| Two Indonesian students pay respect to the victims of the Bali bombings in Jakarta. (AFP)
Singapore, Oct. 16 (Reuters): An undefended French supertanker or a strip of popular beachside bars may seem soft targets for a weak and splintered al Qaida, but experts say they are also highly strategic.
The bombing on a tropical Saturday night that transformed a row of Bali bars packed with casually-dressed revellers drinking beer and cocktails into a charnel house was not a strike by a group so weak that it now only had soft targets in its sights.
Experts say the latest series of strikes attributed to the al Qaida network that is blamed for the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and led by the elusive Osama bin Laden are not unconnected. “There is the structure of, say, a play with a script and within this script every cell in a geographical place has to carry out a mission,” Yoni Fighel, analyst at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Israel, said in an interview.
Secular Indonesia was a perfect place. Stirring anger in a country with the world’s largest Muslim population is consistent with bin Laden’s aims of hitting out at the West and bringing into being governments under the Shariat.
“Civilian targets are preferable from their point of view to create chaos, anxiety, fear among the public,” Fighel said.
“The public is a generator of change and will press their government to take action, to change the way of life and the regime in these countries,” he said.
Southeast Asia has little experience of the type of bombings that in many European countries and Israel have seen the establishment of anti-terrorist agencies. The region appears to be an easy hit.
“In Bali, you drink and have fun and implement western social values within a Muslim country,” said Fighel — and that is the very behaviour that bin Laden abhors.
He said he saw the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia — all with minority or majority Muslim communities — as vulnerable to attack on this basis.
Thus strikes in southeast Asia are as much strategic as a result of higher concentrations of hardcore militants fleeing to secret mainly Muslim sanctuaries from the war in Afghanistan.
“They will hit at military targets, those with an American presence, just as before,” said Fighel. But soft targets offer the opportunity to spread panic among the populace while achieving more long-term goals.
“Within civilian targets you have a variety of models that they can implement and attack. In this regard every civilian is a target,” said Fighel.
“In general, we can say the pattern is to hit big exposed places. It can be malls or buses. Wherever people gather.”
The Bali bombing appeared to be part of a carefully orchestrated and well-thought out plot. That is Fighel’s view.
Not all analysts hold to that theory and they believe weakness, not strength, to be behind the Bali bomb.
“After suffering devastating losses around the world, Islamic terror networks are attempting to return to the offensive to prove they are still viable,” wrote Ralph Peters, author of Beyond Terror: Strategy in a Changing World, in an article in the Asian Wall Street Journal today.
“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,” he wrote.
Tourists in flip-flops, shorts and T-shirts are about as soft a target as any militant could dream of.