Feb 27, 2024 Last Updated 12:52 AM, Feb 22, 2024

Taken by surprise

David Wright Neville

The terrorist bombings of the Sari Club and Paddy's Bar last October confirmed what many Indonesia watchers had been loathe to admit; that a small number of Indonesian Muslims have embraced a violent fanaticism once viewed as a peculiarly Middle Eastern phenomenon.

That this might be the case proved difficult to accept mainly because it challenged accepted wisdom that Indonesian Islam was and remained culturally discrete - a mostly benign tradition unsullied by the demagoguery of extremist Islamist agendas in other parts of the world.

As writers such as Bob Hefner have pointed out, Indonesian Islam has always been marked by a vibrant pluralism. Moreover, those who would compartmentalise it into a neatly defined 'apolitical' category were guilty of a romantic Orientalism that denied historical and contemporary realities. Indonesian Islam has never been impervious to cultural and political influences in other parts of the world, and nor will it be in the future.


For anybody even remotely aware of the cultural dynamics in a globalised world, it should have come as no surprise that some Indonesian Muslims would find parallels between their own predicament and the worldviews and political messages emanating from distant corners of the Islamic world. It was similarly predictable that those who peddle such messages would target Indonesian Muslims. Yet these possibilities appeared to have been lost on both the Australian and Indonesian intelligence communities.

Right up until early 2002, Indonesia watchers in the Australian intelligence community dismissed reports of growing contacts between al Qaeda and militants in Indonesia as irrelevant. One especially sceptical senior intelligence official ridiculed such reports with a dismissive wave of the hand coupled by a derogatory reference to 'mad muzzies'.

This short sightedness is partly attributable to the resilience of stereotypes of Indonesians, and other foreigners for that matter, within the Australian foreign policy and security bureaucracy. But it also reflects a general ignorance, at senior policy levels in particular, of global cultural and political dynamics and their impact on individual communities.

In the case of the Australian intelligence community, these shortcomings are rooted in the rarefied atmosphere within which analysts work. In brief, it is an environment that discourages open exchange with outside experts, especially in academe or the private sector. There is a refusal to accept that such exchanges can be useful even without the disclosure of classified material.

More than a decade ago the CIA recognised the intellectual atrophy that can incubate within an overly restricted analytical environment. After all, the CIA habitually over-estimated the former Soviet Union's military prowess and then failed to predict its collapse.

Since then, CIA analysts have actively solicited counter-views to those that prevail within the intelligence establishment. Conferences are regularly convened with outside experts, including critical and even leftwing voices, to try and minimise the dangers posed by analyses generated within closed environments. If, in the American case, good analyses fail to generate good policies, at least there is the White House to blame.

Not so in Australia. After failing to predict the fall of Suharto, the pogrom in East Timor, the election of Abdurahman Wahid, his fall, and the rise of Islamist terrorism one would think that the CIA's Australian counterparts would be seeking to solicit a similar range of views, if for no other reason than to expose the Indonesia 'experts' to a dose of reality. Sadly, this does not seem to be the case.


Supplementing engagement with 'outside experts' are bilateral intelligence exchanges, or 'Intellex', whereby Australian officials from Australian agencies meet with their foreign counterparts to discuss issues of mutual interest. Mostly these exchanges with Asian counterparts amount to little more than a diplomatic t�te-�-tote, with generalities exchanged but very little discussion of specifics.

On rare occasions such meetings generate valuable snippets of information and analytical insights. Yet there is little chance of this happening with Indonesian services because since the East Timor crisis Indonesian agencies, the State Intelligence Co-ordinating Agency (Bakin), the Armed Forces Strategic Intelligence Agency (Bais) and the State Intelligence Agency (BIN), have refused to meet formally with their Australian counterparts.

On-going indignation within Indonesian intelligence circles at Australia's alleged support for pro-independence groups in East Timor has meant that Australia's meagre intelligence assets in Indonesia have had to take on the burden. This makes the task of mapping the organisational spread and operational strength of groups like Jemaah Islamiyah extremely difficult.

It may surprise many to learn that Australia has a comparatively small foreign intelligence capability, effectively 'out-sourcing' much of the information it needs to exchanges with friendly services within the UK-USA alliance that links Australian intelligence to the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand. At the very least, Australia's small intelligence capabilities belie the delusions of regional grandeur evinced by that antipodean Napoleon John Howard and his nonsensical threats of unilateral pre-emptive military action against suspected terrorist targets in the region.

But herein lies another major problem from the Australian perspective. There is a perception in Indonesia, and Southeast Asia more generally, that Australia is an unreliable intelligence partner. In particular, the soothing affirmations of camaraderie and regional brotherhood whispered by Canberra's Southeast Asian diplomats are belied by Australia's image as an outpost of US foreign policy, Washington's Far Eastern branch office within which John Howard serves proudly as chief clerk.

Moreover, in the current climate, with Washington determined to play the lead and supporting roles in the War on Terror (and Australia reduced to a walk-on bit part) Jakarta knows it can deal directly with Washington on counter-terrorism issues. In other words, why talk to the dummy when you can go straight to the ventriloquist?

Australian officials have worked hard to overcome this problem which, to be fair, is more the making of political leaders in Canberra and Jakarta rather than intelligence officials per se. And since the Bali attacks it appears as though some sensibility has been reinjected into the relationship in the form of a new spirit of cooperation between the Indonesian police and the Australian Federal Police.

However, it remains to be seen whether the relationship can be rebuilt on the back of the Bali investigation. But even if it can, there are other problems that need to be dealt with.


There is little doubt about the determination of some Indonesian intelligence officials to work closely with their Australian counterparts. But their efforts are often hobbled by several deeply embedded structural problems; in particular, the politicisation of Indonesian intelligence and inter-service rivalries.

There is little evidence to suggest that military intelligence in particular has reformed its ways. It is difficult to separate Bakin from TNI's overall command structure, and just as regional TNI commands are riddled by corruption and a sense that they alone know what's best for their own region and the nation as a whole, so too do Indonesian intelligence agencies connected to TNI, notably Bais and Bakin.

This is not to suggest that BIN is much better. The erratic performance of BIN's mercurial head, Hendropriyono, his mishandling of allegations of an al Qaeda-linked training facility in Poso, as well as allegations he was complicit in the murder of Papuan separatist leader Theys Eluay, not to mention his own shady business dealings, have already been well documented.

Of particular concern is evidence that certain elements within the Indonesian intelligence community remain hostile to any negotiated peace in Aceh, West Papua or other trouble spots. The allegation that TNI had a hand in the murder last August of two US citizens and an Indonesian national near the Freeport mine is just one example of the organisation's troubled image. If true, this allegation, and others relating to ceasefire violations in Aceh, raises serious questions about the value of working with Indonesian intelligence.

Why? Because recent research into the evolution of terrorist groups around the world suggests a close correlation between brutalisation at the hands of the state and the tendency by some individuals and groups to resort to terrorism as a mode of political agitation. By cooperating more closely on intelligence matters with an unreformed TNI, Canberra thereby risks abetting a worsening of the terrorist problem in Indonesia.

This risk is especially acute in the area of counter-terrorism, and it would arise in cases where uncorroborated information about a certain individual or group was passed to Indonesian military intelligence for verification. In such a scenario, it would not be unusual for the information to implicate individuals not involved with terrorism per se, but either knowingly or unknowingly associated with insurgency groups or even organisations involved in basic human and civil rights movements.

There is a real risk that such information passed from Australian agencies in the name of counter-terrorist cooperation could enhance TNI's ability to brutalise dissident groups. Apart from the obvious ethical issues involved, co-operation between Australian and Indonesian intelligence agencies in such a scenario risks contributing to the types of abuse of power that feed the community anger and frustrations upon which terrorists feed.

Of course criticisms of this type have been made before. The usual reply, from spokespeople for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), and Defence (because Australian intelligence officials will neither confirm nor deny), is that intelligence co-operation, like that of defence co-operation, is designed to protect Australian lives. And, they remind us, don't forget those Australian government programs that teach Indonesian security officials how to respect human rights.

This is bunkum. If the Indonesian intelligence community's behaviour up until the East Timor crisis is evidence of the benefits of close cooperation with their Australian counterparts, then it is the type of cooperation that Australians and ordinary Indonesians could well do without.

Dr David Wright Neville (David.WrightNeville@arts.monash.edu.au)is a Senior Research Fellow at Monash University's Global Terrorism Research Project.

Inside Indonesia 74: Apr - Jul 2003

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