Terrorism in paradise

October 15, 2002

ONE MINUTE the young Australian and European revelers were gyrating to pop music in the tropical night. The next, they were engulfed in a massive ball of fire triggered by a crude car bomb. The growing death toll, of almost 200 civilians, was the world's highest from terrorism since last year's attacks in America.

Saturday night's bombing on the normally tranquil Indonesian island of Bali came just days after the U.S. State Department issued a worldwide terrorist alert. If the Sept. 11 attacks brought the horrible reality of terrorism home to Americans, then this gruesome slaughter of innocents ought to similarly underscore that the frontlines in the war against Islamic extremism are spreading across the globe.

The message here is that even in one of the world's most paradisiacal spots the clash between radical Muslims and the West can rear up fiercely. And if America invades Iraq, that's likely to be even more the case.

The Bali bombing has not been linked officially to Islamic terrorists, but authorities are pointing to Jemaah Islamiyah, a group with ties to al-Qaida that seeks to create a religious state out of Indonesia, home to the world's largest Muslim population. The blast came on the second anniversary of the al-Qaida-linked bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen and followed a surge of recent terrorist activity in Southeast Asia.

As in the Sept. 11 attacks, the target had resonance. Bali, a largely Hindu island, enjoys a healthy economy relative to the rest of the 3,000-mile Indonesian archipelago due to more than a million foreign visitors a year. The nightclubs of the seaside resort town of Kuta are mandatory stops for young travelers -- particularly from nearby Australia, a Jemaah Islamiyah target for sending troops to aid Christian East Timor's independence from Indonesia.

Australia, Malaysia and Singapore recently have been joining the United States in unsuccessfully urging Indonesia to crack down on the group. Those calls were renewed strongly in the wake of the Kuta killings. Like Pakistan last fall, Indonesia -- the world's fourth-largest nation -- now faces a choice between aligning itself more firmly with the U.S.-led war on terrorism or appeasing growing internal pressures from militant Islamics.

With some in her own administration admiring of the Jemaah Islamiyah, Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri may have a tough time siding with the West. But if she is truly interested in her country's long-term well-being, she has no other choice.

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