by Austin Bay
October 4, 2005
On Oct. 12, 2002, terror bombers murdered 202 people on the Indonesian island of Bali. The terrorists belonged to Jemaah Islamiya (JI), Al-Qaida's nom de guerre in Southeast Asia. Eighty-eight Australians died in that attack.
Two months later, in Singapore, I interviewed an American law enforcement official who had been advising Southeast Asian nations on security operations and investigation techniques.
"Bali's a Hindu island with Australian tourists," the officer told me. "Australia is an active U.S. ally (in the War on Terror). That blast was an economic shot at Indonesia. New York Times Sunday travel section readers know where Bali is."
He also added: "The religious dimension (Hindu Bali in Muslim Indonesia) is there, and the tourists, but JI wants to shake up Indonesia. Test its response."
He meant that strategically the October 2002 attack would test Indonesia and other Southeast Asian nations' ability to respond in terms of judicial and governmental action, as well as police security measures.
This Oct. 1, suicide terrorists struck Bali, leaving 26 dead. No one missed the attack's economic dimension -- Bali's tourist industry had begun to recover from the 2002 massacre.
Stopping a self-immolating fanatic as he walks from the beach into a restaurant is a tough challenge, particularly on a resort island with a laissez-faire ambience. Suicide bombers still penetrate Israel, which arguably possesses the planet's best counter-terror police policy. Nevertheless, the attack embarrassed Indonesian officials who claim security on Bali has improved since 2002. After the attack, hotels emptied, as tourists returned home.
Based on the public outrage in Indonesia, however, in Southeast Asia and internationally, JI's latest murder binge is anything but a victory for jihadist terror. These reactions suggest that, since 2002, "something has changed" -- and the change has not been in Al-Qaida's strategic favor.
For one thing, the death toll is far smaller. The Indonesian government has also attempted to co-opt JI. Jakarta convicted JI's "spiritual leader," Abu Bakar Bashir, for conspiracy in the 2002 bombings, but has since treated him with deference. This has led to a diplomatic contretemps with Australia. However, the jailed Bashir said he disagreed with the latest attack, since it "sacrificed innocent people."
But something larger seems to be at work. One indication is the overall tone of news coverage and public reaction -- call it anger with a shrug. While terrorist apologist and British MP George Galloway may yet sally forth with "root causes" rhetoric and anti-American agitprop, at the moment, the latest Bali blast has not produced demands that the world "understand what the terrorists want." Everyone knows the jihadists want to sow fear.
Fear, however, doesn't seem to sell as easily as it did.
In retrospect, the Madrid strike in March 2004 may prove to be the high point of terror's fear offensive. Spain left the Iraq coalition. Since then, the jihadists have had many headlines, but no victories.
London's bulldog response to attacks in July 2005 was a distinct rejection of fear, but it is one of many. Arguably, Afghanistan began the trend with its successful October 2004 presidential election, conducted despite Al-Qaida's sworn vow to stop it. Arab media have noticed the Iraqi people's grit and guts. The Iraqis have not buckled despite "Al-Qaida in Mesopotamia's" daily massacres. These are massacres in a Muslim land launched by jihadist extremists -- a point that no one misses.
Al-Qaida also is dogged by an extraordinary "policy failure." In the wake of 9-11, Al-Qaida proclaimed a new "global caliphate." Jemaah Islamiya's sole policy goal remains the creation of a grand "Islamic state" stretching from southern Thailand through Malaysia, and the Philippine and Indonesian archipelagoes.
Three years after Bali, four years after 9-11, the jihadists "God-ordained empire" hasn't materialized.
We might also consider the possibility of "media saturation." Terrorists don't simply target Bali and Baghdad, they target the news media. A bomb produces searing, gripping TV footage. But over time, sensational violence becomes, well, less sensational. The latest attack on Bali is being treated as a heinous echo of 2002, not the harbinger of jihadist revolution. When Al-Qaida's explosions lose their media sizzle, Al-Qaida will have lost completely.