- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 6, 2005

On Oct. 12, 2002, terror bombers murdered 202 people on the Indonesian island of Bali. The terrorists belonged to Jemaah Islamiya (JI), al Qaeda’s nom de guerre in Southeast Asia. Eighty-eight Australians died in that attack.

Two months later, in Singapore, I interviewed a U.S. 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, strategically, the October 2002 attack would test Indonesia and other Southeast Asian nations’ ability to respond with judicial and governmental action, as well as police security.

This Oct. 1, suicide terrorists struck Bali, leaving 26 dead. No one missed the attack’s economic dimension — Bali’s tourist industry had begun recovering 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 has the planet’s best counterterror 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.

However, based on the public outrage in Indonesia, 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 not in al Qaeda’s strategic favor.

For one thing, the death toll is far smaller. The Indonesian government has also tried 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 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 Member of Parliament 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 the high point of terror’s offensive. Spain left the Iraq coalition. The jihadists since have had many headlines but no victories.

London’s bulldog response to this July’s attacks was a distinct rejection of fear, but it is one of many. Arguably, Afghanistan began the trend with its successful October 2004 presidential election, in the face of al Qaeda’s vow to stop it. Arab media have noticed the Iraqi people’s grit and guts. The Iraqis have not buckled despite daily massacres by “al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.” These are massacres in a Muslim land launched by jihadist extremists — a point no one misses.

Al Qaeda also is dogged by an extraordinary “policy failure.” In the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, al Qaeda proclaimed a new “global caliphate.” Jemaah Islamiya’s sole policy goal remains 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 September 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 Bali attack is treated as a heinous echo of 2002, not a harbinger of jihadist revolution. When al Qaeda’s explosions lose media sizzle, al Qaeda will have lost completely.

Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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