A SECRET Australian intelligence assessment has declared the al-Qaeda terrorist network a failure and claims its regional offshoot, Jemaah Islamiyah, has been broken in Indonesia.
The head of Australia’s top intelligence agency, the Office of National Assessments, told American diplomats in October 2008 that al-Qaeda “ultimately has failed to achieve the strategic leadership role it sought within the Islamic world".
The assessment undercuts a key argument of the Gillard government to justify Australia’s continued commitment to the war in Afghanistan — that al-Qaeda could return to use the country as a terrorist training ground. Australian intelligence officers instead blamed Taliban success in Afghanistan on the failings of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government and on the murky involvement of Pakistan’s intelligence and security services.
Pressed by the US diplomats for an overall assessment of Islamist terrorist threats, then Office of National Assessments director-general Peter Varghese gave a strongly up-beat view. He told the visiting head of the US State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Randall Fort, that terrorism was “a good news story that is getting better, with the violent Islamist threat receding".
The US embassy in Canberra reported Mr Varghese “commented that in personal meetings and intelligence exchanges with ONA and other Australian services, Pakistani [defence chief] General [Ashfaq] Kayani continually comes across as ambivalent on the issues of counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency, reiterating that India remains the core mission and priority of the Pakistan defence and intelligence establishment. “ONA assesses that Pakistan’s military and security elite view this as ‘an American war’, which, combined with a very hard sense of anti-Americanism, combines into a very dangerous cocktail," Mr Varghese was reported to have told his American colleagues. Mr Varghese said developments were especially positive in Australia’s region, where “the growth of Islamic extremism-based movements is constrained, thanks in part to ongoing successes in combined counter-terrorism efforts, but more because of societal factors in south-east Asia that reject the Middle Eastern jihadist model."
But the secret US embassy cable, leaked to WikiLeaks and provided exclusively to The Age, warned that the southern Philippines was emerging as a new terrorist haven.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard told Parliament on October 19, during the debate on Australia’s military deployment, that it was a vital “to make sure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for al-Qaeda" and that Osama bin Laden’s group remained “a resilient and persistent network". Ms Gillard also warned of past links between al-Qaeda and extremists in Indonesia.
But the US record of the high-level intelligence exchange states: “Varghese and his analysts assessed that Indonesia Islam was ‘returning to its main course following a detour’ driven by personal linkages to the global jihad that were formed in Afghanistan in the 1980s."
“ONA analysts assess ‘the tide has turned’ on Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) in Indonesia, noting that its leadership has been devastated — with most seniors killed, captured, or on the run-and that it has lost its local support networks and funding," the US embassy reported to Washington. “ONA judged JI was shifting near-term goals to its local, vice global/anti-western interests while otherwise ‘creeping back to the shadows’ and focusing on survival."
Australian intelligence analysts proffered the view that JI could “endure and regenerate over the long term", but that it would be “a more localised terrorist threat", one cable said.
This latest disclosure comes after former JI leader Abu Bakar Bashir was yesterday committed for trial in Indonesia on terrorism charges. Bashir, convicted of conspiracy in the 2002 Bali bombing but acquitted on appeal, has been charged as the alleged inspiration of, and fund-raiser for, an Islamic militant training camp in Aceh that was broken up in February. The leaked US cables also reveal that ONA considered Indonesia’s counter-terrorism successes to be “a study in contrast” to “the ongoing downward slide in the Philippines, where the collapse of the peace process in the south threatened to make this area ‘the new regional incubator of terrorist jihadis’." The US embassy reported that “ONA terrorism specialists noted signals and human intelligence that JI ‘structuralists’ embedded with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front were rethinking plans to return to Indonesia, while JI ‘freelancers’ were becoming more active and better linked with Abu Sayyaf Group operatives."
According to the US diplomatic reporting, the Office of National Assessments believed the southern Philippines increasingly contained "all the ingredients" of al-Qaeda’s "favoured tilling ground".
All very interesting, but despite the source this is after all one assessment among many.
The ONA, incidentally, was one voice pooh-poohing Saddam’s WMD phantom prior to the 2003 invasion, as former ONA analyst Andrew Wilkie (now in parliament) noted at the time.
‘Intelligence" was how the Americans described the material accumulating on Iraq from their super-sophisticated spy systems. But to analysts at the Office of National Assessments in Canberra, a decent chunk of the growing pile looked like rubbish. In their offices on the top floor of the drab ASIO building, ONA experts found much of the US material worthy only of the delete button or the classified waste chute to the truck-sized shredder in the basement.
Australian spooks aren’t much like the spies in the James Bond movies. Not many drink vodka martinis. But most are smart – certainly smart enough to understand how US intelligence on Iraq was badly skewed by political pressure, worst-case analysis and a stream of garbage-grade intelligence concocted by Iraqis desperate for US intervention in Iraq.
It wasn’t just the Australians who were mystified by the accumulating US trash. The French, Germans and Russians had long before refused to be persuaded by Washington’s line. British intelligence agencies were still inclined to take a more conservative position. And the chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, even went so far as to say during a late April interview that "much of the intelligence on which the capitals built their case seemed to have been shaky"…