US multinational companies wary of backlash

A blast at a McDonald's in Turkey last week is the latest in a string of terror attacks on US commercial interests.

As the war with Iraq winds down and with it the momentum for a global consumer boycott of US products, companies like McDonald's and Coca-Cola should be breathing a sigh of relief.

But a bomb blast at a McDonald's in Istanbul, Turkey, on April 15 showed that new threats are emerging. One of them is possible small-scale terror attacks on poorly protected US symbols like the ubiquitous American franchises that are easy and inexpensive to bomb, say security analysts.

Call it fast-food terror. Al Qaeda has been disrupted since Sept. 11, 2001, and traditional targets like embassies and US bases have grown harder to hit. So American franchises have found themselves at risk as convenient "soft" targets for terror groups.

Double-edged sword

To millions around the world, the "golden arches" and Colonel Sanders are more recognizable symbols of the US than the Stars and Stripes. But now that identification is becoming a double-edged sword.

Since Sept. 11, McDonald's and other franchises have been hit by a rash of small bombings in the far-flung and sometimes chaotic markets they entered during the economic expansion of the 1990s.

There have been bomb attacks in Saudi Arabia, Moscow, Beirut, and Xian, China, and three bombs in Istanbul. KFC outlets have been bomb targets in Indonesia, Lebanon, Greece, and Pakistan. A Pizza Hut was bombed in Lebanon.

No one has yet claimed responsibility for the latest Istanbul attack, which did extensive damage but injured no one.

But all of the other attacks have been linked to militant Islamic groups, and analysts say that was likely the motive in Turkey as well.

Though some of these groups have tenuous ties to Al Qaeda, these small-scale operations appear to be locally planned and executed, which analysts say is an emerging trend.

"There are people who are very, very angry at the US and they retain the ability to strike,'' says Dr. Achmad Abdi, the director of criminal investigations for the South Sulawesi provincial police department in Indonesia. "This remains a dangerous period."

A McDonald's here in South Sulawesi's capital, Makassar, was bombed by a militant group with ties to Al Qaeda last December, and Mr. Abdi is leading the investigation.

Suspects like Muchtar Daeng Lau - who acted as a logistics organizer - targeted McDonald's because of what it stands for, he says. "[The suspects] give a lot of reasons for the attack, but one of the top ones is that they simply hate America,'' he says. "They mentioned the war in Afghanistan and America's [attack on] against Iraq."

The 13 McDonald's bombers, says Abdi, have links to a militia group called Laskar Jundullah.

The Laskar Jundullah, in turn, has ties to the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), an affiliate of Al Qaeda that has been blamed by US and Indonesian investigators for a string of terrorist incidents in Southeast Asia.

The leader of Laskar Jundullah, Agus Dwikarna, was sentenced to 10 years in jail in the Philippines last year for explosives possession, and many JI members have been rounded up since last year's attack on a nightclub in Bali.

But Indonesian investigators say many other operatives remain at large.

Makassar is a good example of the sort of place where the new terrorist threat is emerging.

The predominantly Muslim city has become home to local militant groups in the past few years, spawned by Christian-Muslim fighting in the neighboring provinces of Poso and Maluku.

These militants developed bombmaking and other skills in those conflicts, and some have turned their hands to terrorism.

Similar conditions, either communal conflicts or separatist movements, are found in almost all of the countries where American fast-food outlets have been attacked. In Southern Sulawesi alone, Abdi estimates there are a few dozen men who could make bombs like the one used in the McDonald's attack.

Iraqi motivation

Agung Abdul Hamid, who Indonesian investigators say was the chief planner and operations man for the McDonald's attack, remains at large, as does JI's operational head, Riduan Isammudin.

Analysts say the militants that remain could take new motivation from the US war in Iraq. Amrozi, a JI member who has confessed to playing a role in the Bali bombings, seemed to confirm that when he told reporters last month that the US invasion of Iraq "shows that I was not incorrect" to bomb the Bali nightclubs.

McDonald's Indonesia - which has grown to 108 locations from just one in 1990 - has sought to protect itself with posters explaining that most of its ingredients are purchased locally and that it employs thousands of Indonesians.

At many outlets, photographs emphasize that the franchise's national owner, Bambang Rachmadi, is a Muslim in good standing who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Scruffy protesters

To be sure, the message is getting through to most Indonesians. Sjamsul Bachrie, an architecture professor whose wispy beard advertises his Islamic faith, peers out from a Jakarta McDonald's at a few hundred scruffy protesters while tucking into his "Rice Packet," a fried chicken, egg, and rice combo that is McDonald's bestseller in Indonesia.

"The protesters are upset and I'm upset too,'' says the heavyset man. "I can't accept the US invasion of Iraq. But I don't think a boycott would help." Mr. Bachrie says he was undeterred by the metal detector he know has to pass through to enter McDonald's.

Most Indonesians seem to agree with him. While an extreme few have put some restaurants at risk, the tastes of millions are what have fueled the spread of American brands.

Makassar is known within Indonesia as a hotbed for militant groups pressing for an Islamic state.

But anyone who walks into the Ratu Indah Mall is hit by a blast of cold air and Britney Spears while posters hawking Calvin Klein perfume, Hugo Boss shirts, and Revlon makeup fill the display cases. The KFC is next to the "Wranglers Boutique."

"I'm a little nervous that we're reopening now, but also excited,'' says a Makassar McDonald's employee, who asked that her name not be used. "I wish the people that did this would understand that it hurt Indonesians more than Americans."

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