There was the '98 strike against the El Shifa pharmaceutical plant, but that turned out to be a PR triumph for the regime, as the consensus began forming almost immediately that the strike was a mistake; no one ever found anything in the wreckage except cow medicines, no sign of the nerve gas the Clinton White House alleged.
This time, however, the fear in Khartoum appears to be that the blowback from the WTC and Pentagon strikes will endanger its long, slow effort to rehabilitate itself with Washington. By all accounts the regime has made progress on that front: though still listed as a rogue nation, or whatever the current term is, by the State Department, the latest anti-terrorism annual report noted Sudan's progress and used softer language. More immediately, there's a vote coming soon in the Security Council to remove UN sanctions related to Sudan's harboring the guys who tried to assassinate Egypt's president a few years ago. The States was prepared to abstain on that vote, but after this week -- and the new prominence of bin Laden, whom Sudan once sheltered -- has put that in question, I'm told.
Big Spring, Tex.:
How about Anglophone west Africa? Reports indicate that Moslems in the Nigerian state of Zamfara which practises sharia law have planned a celebratory march today. Is this, in your view, an isolated incident, or reflective of the general attitude in those parts?
Karl Vick: I just don't know. I'm on the other side of the continent. In general, though, African Islam has been a lot more laid back than the brand you see practiced in the Gulf or Central Asia. But obviously the blood is up in Nigeria's north and even middle belt.
What is the reaction from the governments of Tanzania and Kenya? Have they taken any action regarding air travel and other security?
Karl Vick: The governments made the usual sympathetic noises. More than usual, I should say, given the shared history of all three nations now.
As for air travel, a friend told me today that the Nairobi airport had closed. I am ashamed to say that came as news to me, possibly because it's not correct. (I hope this isn't an editor asking...)
Takoma Park, Md.:
Since Africans comprised the majority of casualties when U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, is there increased concern among Africans that terrorist activity against the U.S. will again play out in their cities and towns? Also, do they feel as if they could be caught between the terrorists and America as the American government considers the use of force in capturing/punishing those responsible for Tuesday's crimes?
Karl Vick: Certainly they felt caught between in '98, when the embassies blew. This wasn't their fight, and they were so eager to get away from everything associated with it that when the suspects were captured and brought to Kenya, they couldn't get them pushed on to the States fast enough. President Moi came in for some criticism from Kenya's law society for letting the FBI take them to New York without so much as a request for extradition, but the move was hugely popular among the wananchi, or common folk.
Silver Spring, Md.:
My sense is the Third World is gloating. True?
Karl Vick: By no means. As I say, much of the Third World largely admires America and readily absorbs the pop culture it sprays down on them from satellites.
That said, there does seem to be some gratification being felt among Muslims, even in Kenya, with its recent history of terrorism.
Here's a portion of the scene I found outside the downtown mosque here yesterday:
"People are saying it's a crime against humanity. These Americans will take their revenge. When they do, it will be a crime against what? Stones? I, myself, not as a Muslim, I am happy about that thing. I am happy. There is no human rights in this world except Western rights,"
Hearing that, a man passing on the sidewalk gestured toward the embassy site. "But how many Muslims were in that building that was bombed?" he asked.
One guy said, "For America's information, there are many more Osama bin Ladins out there." And the kid standing next to him raised his hand. "I'm one," he said.
That's all we have time for. Thanks a lot and please take care.
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