Five years ago Thursday, two truck bombs driven by Al Qaeda agents devastated the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 231. The US has since committed more than $15 billion to improving embassy security.
But that effort, as Tuesday's deadly attack on the Jakarta Marriott bears out, hasn't stopped terrorism against American interests abroad. It has simply shifted the locus of attacks. Terror plots have been deflected away from "hard" strategic targets like embassies and military installations to "soft" ones like the Marriott.
While the emerging Al Qaeda strategy of targeting bars, restaurants, and hotels has been understood for some time, the attack on the Marriott points up how sophisticated and adaptable Al Qaeda and its allies, like the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) which is suspected in the Marriott attack, have become at identifying and exploiting security weaknesses.
"There's no question that since 9/11 and the severe dis- tion of Al Qaeda's bases in Afghanistan we've seen a shift in targeting,'' says Andrew Tan, a professor at Singapore's Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies.
Last October, 202 people were killed in a car-bomb attack on two Bali nightclubs perpetrated by the Al Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), while 14 people were killed in an Al Qaeda suicide attack on a tourist hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, last November.
Mr. Tan says that Al Qaeda and its allies are improving at hitting soft targets. "What we're seeing is that the level of competence has been raised for Al Qaeda-linked groups. They've become more methodical and organized. They plan carefully."
The Marriott attack was probably the product of such careful planning. Analysts say other five-star hotels with American ties - the Hilton, Hyatt, and Regent chains are all represented here - were probably considered but discarded as targets, because workers either habitually checked cars for explosives or because the hotels were set far back from the road.
But the Marriott allowed cars to pull up without being inspected and approach within 20 feet of the lobby to let out their passengers.
"The brutal fact is that this was a hotel that was particularly vulnerable to a car bomb,'' says a Jakarta-based security consultant. "These guys aren't stupid - they figured this out."
The security consultant says that the general theory employed to deal with the emerging terrorist threat isn't to make a building impregnable, but to make it look hard enough that a terrorist will move on. "Why bomb a hotel with tougher security when an easier one will do?" he asks.
Though there isn't yet conclusive evidence that JI planned the Marriott attack, "there are a lot of similarities,'' said National Police Chief Da'i Bacthiar, referring to the deadly attack on two Bali nightclubs last October, to which a number of JI members have confessed.
Intelligence officials here say about 500 members of the group received explosives and weapons training in Afghanistan and the southern Philippines, while only about 50 alleged members are in custody. A police spokesman said that documents seized last month in a raid of a JI safehouse indicate the group was considering targeting the neighborhood that houses the Marriott.
"I don't have any doubt that this was the JI,'' says an Indonesian intelligence official.
If he's right, then that Marriott attack was probably preceded by weeks of surveillance. In his confession to police, the Bali attacks field commander Imam Samudra described more than three weeks of searching for the right target.
Mr. Samudra told interrogators how he picked the Sari Club and Paddy's Bar, both flush against the narrow street of Bali's busiest night club strip. "We stopped the car in front of the Sari Club (and) I saw lots of white people drinking and dancing ... lots of immoral acts,'' he said. "That place was a meeting place for the American terrorists and their allies."
The two bars were on either side of the narrow road and flush up against the curb, making them perfect targets for a vehicle-born bomb. But even so, his superior in the JI, Ali Ghufron, alias Mukhlas, had to survey and approve the selected target a few days before the attack.
The cells that attacked Bali have largely been disrupted and their members put on trial. Amrozi bin Nurhasyim, a brother of Mukhlas, was sentenced to death Thursday for his role in the attack, the first conviction of a JI terrorist in Indonesia.
JI first came to public attention two years ago, when a plot was uncovered in Singapore that was modeled after the original Africa attacks. The breakup of that plan enraged the group's operations head, Riduan Isammudin, and accelerated the group's drift towards bombing hotels and nightclubs. According to Mukhlas, now arrested, Isammudin ordered the group to target Western establishments, something that would garner lots of publicity with less risk.