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The Next Stage in the War on Terror; Indonesia

Author: David L. Phillips, Executive Director, The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity
March 26, 2002
International Herald Tribune


Six months after the terrorist attacks on the United States, President George W. Bush is reviewing strategies for the next stage of the war on terror. U.S. officials are increasingly determined to prosecute the campaign even inside countries that do not accept American involvement. The Bush administration has identified Indonesia as "a place of interest." It is concerned that the vast archipelago's porous borders, official corruption and lawlessness make it an ideal platform for terrorist networks.

The United States suspects that some members of Al Qaeda have fled Afghanistan for Indonesia. It also believes that Jakarta is not doing enough to counter terrorism, by arresting terrorist suspects and seizing their financial assets. Pentagon officials want to expand U.S. security assistance to Indonesia to enhance its surveillance and interdiction capabilities. But military cooperation is restricted by the U.S. Congress. While Indonesian officials would like to resume the cooperation, Jakarta is wary of American involvement in the country's internal affairs. The Bush administration is treading lightly to avoid inflaming Muslim opposition in Indonesia or exacerbating anti-American sentiment. With a population of 210 million, Indonesia has more Muslims than any other country. President Megawati Sukarnoputri is reluctant to crack down on Islamic extremists because she fears a wave of mass protests would destabilize her government.

With this in mind, the United States has been reluctant to publicly criticize Megawati for her administration's lethargic conduct of the war on terror. The State Department has identified 45 countries where Al Qaeda and affiliated groups have cells, including Malaysia and the Philippines. But it did not name Indonesia or put the country's homegrown Islamic organizations, such as Laskar Jihad and Jemaah Islamiyah, on its list of terror organizations.

These groups have been waging a jihad, or holy war, against the country's Christian minority in places like the Moluccas Islands where sectarian violence has claimed 9,000 lives in the last three years. Indonesia's Islamic extremists openly discuss their goal of transforming the country into a radical Muslim state. Hambali, the radical Indonesian cleric who founded Jemaah Islamiyah, heaps praise on Osama bin Laden and is a known associate of the Qaeda operatives who attacked the World Trade Center in 1993.

In recent months, Indonesians have been implicated in plans to attack U.S. interests across Southeast Asia. The Singapore police broke up an Al Qaeda cell plotting to attack Western embassies in the region. Three Indonesians involved were arrested.

Even if Jakarta shows a stronger commitment to campaign against terrorism, it still lacks the capabilities to more closely monitor suspects, tighten border controls and interdict contraband destined for terrorist organizations. In 1991, the U.S. Congress suspended Indonesia's participation in the International Military Education and Training program. Later, it banned all military sales when the Indonesian Army was implicated in the razing of East Timor in 1999.

But the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 have redefined the bilateral issues between America and Indonesia. It is time for the U.S. Congress and administration to work together and conduct a serious policy review.

Rather than isolating the army, the United States would have greater impact by resuming military cooperation, focused on intelligence sharing and training in

anti-terror techniques.

Military cooperation should be conditional on specific political and security sector reforms. President Megawati can consolidate the country's democratic development by indicting high-profile officials who committed atrocities during previous regimes. She can strengthen civilian control over the military by undertaking to resolve regional conflicts through negotiations. As a gesture of good faith, she should immediately disband the recently established military command center in Aceh.

Both Indonesian and U.S. interests would be advanced through greater cooperation in the war on terror. America cannot, however, tolerate half-measures or Jakarta's attempts to obscure the existence of international terror networks on its soil. Nor should it allow Indonesian authorities to manipulate the war on terror to justify a crackdown on internal dissent.

The writer, deputy director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, contributed this comment to the International

Herald Tribune.

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