August 8th 2009

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Economic bounce masks deep structural crisis

ENERGY: What can Australia do when the fuel runs out?

EDITORIAL: Overseas lesson in energy conservation

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Turnbull's judgement under a cloud

SCHOOLS: The choice so few parents can afford to make

MARRIAGE: The personal and social costs of cohabitation

OPINION: Keeping marriage between a man and a woman

CHINA: Cracks appear in China's detested one-child policy

POLITICAL IDEAS: Distributist responses to the global economic crisis

WAR ON TERROR: What will we learn from the Jakarta bombings?

EUROPE: Obama told: don't abandon central and eastern Europe

OBITUARY: Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski dies at 81

REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH: Protest at News Weekly article on East Timor

Tony Abbott on divorce (letter)

Time for a people's bank? (letter)

AS THE WORLD TURNS: Genderless child-rearing experiment / Hostility towards masculinity / Dear baby-boomers ... / Shopkeepers honoured

BOOK REVIEW: POMPEII: The Life of a Roman Town, by Mary Beard

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What will we learn from the Jakarta bombings?

by John Miller

News Weekly, August 8, 2009
At approximately 07:50 (local time), on July 17, the Indonesian capital of Jakarta was rocked by a series of explosions. It was not long before graphic television footage showed an all-too-familiar pall of smoke rising into the air from Jakarta's Ritz-Carlton and J.W. Marriott hotels.

The blasts in the two hotels were minutes apart and were subsequently determined to be a synchronised terrorist attack. It sounds callous to say this, but "only" nine people were killed - six Westerners, two suicide-bombers and an Indonesian citizen. In addition, an estimated 50 people sustained injuries.

In many respects, this was a small attack; but it was symbolic in that it struck targets that cater principally for Westerners. The hotels themselves are iconic buildings, embodying the spirit of affluent, modern Indonesia.

Because three Australians and a New Zealander were killed, our local media gave considerable prominence and coverage to the attack. It made front-page news around the world for one day, but was quickly subsumed in Europe and the US by other matters.

What was interesting was the scramble to identify who was responsible for the bombing.

For the first 48 hours, the situation was extremely confused with Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) being seen as responsible for the attacks, although other accounts differed slightly. Some placed more emphasis on al Qaeda; others suggested a splinter group from JI headed by the notorious Malaysian terrorist Noordin Mohammad Top.

It was soon discovered that the suicide-bombers had made cheap improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which are wreaking havoc in several countries around the world, most notably Iraq and Afghanistan. An explosive vest shown on TV revealed small devices packed with bolts that could kill people but which were not heavy enough to inflict structural damage on the hotels.

For some time, the question of the strength of Jemaah Islamiyah and its effectiveness has been problematic. Certainly, the Indonesian Government has rounded up some of the leaders.

Australians will never forget Amrozi, one of the three Islamic terrorists executed for the Bali nightclub bombings of October 12, 2002. Throughout his trial, Amrozi giggled and laughed before the TV cameras, confident that he was destined for paradise.

As with al Qaeda, hitting the leadership disperses the organisation, although experts differ about the efficacy of these tactics. Certainly, if symbolic leaders and strategic planners are killed, the terrorist organisation takes some time to rebuild; but a dispersed organisation is far more difficult to monitor and assess and, of course, counter. However, such organisations plan their succession.

In the aftermath of the bombing, numerous academic experts on terrorism have occupied the airwaves. Prominent among them is Dr Sidney Jones, principal spokesperson on Indonesia for the International Crisis Group (ICG).

However, she is heavily dependent for her assessments on information from the Indonesian government. Not long ago, she concluded that JI was basically leaderless, splintered, ineffective and unable to recruit as easily as during the period spanning the 2002 and 2005 Bali bombings.

Hence, Dr Jones and a number of Australian academics were very keen to blame Noordin Top, a Malaysian man said to head the splinter group of JI and a brilliant organiser and tactician.

Scott Stewart and Fred Burton have recently produced a well-written analysis of the Jakarta bombings for the Texas-based intelligence think-tank Strategic Forecasting, Inc. In it they have chronicled the evolution of the "iconic terrorist target". In the 1970s, it was the international airliner; from the 1980s onwards, it was the embassy. But from 2004, write Stewart and Burton, "hotels have become the iconic terrorist target of the post-9/11 era" (Stratfor, July 22, 2009).

My principal criticism of the whole Jakarta affair is basic. Indonesia is overwhelmingly Muslim, and I know that religious practices in both Indonesia and Malaysia are far less overtly hostile and militant than they are in the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent.

However, we have to take Jemaah Islamiyah very seriously. Its spiritual leader, Abu Bakar Bashir, has more than once declared war on Australia, and yet he wanders free, smiling gently, the beneficent holy man, preaching jihad and captivating the young.

It does not really matter whether JI is monolithic or splintered; the result is still death for infidels. I find myself rather astonished that the Australian intelligence community does not take as much interest in JI as I thought would be warranted by our geographical position, the large number of Indonesian students who study in this country, and the fact that these students seem to be "under the radar" of those who focus on al Qaeda.

In one of those grim retrospectives that security and intelligence organisations inevitably undertake from time to time, ASIO reported last September that JI had been dealt a serious blow which had affected its strategic reach. Nevertheless, ASIO's departing director-general, Mr Paul O'Sullivan, reminded the Rudd Government that JI was a resilient organisation and "has not abandoned its violent Islamist goals".

These are the occasions when being right too soon can be extremely unfortunate career-wise. Mr O'Sullivan's more recent assessments, which deserve to be widely read, were reported in The Australian (July 21, 2009).

His prescience is undoubtedly correct and, if any further proof was needed, it was reported late last week that Indonesian officials in Jakarta had located a follow-up car-bomb, which fortunately was disarmed. (The Australian, July 25, 2009).

Now, more than ever, we are required to be vigilant, but not permit ourselves to slide into racism or xenophobia.

John Miller is a former senior intelligence officer.


Scott Stewart and Fred Burton, "Examining the Jakarta attacks: trends and challenges", Stratfor (Strategic Forecasting, Inc., Austin, Texas), July 22, 2009.

Patrick Walters, "New wave of terror snuck under the radar", The Australian, July 21, 2009.

Stephen Fitzpatrick, "Follow-up bomber foiled by police in Jakarta", The Australian, July 25, 2009.

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