Why the US bombed al-Jazeera’s TV station in Kabul

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Why the US bombed al-Jazeera’s TV station in Kabul
11/24/01 at 02:01:40
World Socialist Web Site www.wsws.org


WSWS : News & Analysis : The US War in Afghanistan

Why the US bombed al-Jazeera’s TV station in Kabul
By Steve James
21 November 2001
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Just before the Northern Alliance marched into Kabul on Monday November
12, US armed forces dropped a 500-pound bomb on the studios of the
popular Arab satellite TV station al-Jazeera (the Peninsula). No one was
hurt, as the building was not occupied at the time by any of the 10
al-Jazeera journalists and technicians based there, a decision having
already been taken to evacuate the building in advance of the Northern
Alliance’s entry into Kabul. The same attack damaged nearby offices of the
BBC and the Associated Press.

Immediately after the raid, the station’s London bureau chief, Muftah
Al Suwaidan, told the Guardian newspaper, “al-Jazeera’s office is in the
heart of Kabul. The building is the only one to have been hit so it
looks like it was deliberate.” The station’s managing director, Mohammed
Jassim al-Ali, said that the US had been previously informed of
al-Jazeera’s location.

Al-Jazeera has earned the enmity of Washington for its critical
coverage of the US war in Afghanistan, and particularly by broadcasting
interviews with Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders. Because of their
impact on public opinion in Muslim countries, the Western media and
politicians had warned that the US was in danger of losing the propaganda
war. It seems that the US decided the best way to win the battle for
hearts and minds was to take out its critics.

Destroying the al-Jazeera office before the Northern Alliance occupied
Kabul ensured that whatever massacres and reprisals took place are be
less likely to be reported. Following the bombing, the station’s Kabul
correspondent Tasir Alouni—who has become world famous for fronting
reports showing the devastation caused by the US bombing of the Afghan
capital—was seized and assaulted by incoming Northern Alliance forces. He
was only released after the intervention of Paktia tribal groups. Alouni
was so traumatised by his experiences that he said later he had
witnessed, “scenes that, I’m sorry, I couldn’t describe to anybody”.
Broadcasting later from eastern Afghanistan, he described his condition as one
of “deep psychological shock.”

The bombing of the Kabul office is not the only attempt undertaken by
Washington to disrupt al-Jazeera’s newsgathering and reporting.

On November 14, the station’s Washington correspondent, Mohammad
al-Alami, was detained at Waco airport during his efforts to cover the summit
meeting between George Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Al-Alami described how credit card details used to buy the plane ticket to
Waco were traced to transactions in Afghanistan. When Al-Alami tried to
leave Waco airport, police armed with M-16 rifles detained him,
although he was later released.

The US has issued contradictory explanations of the al-Jazeera bombing.
At a November 14 defence department news conference, Rear Admiral Craig
R. Quigley told an al-Jazeera journalist that the bombing was a
“mistake” because “a weapon went awry”. Challenged as to whether the US had
information regarding the location of al-Jazeera, BBC and Associated
Press facilities in Kabul, Quigley replied evasively, “I don’t know that we
do.” Colonel Rick Thomas, speaking to CBS for US Central Command,
insisted that the building was “a known al Qaida facility in central
Kabul... We had no indications this or any nearby facility was used by
al-Jazeera. We had identified two locations in Kabul where al-Jazeera people
worked, and this location wasn’t among them.”

On November 17, al-Jazeera’s chief of Arab language broadcasting,
Ibrahim Hilal, again accused the US of deliberately targeting their Kabul
office. Hilal said that the station had been on a list of US targets ever
since the start of the bombing campaign, and that transmissions between
Kabul and the station’s headquarters in the tiny Middle Eastern emirate
of Qatar were routinely monitored by US intelligence.

Suggestions that part of US war policy was to deliberately target news
organisations drew attention from the Newsworld conference of media
executives, meeting recently in Barcelona. Reflecting the broad concerns
amongst journalists, BBC World correspondent Nik Gowing told the
conference, “It seems to me there is some evidence to be put to the Pentagon
about the targeting of news organisations... It seems people uplinking
journalistic material [by satellite] can be targeted legitimately.”
Gowing noted, “al-Jazeera has been providing some material that has been
very uncomfortable.” Gowing also compared the attack on al-Jazeera to the
US bombing of Serbian TV in Belgrade in 1999.

Speaking for the US military, Colonel Hoey reiterated Rear Admiral
Quigley’s line to the Barcelona conference that US forces did not have the
location co-ordinates of the al-Jazeera offices, and that, in any case,
“The US military does not and will not target media. We would not, as a
policy, target news media organisations—it would not even begin to make

But, as Gowing’s comments indicate, the bombing of al-Jazeera is not
the first time that the US has bombed a TV station that has broadcast
reports contradicting official Pentagon propaganda about “targeted
actions” and “limited collateral damage.”

On April 23 1999, at the height of a NATO bombing of Belgrade, US
cruise missiles destroyed the headquarters of Radio Television Serbia (RTS).
Thirteen journalists and staff were killed and many more were injured.
RTS, a network employing 7,000 people, and the largest TV station in
the Balkans, had been providing footage and rebroadcast facilities to
international news organisations, ensuring the world’s population had at
least some inkling of what was being done to the Serbian people. The
attack followed weeks in which all the TV transmitters and private TV
facilities in Serbia had been destroyed, and after an ultimatum from NATO
Air Commander David Wilby demanding airtime to put NATO’s case to RTS
viewers. RTS and the Belgrade government of Slobodan Milosevic had
apparently agreed to broadcast six hours of NATO propaganda, in return for
six minutes of Yugoslav news on European and US networks. NATO bombed RTS
anyway, with US General Wesley Clarke overruling objections from other
NATO governments.

Al-Jazeera has for some years figured in Washington’s calculations in
the Middle East and has become a target for US ire because of its
reputation for independent and comprehensive coverage of Middle Eastern
politics. Since its foundation in 1996, al-Jazeera has won a large audience
across North Africa and the Middle East, and has antagonised political
leaders from Algeria to Saudi Arabia.

The station generally advances a pan-Arab nationalist political line
and is used by the Qatar government as an occasional instrument of
policy. However, the station claims to employ staff from a wide range of
political backgrounds, and its most popular programmes are political
debates and talk shows which explore the most controversial issues in Middle
Eastern politics—allowing open debate between Islamic fundamentalists,
liberals, supporters and opponents of the Middle Eastern peace process.
The Jerusalem Post estimates 40 percent of residents in the Gaza Strip
watch al-Jazeera, because the station regularly exposes human rights
abuses, shows live footage of riots, discusses women’s rights under
Islam, and criticises government parties in a region where the broadcast
media is largely under state control.

Last year, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy noted the
growing impact of satellite TV in the region: “From the Atlantic to the
Indian Ocean, Arab governments are worried they have lost control of
information, one of the key means they have used to stay in power in the
past. Diplomats in the region have dubbed the phenomenon ‘the al-Jazeera

In early October, US Secretary of State Colin Powell asked the Emir of
Qatar, who partly finances the station, to rein in its editorial line.
Al-Jazeera responded by publishing the request.

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