14 September 2004

turning your bowels to water

About the one symptom a bad flu has not given me, yet. It's also what passes for foreign and defence policy for the Coalition.

Jemaah Islamiyah is not a spectacularly successful terrorist organisation. The Bali atrocity was a one-off they've been unable to repeat since. They can hit soft targets in Indonesia but their efforts elsewhere, such as the attempt to bomb Britain's and Australia's Singapore embassy, have been detected beforehand by conventional policing methods. They suffered major losses after Bali because the vehicle they used could be traced by its chassis number. POLRI, the recently demilitarised Indonesian national police, have now found the chassis number of the vehicle used in the Jakarta embassy attack. That suggests JI is not even especially good at revising its methods in the light of past mistakes.

Reuters reports
Fifty Australian police are in Jakarta assisting the investigation into last Thursday's suicide bombing outside the Australian embassy, which killed nine people and wounded 182.

"In the last few days the chassis number of the vehicle used in the (embassy) bombing has been discovered," Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty said Monday.

"People might recall that that was one of the early leads in the Bali (2002 nightclub) bombing that led to the identification of those responsible, so we're hoping that that will be the case on this occasion," Keelty said after returning from Jakarta.

The October 2002 Bali blasts killed 202 people, including 88 Australians. Police suspect the militant Islamic network Jemaah Islamiah was responsible for that attack, Thursday's embassy blast and the suicide bombing of Jakarta's JW Marriott hotel last year that killed 12.

JI is a lot better at killing Indonesians than it at killing Australians. That doesn't make their efforts less criminal or less repugnant to humanity. It does say their targeting is not all that competent. On the other hand, describing JI as an incompetent organisation would not keep the populace alert but not alarmed.

The Jakarta bombing will not have a big impact on the Indonesian election:

But despite the outcry, analysts said the attack itself was unlikely to play into the choice of ordinary voters on Sept. 20.

"I think people are going to vote for quite different reasons. Foreigners looking at Indonesia think the bomb is the big news. Bombs are not that unusual in Indonesia," said Harold Crouch, an Indonesia expert from the Australian National University, who was in the embassy at the time of the blast.

"Indonesians are interested in a forceful leader, but not because of the terrorism," he said.

In a nation where some 40 percent of the workforce are unemployed or underemployed, voters have shown more concern for jobs and food prices than security.

"Based on surveys, it seems that unemployment is the first priority, then corruption. Those are the policies that voters care about in Indonesia," said Joseph Kristiadi of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta.

Kristiadi said the embassy blast highlighted the current administration's reluctance to publicly discuss the dangers of Indonesia's radical Muslim fringe, but ultimately the winner on Sept. 20 would make little difference.

What effect it has in Australia remains to be seen, although the Great Texted Warning Incident of 2004 suggests not all that much. Shortly after the bombing Downer and Howard announced to a thrilled and expectant nation that there was early warning of the Jakarta bombing. They omitted to mention that the early warning was a third-hand single source item that should have carried very little weight.

Let's move now from March to last Friday, after the Jakarta embassy bomb went off.

An Islamic website linked the attack to Iraq, saying there would be more to come unless our troops were withdrawn. Downer was dismissive of it.

"We don't know whether this website is credible and obviously that is being analysed by our intelligence people," he said.

Which is fair enough. You can't attach too much weight to unsubstantiated claims. But what happened when Keelty informed his political masters of another unsubstantiated claim, heard third-hand and phoned in by an Australian business person in Indonesia some hours after the bombing?

Howard and Downer went public with it straight away; no cautious caveats this time.

Why? This story - denied by the Indonesian authorities - alleged they had received an SMS message giving advance warning that western embassies would be hit, and linking it to the jailing of Abu Bakar Bashir, not Iraq.

And Downer even dragged poor Keelty up before the media again, to add the authority of his uniform to the dodgy claim.

Keelty did as asked and he's got a pretty good poker face, too. But he must have been thinking "Oh, here we go again."

We get told again and again that everything changed on 11 September. That is not true of al-Qa'ida.

Much has changed in the last three years to improve the effectiveness of U.S. counter-terrorism — above all the galvanization of intelligence services around the world that now share our perceptions of the threat and work closely with us. But the fundamentals of catching terrorists has remained much the same. The overwhelming majority of major catches — Abu Zubeida, Ramzi Binalshibh and the mastermind of 9/11, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed — were all apprehended this way. So too was the Jemaah Islamiah operations chief, Hambali; the head of operations for Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, Abd al Rahim al Nashiri; and many of the other 3,500 terrorist operatives in custody around the world.

By contrast, only two top operatives have been killed by military means: Abu Hafs, Al Qaeda's operations chief until November 2001, and Abu Ali al Harethi, a Yemeni operative, were killed through military means, specifically, a Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone — a weapon system devised for counter-terrorism by the Clinton administration.

That is even less true of JI where the struggle against them has not been militarised at all. It's all old-fashioned and unsexy stuff of cops asking questions and tracing networks. The Coalition needs to overstate the JI threat in order to bring the war home to the Australian electorate and link Australia's security to Iraq. If that means turning unreliable text messages into national security threats, they'll do it. As long as that does not mean admititng that our Iraq ivolvement has raised the terrorist threat against us.

Lastly, it's worth reading the whole of Lessons from the Jakarta blast by B Raman, former head of counterintelligence in India, on the Jakarta bombing:

In looking at the car bomb explosion outside the Australian Embassy in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta last Thursday, one must avoid an over-interpretation and over-assessment of the blast, which caused the death of nine persons and injured more than 100 others, most of them civilians.

The post-September 11, 2001, breed of al-Qaeda watchers tend to hype up every act of terrorism, projecting it as the outcome of an al-Qaeda grand strategy and evidence of the group's octopus-like nature, thereby creating an unwarranted perception of al-Qaeda's continuing anti-state potency and the seeming helplessness of the state in countering this threat. By doing so, these al-Qaeda watchers tend to play into the group's hands and give it an image that helps it in its self-perpetuation.

While the death of even a single individual at the hands of terrorists is shocking and ought to be a matter of concern to the state and the international community, one has to note that on the scale of terrorist incidents, the Jakarta blast would fall into the category of low-to-medium or, at the most, medium gravity. Such incidents have been taking place at frequent intervals in India since 1956. As a result, Indians treat terror attacks with a sense of balance and consciously avoid overreaction and over-projection, which would be counter-productive.

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