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The Eastern Front By: Ralph Peters
The Wall Street Journal | Tuesday, October 15, 2002

The bomb attacks in Bali that killed almost 200 people last weekend resembled the attacks on the World Trade Center towers in two critical respects. The first similarity is that Islamic ultraterrorists struck carefully selected, symbolic targets full of innocent civilians. Second, these attacks will prove woefully counterproductive for the terrorists.

After suffering devastating losses around the world, Islamic terror networks are attempting to return to the offensive, to prove they are still viable. But the half-dozen targets they recently struck in Asia illuminate their weakness and rage, not an intelligent global strategy. Far from striking major governmental or military targets, the terrorists have been reduced to sloven assassinations and, now, the calculated mass murder of young people. Once again, the terrorists have chosen targets that strengthen the hands of their enemies.

A Muslim Empire

The discos destroyed in Kuta, Bali's center for mass-market tourism and cheap-beer backpackers, provided multiple advantages as targets, from the Islamic extremist's point of view. Bali is traditionally and overwhelmingly Hindu, an odd-island-out among Indonesia's territories, and the terrorists' ultimate vision is even more hostile toward Hindus than toward Christians. The extremists want a purely Muslim empire in the region. And Bali's success at attracting tourist dollars, although crippled after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, has been the envy of less-affluent, Muslim portions of the country.

Next in importance, Kuta is an Australian holiday outpost. These attacks not only struck Indonesia's Hindu center of gravity, but simultaneously butchered Aussie vacationers, in delayed retaliation for Canberra's role in stopping the killings in East Timor and supporting that state's independence -- thereby separating East Timor from the great Muslim state-to-be. Had these attacks been directed specifically at Americans, they would have happened in Jakarta, or on the exclusive compounds that cater to the affluent in Bali. These were, in part, revenge attacks, aimed directly at young Australians. Other Western victims were simply bonuses.

Yet another advantage of these targets, from the Islamic extremist's perspective, was their social nature: "Lascivious" dance bars, where men and women mingle, mate and consume alcohol are a fundamentalist Muslim's cherished symbol of the decadence resulting from Western influences.

With a few devastating blasts, the terrorists managed to strike against Western "corruption," against the West in general, against Australians specifically, and against those annoyingly hardworking, hospitable and successful Hindus who threaten the terrorists' vision of a pure, Islamic state.

In the short term, the results have been, and will be, tragic. The loss of life is enormous. These attacks are a perfect indicator of the utter heartlessness and savagery of Islam in arms. Bali's struggling tourist industry will collapse for now. Having spent much of the past winter in Indonesia, where I saw firsthand the disastrous effects of our State Department's nervous Nellie warnings about travel, it isn't hard to imagine how severe our overreaction is going to be to these bombings. Yet until these bombings, Indonesia had been far safer for foreign visitors than the United States itself. As a longtime traveler to troubled regions, I know that the safest time to visit any developing country is immediately after a terrorist incident involving tourists. But rational analysis is unlikely to save Indonesia's tourist industry in this over-alarmed world.

The good news is that the terrorists have bitten the hand that tolerated them, even if it didn't quite feed them. Insecure and wary, President Megawati Sukarnoputri has been timid in facing up to Indonesia's terrorist problem, and many Indonesians have been in denial. There has been no end of halfhearted claims that there was no real threat from Islamic extremists in Indonesia, that al Qaeda had no presence, and that Jakarta could mind its own affairs, thank you.

The paradox is that Indonesia really has not had -- and still does not have -- a major terrorist problem on the scale of many other Muslim countries. The Bali bombings were acts of frustration and desperation, not of strength. This largest of Muslim nations has a population overwhelmingly at peace with its various laissez-faire versions of Islam. A relatively small percentage of Indonesians support Islamic extremism even passively, a situation chronically disheartening to the fanatics.

Indonesia is a country of 210 million with a 90% Muslim majority that produces good beer and likes to party (most young Indonesians tend to hear only the first three letters of the word "fundamentalism"). Nubile Western pop singers are markedly more popular than Osama bin Laden, and the only anti-Americanism I encountered personally was so superficial it couldn't survive a handshake.

But these are the very qualities hateful to the fundamentalist extremists, and the Megawati government's passivity has encouraged them to believe that they could act with impunity. Now the terrorists have overreached, as their comrades did in New York and Washington. The crimes they committed on Bali were so ferocious that they cannot be denied or explained away. More importantly, they were a severe embarrassment for the government and the country. And public shame is anathema in Indonesian society. The attacks hit wallets, too, which is a far worse idea in corrupt states than in more orderly ones.

The Bali bombings, while perceived by the world as a terrorist success, will probably mark the turning of the tide against terrorism in Indonesia. Over the years, two sorts of terrorists have appeared in the archipelago, the home-grown, inward-looking variety whose goal is a strict Islamic republic, and the terror-tourists from al Qaeda and other organizations, who use Indonesia as a safe haven. There has always been some collusion between the two, but the Bali bombings mark their first significant joint endeavor -- and it will bring severe consequences for both groups.

The Megawati government has been reluctant to antagonize fundamentalists by taking on domestic organizations associated with terror, such as the Jemaah Islamiyah. Now the government will have the motivation, the evidence, and the anger necessary to take action at last. Jakarta needed a good excuse to crack down hard. The terrorists themselves just provided it.

Moment of Truth

Part of a desperate, world-wide attempt by Islamic terrorists to resume the offensive after the beating they've taken for the past year, these bombings brought global terrorism on a grand scale to Indonesia. A combined effort between the home team and foreign terrorists, the Bali massacre is doubtless being greeted as a triumph by terror's fugitive overlords. But the provocation was too great. This is a moment of truth for Indonesia, but its ultimate result is going to be the further destruction of terrorist networks and their active exclusion from one more significant country. For the human devils who planned the slaughter and placed the explosives, these truly were suicide attacks.

Mr. Peters, a retired U.S. Army officer, is the author of "Beyond Terror: Strategy in a Changing World" (Stackpole Books, 2002).

Ralph Peters is a New York Post Opinion columnist and the author of "Looking For Trouble: Adventures in a Broken World."

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