1. Home
  2. Opinion
  3. Australia and Indonesia: Indispensable Partners in Counterterrorism

Australia and Indonesia: Indispensable Partners in Counterterrorism

Jacinta_Carroll_op_edAuthor: Jacinta Carroll 

Last week a senior Australian government delegation—led by Chief of Army Lieutenant General Angus Campbell—was in Jakarta on what appears to be an annual pilgrimage by Australian officials to mend diplomatic and military ties after yet another falling out between the two neighbours.


The current spat between Indonesia and Australia arose with an Indonesian Kopassus Special Forces officer reporting he was insulted by a depiction of Indonesian forces in West Papua that he saw while on exchange with Australia’s Special Forces.

Beneath the outward ups and downs is a complex bilateral relationship and a very Asia-Pacific approach to dealing with the intricacies of the current international environment. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the world of counterterrorism cooperation.

While much of the rest of the world is focused on the extremes of terrorism manifest in the Middle East conflict and attacks in Europe, the Asia-Pacific has its own particular challenges. In some cases, terrorism is linked to longstanding nationalist insurgencies, while in others it looks more like organised crime. Islamist extremist terrorism in a majority Muslim Asian country has a different hue from the Middle East and Europe. That means the Asia-Pacific region—especially South and Southeast Asia—is a hub of counterterrorism activity. This diversity of experience and practice may provide some lessons on alternative ways to approach counterterrorism.

The Indonesia-Australia relationship in particular provides a useful lens to understand some of the dynamics of the region. In many ways, these two countries typify the stark contrasts and commonalities found across the Asia-Pacific: neighbours with vastly different politics, cultures, histories and laws, who fall out with each other as often as they get along, with diplomatic and military ties regularly in the balance. But who are also pulled together by geography, trade, tourism, people—and terrorism.

The shared experience has been painful for both: the 2002 Bali attack was the deadliest single terrorist atrocity experienced by either country: while the attack happened in Indonesia, 88 Australians were killed, vastly greater than any attack on Australian soil.

In many ways, Indonesia’s journey since 2002 is one of the world’s counterterrorism success stories. Wracked for years by internal insurgency and home to Jema’ah Islamiyah (JI)—perpetrators of the Bali and other attacks in Southeast Asia—Indonesia’s successes mounted over time, including by rendering JI virtually a spent force. Still, the story is one of successful partnership. Australia and Indonesia developed deep collaboration across a range of counterterrorism areas—law enforcement, intelligence, defence and training to name only a few. Then, the relationship and focus was on how Australia could transfer technical skills and build capability for a threat that was very much contained in Indonesia.

The advent of ISIS, however, has changed this.

Now Australia is a direct target facing greater threat—consistently named by ISIS as one of its top three target countries along with the US and UK—and Indonesia is facing a resurgent threat. Islamist extremism is attracting adherents in Australia in numbers not seen with other terrorist groups, as well as drawing recruits in Indonesia, although so far at much lower levels than previously seen with JI.

ISIS has also provided a new training ground and ideological impetus for Indonesian extremism, breathing life back into the nascent threat. Having been denied safe-havens in Indonesia, old and new extremists—estimates of more than 500 fighters plus families—moved to the so-called ‘caliphate’ in search of a new life, well-paid jobs and training. While the fortunes of ISIS haven’t served the first two well, the third option—of returning to Southeast Asia with skills to take up the old fight—is looking like a real possibility.

Bilateral cooperation on counterterrorism always presents challenges, but the public differences between Indonesia and Australia often seem insurmountable. From Indonesia’s perspective, how to reconcile the principle of non-interference and Indonesian post-colonial nationalism with partnership with a Western country?  For Australia, how to share intelligence with a country that has the death penalty and appears to not be in control of its prisons?

One of the tried and true principles of Southeast Asian approaches to international relations is to approach problematic issues in a less confronting—and potentially affronting—manner, but to focus instead on areas of common interest and less potential controversy. They will take time to reach a consensus, rather than simply work to ‘majority rule’. Sustaining relationships is to be valued ahead of immediate results. Others could learn from this approach.

The joint Indonesia-Australia counterterrorism financing (CTF) initiative provides one example of how to make a big counterterrorism impact in an unconventional way. The CTF Summit was launched in November 2015 in Sydney and had its second meeting in Bali in September 2016 (Malaysia will host the summit in 2017). The summit brought together financial regulators, banks and counterterrorism officials to identify the common and cross-border challenge of terrorism financing and develop practical steps to stem the flow of resources to terrorists. It has already produced an Asia–Pacific regional risk assessment of terrorism financing–the first such assessment undertaken anywhere in the world. Other initiatives include education and training for front-line money remitters and others to understand and identify terrorism financing. The 2016 summit demonstrated the success of this initiative, with representatives from the EU, Russia, the Middle East and North America also seeking to collaborate, and the activity is now used as a launch pad for a parallel counter-terrorism ministers and officials meeting.

Another initiative with great potential for collaboration is the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus Counter Terrorism Experts Working Group, where counterterrorism practitioners work together through both the theory and practicalities of countering the common terrorist threat. Where else in the current security environment would one expect to see a military group from Indonesia and other ASEAN members, Australia, the US, Russia and China working actively and collaboratively as partners?

Indonesian and Australian military, police and intelligence agencies have a long history of counterterrorism training and exchanges, but have historically been more about Australia providing technical skills and capacity development to Indonesia than the other way around. The current Islamist extremist threat now provides the opportunity for a partial rebalance, as Indonesia’s experience and expertise in building national resilience to extremism—for example through Pancasila and the work of Indonesia’s leading Muslim organisations—prison-based radicalisation and tracking the movement and communication of foreign fighters, can provide valuable insight and expertise to jointly understand and counter the terrorist threat.

The Australian-Indonesian relationship is complicated, but it works. Like much of the rest of the region, this is a story of fiercely independent countries, with dynamic economies, polities and diverse populations. While the path to effective counterterrorism collaboration will not always be smooth, it’s also unlikely in this region to require the level of military intervention currently seen in the Middle East. Non-intervention and low-profile collaboration have important roles in the region, as countries tend to have the best understanding of how to most effectively deal with their own issues.

As policymakers around the world struggle to deal with attacks and home-grown radicalisation, there are opportunities to both learn from and work with partners in the Asia-Pacific. The Indonesia-Australia relationship shows it’s not only possible to have a dynamic and complex relationship of respect between two neighbours, but likely that these types of partnerships will be increasingly the norm in countering terrorism.

General Campbell’s visit to Indonesia will reconnect seniors on both sides who are already well known to each other, and assuage any offence—for now. Normal, slightly bumpy, relations will resume, perhaps alongside commitments to do more together in the future. Both countries will then be able to commence the next stage of their complicated—and sometimes convoluted—security and defence relationship. But this is a relationship where both will continue to benefit from the very different knowledge, expertise and perspective that they bring to dealing with a common issue of how to best promote security in our region.

Jacinta Carroll is Head of the Counter Terrorism Policy Centre at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).

Article originally published: IAPS Dialogue. 15 Feb 2017