Bali Bombs Show Vulnerability of 'Soft' Targets

A tropical paradise, a discotheque, a wedding hall, a corner cafe: More and more, terrorists are hitting home by hitting civilians away from home.

This weekend's deadly bombings in Bali, Indonesia, underscore how vacation destinations and other unsecured places are no longer out of bounds.

After the bombings, which killed more than 180 nightclubbers, including two Americans, the State Department warned that attacks on "softer" targets are likely to increase as security tightens at official U.S. buildings.

"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," the department said in a travel advisory.

President Bush said the increasingly indiscriminate nature of the attacks meant everyone was vulnerable.

"The free world must recognize that no one is safe," he told reporters on the White House lawn, "that if you embrace freedom you're not safe from terrorism."

Westerners pursuing respite from their everyday lives made Bali attractive to terrorists, said Matthew Levitt, a former FBI agent who now monitors terrorism for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank.

"It's hitting this sacrilegious subculture of dancing and drinking that was the point," he said.

The radical Islam fueling al-Qaida and its sympathizers makes everything fair game.

"These groups are no longer interested in traditional political goals," such as national liberation, Levitt said. "They're interested in undermining society. They're interested in annihilation."

With government installations increasingly fortified, terrorists may be tempted by other targets that symbolize Western culture, religion or power but don't have the same degree of protection.

Striking a blow at Christmas was thought to be the point of a thwarted attack in December 2000 on a festive market near the main cathedral in Strasbourg, Germany, according to testimony at the trial of four Algerians accused of plotting the attacks. An off-camera voice on a videotape surveys glittering lights and revelers and refers to the "symbol of the heathens."

An April attack on a synagogue on the island of Djerba, Tunisia, had as much to do with the island's popularity with tourists as it did with the Jewish nature of the target, investigators say. Most of the 19 killed were German vacationers, and tourism to the North African country's pristine beaches has dropped substantially.

Terrorists in Israel have targeted wedding halls, religious holiday meals and cafes in quiet, residential areas -- breaches of the few boundaries terrorists there once recognized. Coffee shops across Israel routinely post security guards now.

Keeping people shuttered at home may be the point, said Don George, the travel editor for Lonely Planet books.

"I'm filled with this sense that the rules are changing under our feet, that we can no longer divide the world up into safe haven-not safe haven," said George, who predicts tourists will now avoid crowds and head for out-of-the-way sites -- such as archaeological digs.

"Travelers will be thinking about, `Where can I let myself go?"' he said.

Bali was especially shocking, George said, because of its unique and accepting Hindu-Pacific culture. "It's always been an extremely harmonious place. Every day there is a festival."

Indeed, the U.S. government drew a distinction between Bali and other parts of Indonesia in a November warning urging Americans to avoid nonessential travel to the country. The warning said Bali had not experienced the troubles seen elsewhere in the country, and the most dangerous feature of life there was a rash of motorcycle accidents.

The Oct. 6 explosion that struck a French oil tanker off the Yemeni coast also is being investigated as a terrorist attack and demonstrates how terrorists might pick targets more vulnerable than warships, military bases and embassies.