Indonesia’s anti-terror about-face
Jakarta’s willingness to cooperate on regional security will give the battle against terrorism a welcome boost.
Indonesia’s call to step up security cooperation may prove to be a key development in the continuing battle that Asean countries are waging against terrorism.
It is a volte-face for Jakarta after more than two years of dragging its feet and refusing to be coaxed by neighbouring countries to join in agressively weeding out Islamic extremists in South-east Asia.
Now, it has taken the unprecedented step of spurring greater regional cooperation, with calls for a ‘fully-fledged security community’.
Its new position has significant ramifications.
For one, it could remove a significant obstacle to Asean countries working together, especially given that the centre of gravity of terror in the region is Indonesia.
More importantly, it could spur even more new initiatives.
Conventional wisdom is that individually, member states have done much to combat terrorism within their borders. But there is scepticism whether Asean can confront the scourge as one.
Underlying much of that pessimism has been Jakarta’s reluctance over the last 18 months to work with foreign countries on the terror front.
Boston-based terror expert Zacahry Abuza noted that throughout last year, Singapore and Malaysia approached Jakarta repeatedly to arrest suspected terrorists.
‘Until the Bali bombing, they were frustrated by Indonesian intransigence and an unwillingness to arrest militants or render suspects,’ he said at the Asian Roundtable in Kuala Lumpur yesterday.
While Indonesian officials acknowledged Jemaah Islamiah’s (JI’s) existence in Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines, they thoroughly denied that there was a network in Indonesia.
After Bali, intelligence sharing and police cooperation on the anti-terror war improved dramatically in South-east Asia.
The successful investigations that led to the break-up of the JI cells around the region and the Bali attack underscored the importance of working together.
At the multilateral level, there is very little in terms of concrete policies.
There is the counter-terrorism pact signed last May that included Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. But it has achieved very little.
Dr Abuza noted that of all the efforts, the most significant and substantive was the Asean-US joint declaration on combating global terrorism.
‘The treaty has few teeth, but the Americans at least got countries, including Indonesia, to acknowledge the importance of counter-terrorism.’
With Ms Megawati Sukarnoputri offering her political backing, Jakarta has some ideas on what it would want from this whole project.
Given its weak infrastructure, Jakarta is keen to step up the information flow on a regular basis.
Indonesian intelligence officials disclose that the way to do this is to create a central database on terrorists.
‘That means every single militant in the world, not just in Asia, but Africa, Europe, the Middle East,’ said one source. ‘The question is as always whether we want to share everything we have.’
The other is to streamline legal issues and processes in counter terrorism. Asean officials are now reviewing a treaty along those lines.
Dr Abuza said the treaty would include the transfer of witnesses to provide testimonies in trials as well as looking for and blocking terror assets.
Besides, some states have called for policies to allow suspects being held in other countries to be questioned.
For example, despite being a senior JI operative, Singapore-born Mas Selamat Kastari was held in Indonesia for 18 months on immigration violations as JI is not an illegal organisation in the country. He cannot be transferred to Singapore.
Joint training programmes are also now being considered. This has begun, but in an ad hoc manner, with the establishment of anti-terror centres in Singapore and Malaysia and an intelligence school in Indonesia.
Against a backdrop of all these possible measures is funds. One key reason why Indonesia is so keen to cooperate now is the need for money from other states to help it crack down on extremists.
But before anyone signs on to this initiative, many in the region will point out to Jakarta that any push for cooperation must begin at home.
Indonesia will need to take decisive actions to show that it resolves to deal with the terrorists in its own backyard, if its calls for others to do more to tackle the problem are to be taken seriously.