Indonesia and Australia draw closer in terror fight

Australia's Prime Minister John Howard authorized $3.5 million Saturday to investigate last week's bombing.

The front line of Australia's war on terror continues to be fought on Indonesian soil.

Last week's bomb blast outside the heavily fortified walls of the Australian embassy in Jakarta, which killed 9 Indonesians, was the third major attack in Indonesia against the West over the past two years. It was the first to specifically target Australian interests since the October 2002 bombing of a nightclub in Bali that killed 88 Australians.

The string of bombings has led to greater police and military cooperation between the two Pacific neighbors. They have agreed to establish a joint counterterrorism center in Jakarta, to which Australia is contributing $26.6 million over five years. Australia is also providing an assistance package of $7 million to strengthen Indonesia's law-enforcement agencies. Plans are afoot to help train Indonesian counterterrorism forces. And Prime Minister John Howard has authorized $3.5 million to help track down those responsible for Thursday's attack. Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a radical Islamic group with ties to Al Qaeda, has claimed responsibility.

"There's been extraordinary cooperation between the Australian Federal Police and Indonesian police and wide-ranging cooperation on terrorism," Phillip Flood, a former ambassador to Indonesia, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "But clearly there has to be much, much more and a more accelerated effort by Indonesia to tackle this [terror] problem at its source."

Prior to the 2002 Bali bombing, the two countries maintained a cool relationship. Australia led a UN peacekeeping force in East Timor during its quest for independence from Indonesia in 1999.

"There has been a long-simmering suspicion of Australia's motivations in getting involved in Indonesia, stemming from the fight for freedom in East Timor," says Aldo Borgu, program director of operations and capabilities at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), a think tank here. He says that there is a belief among Indonesian elites that Australia wants to keep Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, from becoming a strong force to Australia's north. Australia says its goal is simply to fight terror and help Indonesia in its transition to democracy.

Increasingly, the Australian public sees Indonesia in negative terms, making the long-term future of commercial and diplomatic engagement more problematic.

"There is an impression that although Australians understand that most people in Indonesia are against JI and terrorism, there is a sense of Indonesia as unstable as it moves towards a democracy," says Brendan McRandle of ASPI. This "coupled with the economic crisis in the 1990s, the Dili massacre in 1991, where five Australia-based journalists were brutally murdered and then these later attacks, means that there are concerns about the problems it raises in the region rather than the good things about it."

Mr. Borgu says patience is required by both countries.

"The fact is that the target here is not Australia but Indonesia - as the terrorists want to create an Islamic state," he says. "Indonesia is in a difficult situation as it can't possibly close Islamic schools and Australia can't pressure it to do that."

Australia's role in the global fight on terror has become a focal point in next month's elections between Mr. Howard, who sent 2,000 troops to Iraq, and his opponent Mark Latham.

"This has been the problem with the commitment in Iraq as so many experts have pointed out," said Mr. Latham during a televised debate Sunday night. "It's made Australia a larger target, its made us less safe in the war against terror."

Howard responded by saying: "The day we allow terrorists to determine things like [our commitment in Iraq] is the day we lose control of our future."

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