Global Terrorism Set to Reignite

By Greg Sheridan

"At the beginning of the year 2001, no one could predict or imagine what was coming with the 9/11 attacks and everything that followed. American intelligence got some information, but no one really trusted that information.

"We could be in the same situation right now. Who can say what will happen after Syria? I fear we are in a pre-9/11 situation."

This is a devastating wake-up call because it comes from a man, let's call him Ali, who is one of the most senior figures associated with Indonesia's security policies.

I met him a couple of weeks ago, early one evening, in the acrid, smoke-filled cigar bar of one of Jakarta's five-star hotels. His judgment, which he supports with dense data and close reasoning, is informed by decades of critical experience. It is a judgment made long before a Malaysia Airlines flight disappeared over the South China Sea on Saturday, in an incident which may or may not be terrorism.

Ali asked that I not use his name. His dire judgment is shared by another key Asian intelligence figure. Ajit Doval is a former director of the Indian government's Intelligence Bureau. He has spent a lifetime in counter-terrorism. If the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party wins India's forthcoming election, as is widely expected, Doval is favoured to become national security adviser.

I don't know if Ali and Doval have ever met.

Here is Doval's net assessment. It is eerily similar to Ali's: "We have to brace ourselves for living in a world which is much more insecure than it was in 2001."

Talking to both Ali and Doval gives a kind of stereoscopic depth of view to the re-emerging terror threat. They share key concerns: what is happening in Syria, what will soon happen in Afghanistan, the growing popularity of al-Qa'ida ideology in North Africa and the Middle East and the deep strategic planning of jihadist networks.

Let's start with Ali: "We are very worried because of this latest situation in Syria. Not only that there might be another 9/11 or Bali bombing, but the contribution it's making to the progress of radical jihad thinking.

"Our analysis is that Syria is more dangerous than Afghanistan was (as a training ground) because they've got much more head-to-head battle. In Afghanistan, their efforts against the Russian troops were often from far away, with shells or missiles.

"Now, in Syria, day by day, they experience head-to-head battle directly. This experience makes them much more able to adapt to war's realities."

By this, Ali means the Syrian alumni, like the Afghan alumni, will carry out terror internationally and will bring home the ability to kill easily; to function under extreme stress; specific expertise in bombs and weapons; and the organisational capability to put complex plots together.

A recent study by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict concluded that the Syrian campaign had "captured the imagination of Indonesians in a way no foreign war has before", partly because of its Sunni versus Shia nature. Indonesia is overwhelmingly Sunni.

Ali is brutally honest about the limits of official knowledge: "We have no idea how many Indonesians are involved in Syria. Several thousand had jobs there before the conflict.

"But we have 17,000 islands, and wide-open sea borders. It's very difficult for us to monitor our people's movements. It's a much easier process now for young Indonesians to get radicalised on social media and to take the step of going to Syria. Previously, recruits had to meet the key people, or spiritual leaders, of jihad groups. Now they don't have to (in order to fight abroad)."

He is also quite blunt about the small but growing minority of Indonesians who support jihad: "There is a large pool of people who are extremists. But the work of the authorities since the Bali bombings has reduced the extremists' capabilities. The worry is that people coming back from Syria will increase those capabilities again."

Ali has two other very specific concerns. One is that there is a large number of Indonesian jihadists completing their sentences and coming out of jail. Nearly 30 such people have re-offended. There is no evidence, Ali says, that more than a handful have been deradicalised. Instead they come out tougher and more determined than ever, often having made new recruits inside.

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Greg Sheridan is the Foreign Editor of the Australian.
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