Yesterday’s helter-skelter terrorist attack in Jakarta brings to an end 10 years of victories in the ‘war on terror’ in the archipelago. As such, Australia needs to rapidly reinvigorate its police-to-police cooperation with Indonesia.
At the tactical level, the attack could be considered an abysmal failure for the terrorists who traded their five lives for two others. Had they been better armed and less inept the number of casualties would have been substantially higher.
Unfortunately we can’t take heart in the low casualties, nor the sound performance of Detachment 88 and Indonesian police (POLRI) incident responses.
The attack was a strategic victory for ISIS: even if they weren’t involved. It has raised the global profile of ISIS in Asia; and it has smashed the public’s illusion that Indonesian intelligence collection against terrorism is omnipresent—it can be defeated.
The attack is a call to arms to the hundreds of convicted Jemaah Islamiyah terrorists who will soon be released from Indonesian jails. Many convicted JI members have used their time in Indonesian prisons to strengthen relationships with other terrorists and to recruit new members. Worse still, that cohort have experience in close encounters with Indonesian law enforcement and intelligence capabilities, which will make them more difficult to target the next time.
Between 2002 and 2012, counterterrorism cooperation between Australia and Indonesia on Jemaah Islamiyah was a resounding success. In fact, it could be viewed as globally unique given both its success and low-key nature. During this period, Detachment 88 and POLRI have made dramatic leaps in counterterrorism capability.
But that could be rapidly changing. Yesterday’s attack serves as an indicator that the effectiveness of the Indonesian counterterrorism intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance framework may be degraded in the face of the current terrorism trends. After all, Indonesian and Australian authorities were aware of an increased terror threat, yet were unable to disrupt the attack. But this isn’t surprising, terror tactics are constantly evolving in response to law enforcement and intelligence activities.
The terrorism threat in Indonesia today is likely to become significantly worse in the short and middle term. That’s a grim assessment, given the number of Australians who live in and travel to Indonesia. This trend couldn’t be occurring at a worse time for both Canberra and Jakarta. The police-to-police relationship between POLRI and the Australian Federal Police has been in a steady state of decline for a number of years.
To successfully respond to the Jakarta attacks, the AFP, amongst other national security agencies, will need to work with the Jakarta national security community to strengthen the close personal relationships vital to cooperation in the region. Those relationships operationalise the polite yet often noncommittal nods given in bilateral dialogues. It’s also those low-key informal relationships of trust that will survive the ups and downs of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
For my money, the most tangible investments for Australia’s counterterrorism relationship in Indonesia are a reimagining of both the Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Cooperation (JCLEC) and Jakarta Regional Cooperation Team (JRCT).
JCLEC has always been a good news story: an Indonesian and Australian training institution that supports Southeast Asia’s fight against transnational crime and terrorism. For a decade, it has coordinated and facilitated a range of training programs, including seminars and workshops, which have increased policing capacity across the ASEAN region.
JCLEC has traditionally seen Australia police personal participate in programs as instructors. But rather than existing solely as a place for training regional police personnel, it should increasingly be used as a physical and psychological space for bringing police together to create lasting relationships of trust.
For over 13 years the JRCT has provided assistance to POLRI’s terrorism investigations in areas where they don’t have strong capabilities: forensics, intelligence and technology. While the JRCT continues to operate, the significance of its support has diminished as a result of reduced AFP budgets and improvements in the POLRI’s capacity.
An opportunity now exists to make modest investments in retooling the JRCT—and in doing so, increase the relevance of the team to POLRI.
Current developments in Australia’s counterterrorism environment reveal that contemporary counterterrorism operations need social media intelligence, computer forensics, financial analysis and big data analytics. Many of those skills are already in high demand in Australia but often not possessed by police officers.
In a time of fiscal austerity, where the AFP’s international footprint and associated budgets are shrinking, the development of a more comprehensive capacity development program will be a difficult proposition.
If Indonesia’s 10 year counterterrorism winning streak is coming to an end, it’s inevitable that it’ll have an impact on the security of Australians and Australian interests. To address that emergent threat, Australia will need to think beyond short term support to POLRI investigations in the days, weeks and years following yesterday’s attack.