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

Just before the Northern Alliance marched into Kabul on 12 November, 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. 

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 less likely to be reported. Following the bombing, the station’s Kabul correspondent Taisir Allouni, 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. Allouni 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 14 November, the station’s Washington correspondent, Mohammad al-Alami, was detained at Waco airport during his efforts to cover the summit meeting between Bush and Putin.

The US has issued contradictory explanations of the Al-Jazeera bombing. At a 14 November defence department news conference, Rear Admiral Craig R. Quigley told an al-Jazeera journalist that the bombing was a “mistake” . Colonel Rick Thomas, speaking to CBS for US Central Command, insisted that the building was “a known al Qaida facility in central Kabul.’

On 17 November, Al-Jazeera’s chief of Arab language broadcasting, Ibrahim Hilal, 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.

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