August in Bali is almost ‘perfect’. Endless sunny days and every evening thousands of tourists - including many of the 850,000 Australians who now flock to Bali annually – gather at Kuta and Legian beaches to watch the glorious Bali sun sink slowly into the ocean near Java.
Yet disturbingly, there are storm clouds also gathering west of Bali as a new wave of potential terrorism returns to Indonesia, and our doorstep.
This year has seen the approval for the release of over 100 convicted Bali-bombing terrorists and their ‘helpers’ from Indonesian jails. But even more worrying, the recent events in Iraq and Syria have seen increasing numbers of young Indonesians answering the call to create what the emerging and extremely violent jihadist group IS (Islamic State) call a Caliphate; a demand for all Muslims to help establish a Pan-Islamic State.
Bring these events together at a time where many young Australians are visiting Bali for the first time, and disturbingly, attitudes towards holidaying in our ‘paradise island’ have softened to a point whereby most Australians don’t even think about security issues any more.
Within Indonesia, the Iraq-based IS followers have many political and religious leaders deeply concerned. Already our government has warned of the threat to mainland Australia from returning Australian passport holders who have been fighting in the Middle East. But the threat from Indonesians returning from Iraq and Syria as hardened terrorists is perhaps an even greater threat.
It is estimated that at least 100-150 Indonesian Muslim extremists are now actively engaged with IS in Iraq and Syria. Simultaneously, the radical Islamic cleric, Abu Bakar Bashir, has sent a rallying call to his ‘true believers’ from a jail cell in Java (where he is serving a 17 year jail sentence for his involvement in the Bali bombings in 2002 and 2005) to join in the Caliphate in the Middle East; and the World.
IS has used the term Caliphate in an effort to appeal to, and deceive, a broader cross-section of Muslims’ on the basis that they are only calling for the establishment of an Islamic State rather than the promotion of the jihad violence as used by Al Qaeda and the Indonesian-based Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) in attacks on the World Trade Centre and in Bali.
This strategy by IS shows signs of failing, due to the shocking murder and mutilation of thousands of Christians and Shiite Muslims in the Middle East by their followers. The positive news for Australia is that the vast majority of Muslims in both Indonesia and Australia are vigorously opposed to IS and their use of Islam to inflict appalling crimes on innocent people of all religions.
Recently, the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) decreed a ‘Fatwa’ (a Religious Order or Opinion) against IS, and over 3,000 followers of Abu Bakar Bashir’s Jamaah Ansharut Tauid (JAT) have quit the organisation over the actions of IS and their followers.
In Australia, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has moved, albeit clumsily, to soften his government’s plan to amend race-hate laws – a move that has been strongly opposed by religious and ethnic groups – in order to ‘clear the air’ with Muslim leaders whose support Abbott needs in stopping the spread and attraction of IS amongst young Australian Muslim men.
But to ensure Australians remain immune from another terrorist attack similar that which devastated the lives of so many Australians in 2002 and 2005, Australia and Indonesia will have to work together to address this potentially dangerous expansion of IS in our region.
The Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the Indonesian National Police (POLRI) have an outstanding joint record in dealing with terror-related activities. POLRI used the sophisticated skills of our AFP to bring to justice most of the Bali bombers. And ironically, Australia’s spying agencies probably have played a key role in providing the Indonesia authorities with information about terrorist activities.
The new Indonesian president, Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, will be sworn in during October, and he has a good record of dealing with complex and sensitive matters including terrorist activities, having been the mayor of the central Java city of Solo; a ‘hot-bed’ for extremists. Jokowi knows that an extremist Sunni Muslim organisation such as IS, who has committed brutal acts against fellow-Shiite Muslims, presents a potential threat to Indonesia’s stability and good record of religious tolerance.
Jokowi also knows that the biggest ‘weapon’ Indonesia has in defeating the IS activities within Indonesia, is its successful democracy, economic progress and religious tolerance. Notwithstanding this, he will still be keen to maintain and develop close anti-terrorist links between Jakarta and Canberra.
Mutual co-operation in the early days of the Jokowi presidency over terrorism issues could also provide the catalyst for broader and closer relationships between our two countries, despite the president predicted to be very domestically focused.
In the meantime, for Australians heading off the Bali, the good news is Bali is a far safer place than in 2002 when 88 Australians lost their lives in one terrible night. But the rise of IS, and the attraction of young Indonesian and Australian men to fight for the Caliphate, is an ominous warning for us all: We need to be vigilant at all times and need to understand that over the months and years ahead, the terrorist risk to Australians travelling in our region, and at home, will increase.
Ross B. Taylor AM is the president of the Perth-based Indonesia Institute (Inc).