A powerful partnership to counter terrorism: Australia and Indonesia
14 Jun 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Brett Sayer

On Wednesday last week on a rainy day in Sydney, Australia’s fight against terrorism took a significant step forward. We’re now looking outward towards wide-ranging and real collaboration with a significant and capable partner and neighbour: Indonesia.

At the second meeting of the Indonesia–Australia Ministerial Council on Law and Security, Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, Luhut Pandjaitan, cemented the powerful partnership on counterterrorism with his Australian counterparts Attorney-General Senator George Brandis and Minister for Justice and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Counter-Terrorism Michael Keenan.

For the third time in a year, our region’s counterterrorism capability has been enhanced by strong and strategic leadership from individuals looking beyond the challenges of the bilateral relationship to our shared interest in countering terrorism. Pandjaitan was in Sydney in November last year for the inaugural Asia–Pacific Counter-Terrorism Financing Summit, a joint initiative between Australia and Indonesia to enhance cooperation across the region and across the banking and finance sectors. Summit outcomes included resolving to produce the region’s first counter-terrorism financing risk assessment and common standards for data sharing, and to collaborate on educational tools. Brandis and Keenan followed soon after with a pre-Christmas visit to Jakarta for the first Ministerial Council meeting.

Those meetings are significant. The November visit was the first by an Indonesian minister since the cooling of relations over the November 2013 Snowden leaks revelation that the mobile phones of former President Yudhoyono and his wife were tapped by the Australian Signals Directorate, and the early 2015 controversy surrounding executions of drug-smuggling duo Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan.

There’s a profound and urgent need for collaboration between the two countries on counterterrorism. And an equally serious need to rethink and recast our understanding of not only the very real challenges Indonesia faces on terrorism but also how our near neighbour is dealing with the issue. And we certainly have more to learn than is sometimes indicated by Australian commentators.

Against a backdrop of complex economic and political challenges, Indonesia has presented somewhat of a success story in its counterterrorism efforts. In just over a decade, Indonesian government elements and community groups, supported by international partners including Australia, had managed to degrade Jemaah Islamiyah’s (JI) once-lauded capabilities to relative insignificance.

Then came Syria.

We’re familiar with the impact of the Middle East conflict on terrorism in Australia, particularly the threat of returning foreign fighters. Indonesia also has foreign fighter concerns, compounded by JI using the rise of the so-called Islamic State as an opportunity to revive its flagging fortunes. Estimates of the number of Indonesian foreign fighters vary, with Minister Pandjaitan suggesting as many as 500 are currently fighting for Islamic State in the Middle East. As in Australia, Indonesian success in stopping would-be foreign fighters has had the knock-on effect of refocusing efforts to domestic attacks.

So how can Australia and Indonesia get the greatest value from this renewed focus? The agreement identifies priority areas as intelligence sharing, counterterrorism financing, counter-radicalisation and foreign fighters.

Useful work is already underway in relation to intelligence and counterterrorism financing.

The agreement is right to focus also on foreign fighters and counter-radicalisation. There’s enormous opportunity for complementary efforts in those areas.

While Australia’s concern with returning foreign fighters relates primarily to the threat of terrorist attacks, the concern in Indonesia is that the Middle East conflict is being used as a training ground for the resurgence of JI and the establishment of a wilayat (a province of a caliphate) in Indonesia. A successful and renewed JI running territory in Indonesia would be disastrous for the entire region; it’s directly in Australia’s interest to do what it can to fight and deny the resurgence of JI.

But Indonesia has defeated JI before: operationally by its government, and religiously and ideologically by its people. And Australia can only benefit from collaborating further with its neighbour to stop the re-emergence of JI in the region.

Indonesia’s counter-radicalisation efforts to date have been problematic and exacerbated by broader economic and social challenges—including its prisons effectively operating as sanctuaries and recruiting centres for extremists. But some progress is slowly being made and Australia could play an important supporting role to Indonesia’s counter-radicalisation efforts. We face a comparatively smaller radicalisation problem and a more current countering violent extremism (CVE) program. We could support Indonesia through targeting some of our considerable research effort—around half of Australia’s overall CVE activity according to one study—into areas of mutual benefit.

The real value of the partnership between Australia and Indonesia, however, may lay beyond the bilateral relationship. The challenge of terrorism extends throughout Southeast Asia and across the Indo–Pacific. As is happening already in the counterterrorist financing sphere, Australia and Indonesia could bring together their considerable shared expertise and reach to provide joint leadership to assist our region to work together better to counter terrorism.

A jointly-hosted regional summit on counter-radicalisation, and others on agreed priorities such as foreign fighters, would bring together public, private and community group stakeholders who may be affected and able to assist in addressing the problem. An initial contribution from Australia might include resourcing a database reference on CVE programs across the region to support information-sharing and building practitioner networks across the various fields that cross over on CVE.

The terrorist threat isn’t confined to state borders; nor should our responses be so constrained. Australia and Indonesia have been through political ups and downs, and as is invariably the case with neighbours, and those will undoubtedly continue. But collaborating in an area of shared interest will improve both our capability to counter terrorism, and our longer-term relationship.