The Bombing Bookends to 9/11

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U.S. Navy / Getty Images

A hole in the USS Cole caused by a terrorist bomb on October 12, 2000.

Seven years ago, on October 12, 2000, the U.S.S. Cole was attacked in the Yemeni port of Aden, killing 17 American sailors. Two years later, to the day, a pair of suicide bombers killed 202 tourists and Indonesians in Bali. Neither attack would have the fateful consequences of September 11. But, in their own way, the Cole and the Bali attacks were important turning points in radical Islam's war on the West.

For Islamic radicals, the legitimacy of attacking the Cole was never in doubt. The U.S. was at war with Islam, and the Cole, a Navy guided missile destroyer, was a military target. It didn't matter in the least to the attackers that in reality there wasn't a war between the U.S. and Islam. Or that the Cole's sailors were non-combatants.

The objectives of the Cole's attackers were equally clear in their minds: Drive the United States out of the Arab peninsula, bring down the American puppets in the Gulf — the Saudi royal family — and create an Islamic caliphate that would truly protect the two holy places, Mecca and Medina.

None of the objectives, of course, were met. But for the attackers, the battle lines were clear, at least until 9/11. That's when that kind of clarity evaporated, as al-Qaeda decided, dropping any pretense of a conventional war, to slaughter civilians.

That distressing reality was further underscored by the Bali attacks, which, while having much less of an effect than 9/11, removed any doubt about the nature of the war we were entering. The first Bali suicide bomber blew himself up in a nightclub filled with foreigners on vacation. A second suicide bomber outside the nightclub blew himself up in a van. The intent was to kill as many people as possible. It not only didn't matter to al-Qaeda that it was killing civilians, but it also didn't matter that many of the victims were Muslim Indonesians; it was indiscriminate slaughter, which was in fact exactly what they wanted.

Bali and 9/11 were proof enough to many Americans that radical Islam is at war with the West; that there is nothing to negotiate, such as the withdrawal of our troops from Saudi Arabia or peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis; that the battlefield is everywhere, with everyone a combatant.

It was this mind-set, this gut reaction to Bali and 9/11, that drew us into two wars without end, Iraq and Afghanistan. It was the same reaction that has led to such excesses as Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and allegations of torture.

Still, as we reassess the war on terrorism, as we should, let's never lose sight of the fact that it was al-Qaeda that started it all by switching course and deciding to slaughter civilians in Manhattan and Bali.

Robert Baer, a former CIA field officer assigned to the Middle East, is TIME.com's intelligence columnist and the author of See No Evil and, most recently, the novel Blow the House Down