While September 11 shook much of the world to its core, the day’s catastrophic events were a world away for most Australians, who felt confident, as Americans once did, that geographical fortuity insulated them from international turmoil. Although there had been warning signs, including Osama bin Laden’s threats against Australia for its intervention in East Timor and the December 2001 discovery of Jemaah Islamiyah’s (JI) Australian terror network, it was not until the October 12, 2002 Bali nightclub bombing, in which 88 Aussies were killed, that the Australian public realized that it, too, was squarely in the terrorists’ crosshairs. In the wake of Bali, Australia has taken decisive and coherent actions to combat terrorism by expanding the power of its domestic-security agencies, taking a proactive role in the Pacific islands, fortifying regional alliances, and strengthening its relationship with the United States.
While Australia’s forceful response to Bali serves as a model for nations battling terrorism, it has not always been so attuned to the terrorist threat. For years, despite its proximity to Indonesia–home to the world’s largest Muslim population–Australia ignored the dangers of militant Islam, allowing an extensive radical network to become entrenched on its soil. Authorities stood by as Abu Bakr Bashir, the suspected leader of JI, a group seeking to create an Islamic superstate in Southeast Asia and Northern Australia, made more than ten visits to Australia throughout the 1990s. During the same period, JI’s founder, Abdullah Sungkar, also made regular trips to Australia to raise funds and recruit new members. By the late 1990s, JI was firmly established in Australia under the direction of the Ayub twins, Abdul Rahim and his brother Abdul Rahman, an Afghan war veteran highly respected by Osama bin Laden and his closest associates. In 1999, officials deported Abdul Rahman for immigration violations, but allowed Abdul Rahim to remain in the country and at the helm of JI.
At the time, intelligence analysts completely misjudged JI, believing that it neither had an extensive presence in Australia’s 500,000-strong Muslim community nor posed a threat to national security. According to an April 2003 Sydney Morning Herald article, Norm Hazzard, head of the New South Wales Counterterrorism Coordination Command, told private security officials, “We knew of the existence of JI. But every intelligence organization in this part of the world considered them to be non-extremist, not very radical at all. . . .” The head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO), Dennis Richardson, confirmed this assessment when testifying before an Australian Senate committee investigating the Bali attacks, noting, “[JI] was not on our radar screen as a terrorist organization before December 2001.” In fact, it was only in December 2001, after authorities in Singapore began to interrogate JI operatives who had plotted to blow up the Australian and US embassies there, that regional intelligence officials discovered JI’s deep penetration of Australia.
Limited, however, by Singapore’s refusal to let Australian agents question the detainees, ASIO and the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) were unable to develop a comprehensive picture of JI’s Australian network. Only after the Bali bombing did Australian officials gain that vital access, which, coupled with intelligence from the Bali investigations, led them to launch a series of raids on JI targets throughout the country. They were shocked to uncover JI plots to bomb the Sydney Olympics and Israeli diplomatic facilities, as well as plans to assassinate Joseph Gutnick, a prominent Jewish businessman in Melbourne. They also discovered that JI had conducted military training in a number of locations throughout Australia.
Before this full picture emerged, frustrated security officials had to watch helplessly as Abdul Rahim Ayub left the country on October 15, 2002. Even though authorities were certain that Ayub commanded JI’s Australian branch, they were powerless to detain him because they could not definitively tie him to the attack, and, at the time, JI was not a designated terrorist organization. Taking advantage of this window of opportunity, Ayub, who authorities later learned had recruited two of the bombers into JI, flew to Indonesia and disappeared.
Both to ensure that such a debacle would not happen again and to address the new threat environment, Australian lawmakers acted quickly to tighten security provisions. ASIO’s powers were greatly expanded, and those suspected of involvement in terrorism can now be detained for seven days. The 2003 Terrorism Act also allows ASIO to jail those who “fail to give any information requested . . . [or] fail to produce any record or thing . . . requested in accordance with [a] warrant” for as much as five years. Furthermore, authorities now extensively employ electronic surveillance, doing so at nearly 30 times the per-capita rate of U.S. officials. Parliament is even considering passing a law that would allow the Australian attorney general to order telephone companies to terminate the service of those who pose a danger to homeland security.
In addition to toughening its stance on domestic security, the Australian government has adopted a far more aggressive foreign policy, recognizing the need to solidify strategic alliances and ensure that unstable nations in the region are not allowed to threaten national security. Prime Minister John Howard has worked hard to fortify ties with the United States, sending troops to Iraq and Afghanistan and adopting America’s hard line on North Korea and Iran. As evidenced by Australia’s central role in the investigation of this August’s Jakarta Marriott bombing, Aussie cooperation with Southeast Asian nations has also increased considerably; Australian officials have been in Jakarta examining physical evidence and pursuing leads with Indonesian authorities. Additionally, there are plans for a regional counterterrorism summit, as well as calls for the establishment of an Asia-Pacific counterterrorism center to facilitate intelligence sharing.
Perhaps most important, Australia has asserted itself in new ways in the Pacific islands. Over the last 30 years, Australia funneled billions of dollars in aid to the islands, but always limited its role due to concern that more aggressive actions would be seen as intrusive. In post-Bali Australia, these concerns have been thrown out the window. As Prime Minister Howard noted: “[T]oo often, rogue and failed states become the base from which terrorists and transnational criminals organize their operations, train their recruits and manage their finances.” With the Solomon Islands slipping into chaos, Howard, acting without U.N. support, recently sent 2,000 troops to assist in restoring order. And as other islands in the region, including Papua New Guinea and East Timor, fall further into disarray, Canberra acknowledges that Australia may again intervene to establish stability.
It is this willingness to act decisively in addressing the new threat environment that sets Australia apart from most nations in the war on terror. While it was Bali, rather than 9/11, that jolted Australia to reality, the Australian government finally realizes that militant Islam’s drive to destroy Western civilization knows no geographical bounds.
–Josh Lefkowitz is a terrorism analyst at the Investigative Project.