Sunday, July 25, 2004

Al Qaeda Marches South

Just days after the Indonesian Supreme Court threw the convictions of the men convicted of killing hundreds in Bali into doubt, the European branch of Al Qaeda threatened to turn Australia into a "pool of blood". The Indonesian justices held that the law under which the killers had been convicted was invalid because the anti-terrorism act had been passed after the crime had been committed.

July 24, 2004 -- An Indonesian court ruled yesterday that tough anti-terrorism laws passed last year could not be used retroactively, a decision that raises the possibility of fresh appeals by 32 militants convicted in the 2002 Bali bombings. The Constitutional Court's 5-4 decision could also complicate efforts to prosecute others awaiting trial in the bombings that killed 202 people, mostly foreigners. Among them is Abu Bakar Bashir, the alleged head of Jemaah Islamiyah, the al-Qaeda linked terror group blamed for the attacks.

This has forced the Australian government to seek new ways to keep the convicted killers in jail. Indonesian authorities have informally assured the Aussies that the murderers would not be released, although the basis for these promises remains vague. Indonesian domestic politics, as in the Philippines, often proves more important than international commitments or the pursuit of abstract justice. Meanwhile in Europe, the Tawhid Islamic Group sought to repeat the tactics which proved so successful with the Philippines -- on Australia. The New York Post reports:

July 25, 2004 -- A group calling itself the European branch of al Qaeda threatened to turn Australia and Italy into hellish "pools of blood" if the two nations did not withdraw their troops from Iraq, while a growing wave of kidnappings swept the country yesterday. The Tawhid Islamic Group, which earlier threatened attacks on Bulgaria and Poland if they kept their troops in Iraq, posted its warning on an Islamic Web site. "We call upon [Australia] to leave Iraq before your country turns to pools of blood," the group said. "We will shake the earth under your feet as we did in Indonesia, and lines of car bombs will not cease, God willing."

The statement referred to the 2002 Bali bombing that killed 202 people, many of them Australians. The group also warned Italy that if it did not withdraw its troops, "you will see the lines of cars laden with explosives hit your towns and turn your nights to mornings.

Australia feels it has been set up by Manila's weakness. The Melbourne Age reports:

Mr Downer said the Philippines decision to withdraw troops from Iraq to save the life of a father-of-eight hostage was behind the Tawhid Islamic Group's internet threat against Australia. ''This is the problem with the Filipino decision, you see,'' he said. ''They've acceded to the demands of terrorists and within a day or so of the Filipinos doing that six more people were taken hostage in Iraq. ''Unfortunately these actions have encouraged terrorists to continue these threats so now we are subjected, as the Italians are and the Poles and the Bulgarians, from this particular group, to further threats, and it's very important we send a strong message that we will not be threatened by terrorist groups.''

These sentiments were surprisingly echoed by the famously pacifist New Zealand and the Australian Labor Party.

New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Phil Goff, visiting Australia for official meetings, said it was important for countries in the Pacific to stand up to terrorists. ''We do not want the Pacific to be a weak link that enables international terrorist groups to exploit opportunities in the Pacific or to base themselves in the Pacific,'' he said.

Labor's foreign affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd said the government needed to take the threat seriously. ''We believe this is our number one national security objective,'' he told reporters. ''It therefore should command all the resources of government. ''We offer the government today bipartisan support in redoubling our effort to eliminate al-Qaeda and any associated terrorist organisations such as the one that has made this threat against Australia today.''

Although the Kiwis and the Australian left are dreamy-eyed, they can recognize an oncoming train when they see one. Counterterrorism experts in Canberra have long felt that the Philippines now constitutes the main source of danger to Australia because the Jemaah Islamiyah can operate, train and arm with impunity in the areas of the Philippines south where virtually no government control exists. ABC News Australia says:

The commander of United States forces in the Pacific, Admiral Thomas Fargo, has raised concerns about the presence of al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah militants in the southern Philippines. Philippine Defense Secretary, Eduardo Ermita, says US authorities are very particular about how Manila is addressing terrorism in the Philippines. Mr Ermita says the US is conscious that there are about 40 JI members in the southern region of Mindanao. The JI regional terror group is blamed for the October 2002 bombings which killed 202 people in Bali and other attacks in Indonesia.

The weakness of the Philippine state has created the regional equivalent of Taliban-era Afghanistan, providing an area of chaos in which terrorists can muster unhindered. The Jemaah Islamiyah is particularly dangerous because it aims at destabilizing every government in the region and establishing an Islamic state including Northern Australia.

The al-Qaeda terrorist group and Jemaah Islamiah aspire to create an Islamic superstate in South-East Asia, called Daulah Islamiyah, which would embrace Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand and Cambodia. Last month, the Philippines' national security adviser, Roilo Golez, told ABC's Four Corners that Abu Bakar, with al-Qaeda backing, was trying to include northern Australia in its plans. As secretary-general of the Mujahideen League, the cleric is alleged to have established four territorial groups, called mantiqis, to serve the aim of a pan-Islamic Asian state. One of those covered Irian Jaya and northern Australia.

The main question facing coalition partners USA and Australia is whether to keep working with the Indonesian and the Philippine governments which seem unwilling or unable to face the forces that are slowly tearing them apart; or prepare for a scenario that accepts the failure of these two states. Clearly, a state which cannot even save itself or enforce its authority within its own territory will be of little help in carrying out international agreements. The problem with relying on the dysfunctional regimes in Manila and Jakarta indefinitely is it allows things to go from bad to worse with hands tied out of diplomatic deference to the host "governments". But neither is it feasible to simply await the final collapse or breakup of these two countries before acting. The prudent course would be for America and Australia to develop ways of directly influencing events on the ground by creating structures which bypass the existing and inutile bureaucracies in the capitals. In this respect, both countries will be playing catch-up with Indonesia and Malaysia which have long since created armed groups under their control in Mindanao, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-tawi. The Balkanization of the southernmost regions of the Philippines began thirty years ago. One of the most familiar sights in "peace negotiations" between Manila and Muslim rebels is the presence of uniformed Indonesian officers by the side of the rebels, with the deceptive title of "facilitators". Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's abject surrender to a handful of Iraqi terrorists has simply demonstrated internationally what has long been evident domestically: that no one respects Manila except the punctilious diplomats in Washington and Canberra.