December 15, 2010
.A SECRET Australian intelligence assessment has declared the al-Qaeda terrorist network a failure and claims its regional offshoot, Jemaah Islamiah, has been broken in Indonesia.
The head of Australia's intelligence analysis agency, the Office of National Assessments, told US 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.
Advertisement: Story continues below Australian intelligence officers instead blamed Taliban success in Afghanistan on the failings of the Afghan government and the involvement of Pakistan's intelligence and security agencies.
Pressed by the US diplomats for an overall assessment of Islamist terrorist threats, the then ONA director-general, Peter Varghese, gave a strongly upbeat view.
He told the visiting head of the 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 reported that Mr Varghese ''commented that in personal meetings and intelligence exchanges with the Office of National Assessments and other Australian services, Pakistani [Defence chief] General [Ashfaq] Kayani continually comes across as ambivalent on the issues of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, 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 counterterrorism 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 Herald, warned the southern Philippines was emerging as a terrorism haven.
The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, told Parliament on October 19 during the debate on Australia's military deployment that it was vital ''to make sure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for al-Qaeda''; she warned that Osama bin Laden's group remained ''a resilient and persistent network'' and noted 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 Islamiah 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 … 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''.
This latest disclosure comes as the former JI leader Abu Bakar Bashir was yesterday committed for trial in Indonesia on terrorism charges
Mr 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 Indonesian counterterrorism 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 in Canberra 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, ONA judged that the southern Philippines increasingly contained ''all the ingredients'' of al-Qaeda's ''favoured tilling ground''.
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