Terrorism binds Australia and Indonesia

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 August, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 August, 2003, 12:00am

They were on the scene within hours of Tuesday's devastating car bomb outside the five-star JW Marriott hotel in Jakarta. Dressed in blue boiler suits and wraparound sunglasses, a dozen Australian police officers picked their way through the twisted metal, mangled body parts and shattered glass that littered the hotel's horseshoe-shaped forecourt.

Along with their Indonesian counterparts, they began the painstaking task of looking for clues as to who detonated the bomb that killed 10 people and injured about 140 others.

Four years ago such co-operation would have been unthinkable. Not only did Indonesia have a deep distrust of Australia, arising from Canberra's intervention in the bloody separatist conflict in East Timor, it denied it had a terrorist problem at all.

Facing a common terrorist enemy, Australia and Indonesia, despite lingering cultural, political and historical differences, have edged closer together. The Australian police officers who descended on the Marriott so swiftly were already in Jakarta as part of a separate, unspecified investigation into terrorist-related activities.

There are controversial plans to resume joint exercises with Indonesia's notorious Kopassus special forces, blamed for orchestrating the slaughter of hundreds of civilians in East Timor.

The military, strategic and intelligence ties are only likely to grow.

'This is a time to strengthen, not weaken, our links with Indonesia,' Australian Prime Minister John Howard said on Thursday. 'This is a time to work as closely as possible with the Indonesian authorities and the Indonesian people.'

The relationship began to improve, ironically, after the fireballs that engulfed the Sari Club and Paddy's Bar in Bali last October, killing 202 people, 88 of them Australian.

As with last week's Jakarta bombing, officers from the Australian Federal Police were dispatched within 24 hours. Within a week, Australian and Indonesian police had set up a joint team called Operation Alliance, which at its height involved more than 120 Australian police, forensic experts and bomb data analysts.

The unprecedented co-operation between the two countries yielded more than 80 arrests of suspected terrorists linked with the regional militant group Jemaah Islamiah (JI).

The Bali blasts, even more than the September 11 attacks on the United States, fundamentally changed Australia's strategic outlook, pushing it towards a more interventionist approach in the region.

Last month saw the arrival in the troubled Solomon Islands of Australian soldiers and police on a mission to restore law and order after four years of civil war and ethnic tension.

Australia has little choice but to put aside its past differences with Indonesia and work together to try to anticipate, and foil, the next attack. The stakes are high, according to terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna, of the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore.

'Until and unless the core leaders of JI, some of whom are also members of al-Qaeda, are targeted, Southeast Asia and Australia will suffer from terrorism on a scale even worse than the Bali and Marriott attacks,' he believes. Canberra must strike a delicate balance - lending effective support to Asian countries' intelligence and law enforcement agencies without being seen as an overbearing, Anglo-Saxon deputy sheriff to the US.