Experts Say Bali Blast Signals Shift for Terrorists

W By Josh Meyer and Bob Drogin

wASHINGTON – The deadly weekend bomb blast in Bali, Indonesia, signals a shift in targeting for a global coalition of Muslim extremists that puts U.S. tourists at higher risk of attack than ever before, U.S. officials and counterterrorism experts said Monday.

Indonesian and U.S. officials say they believe that al-Qaida or related organizations in Southeast Asia are responsible for the bombing, which killed at least 188 people and injured hundreds more. But so far, they have not released definitive evidence.

They also said that the bombing – at least the timing of it – was possibly inspired by an audiotape message last week from Ayman Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s top aide, who spoke of targeting U.S. and Western economic interests. The bombing killed people from about 25 countries, including two Americans.

Whoever is ultimately found responsible, U.S. officials said the attack is the most emphatic indication to date that Islamic militants are no longer content to focus on embassies and military installations and other well-protected “symbols of freedom” across the globe.

The attack also seemed intended to send shock waves through pro-Western regimes. It was potentially devastating to Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, according to Daniel Benjamin, a former Clinton White House counterterrorism expert and co-author of “The Sacred Age of Terror.”

“It is a major source of embarrassment, and it will devastate the (Indonesian) economy because it will ruin the tourist business for a long time to come,” said Benjamin. He said the various attacks prove al-Qaida’s continued global reach.

“That’s an important part of the message,” he said. “They’re claiming a large portion of the globe as their area of operation.”

U.S. officials are currently investigating a rash of recent attacks to see whether they are related and whether they are the work of al-Qaida operatives.

On Oct. 6, a French tanker exploded off the coast of Yemen under suspicious circumstances; U.S. officials now say they suspect terrorists rammed a boat into its hull and detonated explosives. Two days later, one U.S. Marine was killed and another wounded during exercises on an island off Kuwait by two gunman that authorities say have been linked to al-Qaida.

“Those are the areas (where) you would normally expect attacks,” said one U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “But this (Bali) attack is evidence that they are not limiting their scope of attacks to them. Anywhere where our people go, or where we have assets, are vulnerable. It shows that they have such disregard for our culture and society that they will attack us wherever they can.”

After the Bali bombing, the State Department ordered all nonessential U.S. Embassy employees in Jakarta and their families out of Indonesia. In that advisory, it also warned of other, similar attacks in the future.

“As security is increased at official U.S. facilities, terrorists and their sympathizers will seek softer targets,” the advisory said. “These may include facilities where Americans are generally known to congregate or visit, such as clubs, restaurants, places of worship, schools or outdoor recreation events.”

Even before the Bali bombing, the State Department last week issued a global travel alert.

“It highlights what we have been saying, (that) terrorism is worldwide, and targeting Westerners,” said a State Department official. Authorities have feared just such an attack since al-Qaida became a global terrorist network in the 1990s, he said.

A taped message – professed to be from bin Laden – was released last week warning of future attacks. A letter purportedly written by the al-Qaida founder, who disappeared during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, was publicized by an Arab satellite TV network Monday. The letter praises the attacks on U.S. Marines in Kuwait and the explosion of the French tanker. U.S. officials – who have said they do not know whether bin Laden is dead or alive – said they would scrutinize that letter to see if it was authentic and to try and determine if it held any clues as to future attacks.

The Bali bombing has sent waves of concern through dozens of nations that – like Indonesia – rely on tourism to keep their fragile economies afloat, said Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert who consults European governments on al-Qaida.

Ranstorp and other experts said it might be a signal that al-Qaida and its followers are deliberately trying to undermine such moderate governments in Southeast Asia and elsewhere that have pledged to help the U.S. counterterrorism effort, by targeting their tourism businesses.

“The most important thing about this is the targeting of an economic infrastructure, and its tourism industry,” said Ranstorp, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. “It is an old tactic that Islamic militants have undertaken over the years. But the sheer scale of the attack is different, and it underscores foreign involvement” by al-Qaida.

Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corp., a think tank, said it “probably doesn’t matter” if al-Qaida was directly involved in the attack.

“The pattern we’re seeing is that groups strongly affiliated with al-Qaida, who have received training from them, have cobbled together their own local operations,” Hoffman said.