Robert Gelbard had no trouble getting in to see CIA chief George Tenet. As United States ambassador to Indonesia, Gelbard was concerned about emerging terrorist threats in South-East Asia. It was November 2000; nearly a year before terror attacks would kill thousands in New York and Washington. Few people shared Gelbard's sense of alarm. So he put his job on the line.
The government in Jakarta had already angrily dismissed his pleas. Now back in Washington DC, Gelbard was also shouted down by his bosses in the State Department who were unhappy with his outspoken diplomacy in Indonesia. He was given a "stern reprimand".
At George Tenet's White House office, Gelbard received a more sympathetic hearing. Tenet's own agents were worried about Indonesia. Gelbard pleaded with him to expand the agency's efforts to identify potential terrorists in Indonesia. In particular, he urged Tenet to pressure Australia to focus on threats from regional Islamists and to dramatically step up its flow of intelligence. Canberra held vital links in the regional intelligence chain because of its proximity to Indonesia. But Gelbard had failed to convince Australia to give Islamist terrorism priority. Tenet agreed to see what could be done. But his efforts would also yield little.
Gelbard spelt out his fears to officials from three governments – that Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda had established funding and operational links in Indonesia and was planning to attack American interests. But it was only November 2000. Not many people in Washington, Jakarta or Canberra were listening.
THE SUDDEN BOOM IS WHAT GELBARD REMEMBERS MOST from the first time terrorists nearly blew him up. He was traveling in a motorcade in La Paz, Bolivia, with the then US Secretary of State, George Shultz. It was 1988 and Gelbard was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South America. "No one was hurt," he recalled. "But the car carrying Mrs Shultz had the windows blown in. The same group later assassinated two American missionaries. I brought in an FBI team to help train the Bolivians to jointly eliminate that group. We were successful."
Long before Gelbard was on the trail of al-Qaeda in Indonesia, he was battling narco-terrorists in Latin America. In 1991, when he was ambassador to Bolivia, another bomb was detonated outside his home while his nine-year old daughter was in the front room. Again, fortunately neither she nor anyone else was injured. "This was a completely new group. It had already kidnapped and murdered a Bolivian friend of mine. The bomb in front of our home reinforced to me the very personal nature of this problem."
Gelbard proved a tough adversary for Bolivia's drug barons. It was the height of the controversial US war on drugs and Gelbard was an ardent exponent of escalating US military intervention in Latin America, including Bolivia, the third-largest coca producer. An activist ambassador, he personally arranged extensive American training of local counter-terrorist and intelligence units. His friend Richard Clarke, the former White House counter-terrorism chief, summed up Gelbard's style in his book Against All Enemies (The Free Press, 2004). Gelbard was "not the kind of diplomat who worried about place settings, but instead knew about armed helicopters and communications intercepts". Gelbard says his experience in Bolivia taught him how such non-traditional threats to "still shaky democracies were not appreciated either by the local government or by my own".
HE TOOK THIS VIEW BACK TO WASHINGTON DC WHERE, IN 1993, he was promoted to Assistant Secretary of State for Counter-Terrorism, International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, a portfolio affectionately termed "drugs and thugs." Bolivia had prompted Gelbard to focus on unconventional conflicts – ones not involving a nation state but criminal networks operating across national boundaries; ones in which US military supremacy was undermined by hit-and-run enemies using terrorism, corruption and local insurgents.
Along with a team of senior officials in Washington, Gelbard and Clarke tried to develop a framework to better understand emerging threats in the post-Cold War era. It included terrorism, drugs, weapons of mass destruction, money laundering and people trafficking. And al-Qaeda. "We were saying you had to think about threats posed by transnational organisations and not just nation states. But the Pentagon, the CIA and the State Department, they were all linear in their thinking, they were used to seeing threats only in geopolitical terms. What we were saying required a leap of conceptualisation."
President Clinton agreed to at least take a first step. In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in 1995, he declared that nothing "is more vital than fighting the increasingly interconnected groups that traffic in terror, organised crime, drug smuggling and the spread of weapons of mass destruction". Gelbard and Clarke believed they had helped define a turning point in US security policy. They were to be sorely disappointed. "The follow-through from the bureaucracy was zero," Gelbard says bitterly. His next assignment strengthened his belief in the rise of transnational threats.
Handpicked as the President's special envoy to the Balkans from 1997, Gelbard found himself in the middle of the murderous dissolution of the former Yugoslavia. He had to variously negotiate with, cajole and finally threaten Serbian warlord Slobodan Milosevic and his Croatian counterpart, Franjo Tudjman, to comply with peace accords.
It was hard-charging diplomacy often conducted in public. It didn't work. NATO bombed Serbia in 1999 following continued atrocities against Albanian Muslims living in Kosovo.
But there was another development in the Balkans ethnic labyrinth that caught Gelbard completely by surprise – the discovery of a network of foreign Islamist terrorists. In Albania, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad group had joined elements from Afghanistan's al-Qaeda in a bid to bomb the US embassy in Tirana. In Bosnia, a group of Afghan-trained Arab mujahideen who'd fought alongside Bosnian Muslims tried twice to bomb US army barracks. None of the terror attacks succeeded, but Gelbard remembers, "I was very uncomfortable with the significant presence in Bosnia of the mujahideen and the unwillingness of the US army to neutralise the threat posed by some of the most militant elements."
Gelbard saw a pattern in both Albania and Bosnia where dictatorships and endemic corruption gave way to a political vacuum into which Islamic militancy flowed freely by nourishing local grievances and providing money. In Albania, he found a mosque funded by bin Laden, a travel agency for mujahideen to travel to Afghanistan for training and a bank specialising in jihadist money laundering. In typical style, Gelbard went straight to the Albanian government to urge immediate action. "We helped them develop a local intelligence structure and many of the terrorists were caught," he says.
But by September 1999, Gelbard had been called away to troubleshoot in another global hotspot – this time as ambassador to Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation that, like Bosnia and Albania, was also emerging from years of dictatorship and corruption.
FLYING INTO THE STEAMY, STILL HEAT OF JAKARTA, Gelbard couldn't shake the cold winds of the Balkans. "My experience in the Balkans was very much on my mind," he says. He'd already had CIA briefings pointing to jihadist inroads into Indonesia. "There were clear indications that al-Qaeda had established a beachhead. There were five or six different groups with connections, including a travel agency and a charity. And just like in Bosnia, the fundamentalists were funding programs."
Gelbard applied the template he'd arrived with – alert the local authorities, help them with intelligence and counter-terrorism, and start catching bad guys. At his first official meeting with the Indonesian Defence Minister, Juwono Sudarsono, Gelbard revealed the al-Qaeda-Hezbollah links and offered a briefing by US intelligence officers. The response was disconcerting. "He just looked at me. There was no reaction at all."
Gelbard tried again at a later meeting. This time Sudarsono was hostile. He said outright that he was "not interested" in such information. Gelbard was shocked. "I was upset by all of this because it ended all possibility of us being able to work with him on this."
Undeterred, Gelbard brought out a stream of ever more senior CIA, military and other US government officials to try to brief other Indonesian ministers, senior military officials and the police. But sometimes he couldn't even get appointments. "I got nowhere," he says. "It had absolutely no impact even though I was trying and trying and trying for more than a year."
Indonesia was necessarily preoccupied at the time with its struggle to establish parliamentary democracy after a 32-year military dictatorship. But Gelbard's message was also overshadowed by Indonesia's indignation over the loss of one of its provinces. East Timor was moving towards independence under the protection of the Australian-led UN peacekeeping force with US backing. Jakarta's power elite suspected the West wanted more breakaways. "I cannot overstate the impact East Timor had. It dramatically exacerbated suspicions of our motives even though they'd been the ones to mess up East Timor. I actually spoke to one minister who told me how the referendum must have been rigged because 80 per cent voted for independence. He told me that couldn't be true because the East Timorese loved the Indonesians. They thought we were using terrorism as a way to undermine them even more."
GROWING CONTROVERSY OVER HIS AGGRESSIVE STYLE further complicated Gelbard's entreaties. In a culture where direct confrontation is avoided even in political circles, but especially in diplomatic ones, the US ambassador openly criticised the corruption and unchecked violence of the Indonesian military and was fiercely protective of American business interests that had won sweetheart deals under the former Soeharto regime. He was accused of arrogance and meddling. The parliamentary speaker, Amien Rais, threatened to ask President Clinton personally to recall Gelbard.
Some diplomats were quietly supportive. "He says a lot of things that we agree with. He says the things nobody else wants to say – at least in public," one Western diplomat told The Washington Post at the time.
But long-time Indonesian specialists, including many in Australia, were appalled and accused Gelbard of using tactics better suited to drug barons and war lords than the nuanced world of Javanese politics. The Far Eastern Economic Review described Gelbard as an "ambassadorial pit bull". "The problem was how to determine how to be most effective," Gelbard says. "I certainly recognise my more direct style was not in keeping with the traditional way of doing business in Indonesia but I felt there was urgency to deal with these problems. Perhaps they didn't."
The Indonesians weren't the only ones with reservations. Gelbard's certainty that Indonesia was vulnerable to Islamist terrorism was also at odds with the Australian Government. Indonesian experts in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Office of National Assessments (ONA), had a quite different template for Indonesia, confident that Arab-style militancy would not take root in Indonesia. Former ONA analyst Dr David Wright-Neville, a Southeast Asian specialist, says the consensus among Canberra experts was that while militant Islam was one of the dynamics unleashed by the fall of Soeharto, it would blow it self out. "It was regarded as an alien phenomenon in a country suspicious of Arab extremism. I never met Gelbard, but the talk around the traps about him was that he held unreasonable views about a country he didn't understand anywhere near as well as we did," says Wright-Neville.
Australian intelligence was preoccupied with the drama of Australian military intervention in East Timor and Indonesia's historic transition to democracy. And an audit of regional trouble spots in the lead-up to Sydney's 2000 Olympics concluded that most conflicts were parochial and posed no wider terrorist threat. Gelbard's terrorism fears were dismissed as a sideshow.
We now know better. In 2000, al-Qaeda was closely co-operating with a secret Southeast Asian affiliate called Jemaah Islamiah. At least 200 Indonesians had received training in Afghanistan and operational cells had been established in Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore and Australia. A range of bombings was being considered against US, Israeli, British and Australian targets including inside Indonesia and Australia. Training camps had been established in Indonesia. Two of the 9/11 bombers met JI members in Malaysia. Some of al-Qaeda's most senior operatives had been to the region and bin Laden was considering moving his entire operation to Indonesia.
As a result, tantalising intelligence kept finding its way to Gelbard. Because he was not locked into the traditional "expert" view of Indonesia, and because he'd had first-hand experience with terrorism, he saw the information in a different light than the Australians who saw the same reports. It seems astonishing it had so little impact in Australia. In early 2000, Gelbard received reports that bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was the former head of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, had toured Aceh with Hambali, who was barely known in intelligence circles at the time. Even Gelbard was shaken. If true, it meant that al-Qaeda's most senior decision makers were on the ground in Indonesia. It signified that terror links into the archipelago might have matured faster than suspected.
GELBARD WOULD HAVE BEEN EVEN MORE ALARMED IF HE'D KNOWN AL-ZAWAHIRI was also travelling with Mohammad Atef, the military head of al-Qaeda, who was later killed when the US invaded Afghanistan. Unlike Australian intelligence reports, Al-Zawahiri and Atef concluded that conditions were ripe for al-Qaeda in Indonesia. At the same time, Gelbard was also receiving reports suggesting significant numbers of Indonesian were being trained with a Muslim terror group in the southern Philippines as well as at al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. "We were beginning to build elements of a shadowy group in Indonesia connected to al-Qaeda, which of course was Jemaah Islamiah. We didn't know its name at the time."
Then the bombs started going off. In August 2000, a car bomb exploded at the residence of the Philippines ambassador, just a block or so from Gelbard's residence. Two people were killed and the ambassador was seriously injured. The detonator was later recovered and proved to be the same as those found at the training camps in the southern Philippines. When another car bomb exploded near the Jakarta stock exchange, a similar detonator was again found.
Then, as Gelbard celebrated Christmas Eve in Jakarta, he heard in the distance the unmistakable boom that he first heard in Bolivia. Thirty-eight churches and priests were targeted in an unprecedented bombing campaign across Indonesia that left 19 people dead and 120 injured. Six days later, a series of bombs ripped through Manila killing 22 people. But Indonesian police blamed Aceh separatists and "the usual suspects [were] arrested and convicted. We knew with great certainty that the bombings had nothing to do with Aceh separatists."
Gelbard was also disturbed by a growing public manifestation of Islamic extremism. There was so-called "sweeping" of some hotels and nightclubs by Islamic fundamentalists who threatened Americans. One group issued a public declaration that its members would undertake combat training before going to kill Christians in the Malukus. These Indonesian groups were using the same web-master as other jihadist groups in the Middle East. At this point, Gelbard describes himself as someone who was "jumping up and down and waving my arms around" to try to get attention. "We could see what was going on. The Indonesians had a huge problem."
When he picked up reports of heavy surveillance of the US embassy, Gelbard requested extra security from the Indonesian Government. Not only was he rejected but he claims the Foreign Minister Alwi Shihab called a press conference in which he accused the US ambassador of overreacting to a few threatening phone calls. "I was stunned by his misrepresentation of what I had told him," says Gelbard.
The intelligence continued to firm with US security staff identifying a man watching the US embassy at 2am from elevated train lines opposite. The man was a Kuwaiti al-Qaeda operative named Omar al-Faruk. When al-Faruk was arrested in 2002 he admitted he was planning to bomb the US embassy in Jakarta. He had even drawn up diagrams of its security layout.
In the absence of help from the Indonesians, Gelbard contacted his bosses at the State Department. Nothing could have prepared him for their response. Stanley Roth, then Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, stated that he did not believe there was a threat. "Stanley Roth thought I was imagining all this. I couldn't get support. I was told by Roth on a secure telephone line that he disagreed with me about the threat. He was proud that he'd also convinced the most senior levels of the State Department that I was wrong."
IT IS DIFFICULT TO IMAGINE A MORE ISOLATED VOICE IN INDONESIA at the end of 2000 than that of Gelbard. But he was about to live up to his reputation as a pit bull. "I thought to myself, ‘I can't afford to play games here. I have responsibility for a large staff. If I can't get any support from Washington, then I could only think of one action.' I closed the embassy. It made them all very angry with me."
The embassy closed for two weeks. Soon after, Gelbard found himself back in Washington, his highly decorated career all but over. He would see out 2001 as ambassador which would include an abortive attempt to attack the US embassy by Omar al-Faruk's al-Qaeda hit team. But Gelbard's fate was sealed by enemies in the newly elected Bush administration. Gelbard was recalled a year early and retired shortly after.
In Canberra, Wright-Neville's colleagues believed Gelbard had become "hysterical." A senior ONA officer even told colleagues how he'd had a heated argument with the US ambassador at a dinner party in Jakarta about the threat of terrorism. (Gelbard remembers "an aggressive discussion with an ONA guy ... I seem to recall he didn't have the best understanding of the situation".)
"Gelbard didn't play the game," remembers Wright-Neville. "He had views outside the mainstream, particularly in Australia, where his views met a lot of resistance. They were too uncomfortable for us. I don't know what the intelligence was saying but I do know that if a piece of intelligence didn't support the dominant ideas then the experts would say the intelligence must be wrong. It's a very cloistered community, one in which people mutually reinforce each other, one in which there is too little questioning of assumptions."
WRIGHT-NEVILLE WAS ONE OF THOSE WHO WERE SCEPTICAL OF GELBARD. He was assigned to work on a joint CIA/ONA report on Islamist terrorism in South-East Asia in 2001, a task probably partly prompted by Gelbard's visit to Tenet the year before. The report would not profoundly challenge Canberra's prevailing consensus although working with his US counterparts changed Wright-Neville's perspective and he began to look more closely at the possibility of emerging terrorist threats. But there was a limit to how much time and effort Australian intelligence could spend outside its priority areas because of its almost farcical lack of resources. "The joke was that ONA's budget was less than that of the air force band," says Wright-Neville.
During 2001, the Federal Government was focused on people smuggling and asylum seekers, among whom it hinted there might be terrorists. In June that year, as Wright-Neville and one other junior officer were researching the terrorist risk from regional Islamists, Australia's then immigration minister, Philip Ruddock, flew into Jakarta to push for more effort from the Australian embassy on people smuggling. Federal Police, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, embassy, military and intelligence resources were all involved. There wasn't much left over for anything else. And there was no doubting the resolve of the Government, which would fight an election on the issue by the end of the year.
Even al-Qaeda's horrific September 11 attacks in the US didn't significantly alter prevailing mindsets that anti-Western terrorism wouldn't affect our region, according to Wright-Neville. It wasn't until Jemaah Islamiah's Singapore cell was finally arrested after planning to blow up Western and Israeli diplomatic missions in December 2001 that the alarm sounded. Wright-Neville now considered there was a serious threat from Islamist terrorists in Indonesia. He was also worried that the focus on people smuggling might mean Australia's limited intelligence assets in the region were missing too much.
But such was the strength of the old views that Wright-Neville, who became ONA's "terrorism guy" from September 12, soon found himself on the outside just like Gelbard. "There certainly was resistance to that view in some circles and trying to convince key managers across the intelligence, diplomatic and defense community to take the issue seriously was sometimes like banging your head against the wall". Wright-Neville left ONA in March 2002 as the organisation strove to unravel the true extent of the threat from JI.
David Farmer took over as its key terrorism analyst. He soon had similar complaints. He and other ONA analysts told a Senate committee examining the state of Australian intelligence prior to the Bali bombings that, at times, they were portrayed as zealots because of their growing conviction that JI was planning to strike Western interests in the region.
It was also revealed to the Senate committee that on four separate occasions after September 11, Farmer had named Bali as an attractive target to Islamist terrorists. He even did so in a meeting with Foreign Minister Alexander Downer in June 2002, four months before the bombings. But Farmer would confront the same inertia experienced by Gelbard – that without a "leap of conceptualisation ... the bureaucratic follow-through was zero".
The eloquent 9/11 Commission Report describes a "failure of imagination" in the US even though the "system was blinking red". The same could be said of Australia in the lead-up to Bali. "It's not the fault of one person or even one decision," says Wright-Neville about the long-term intelligence failure over JI. "It's what happens when you don't have enough resources and training. It's what happens when intelligence agencies are colonised by diplomacy. We [Australian intelligence] have to become more comfortable with challenging our assumptions. We have to listen to outsiders. And we have to learn to take a bolder line separate to what is being pushed by foreign affairs bureaucrats."
GELBARD, NOW AN INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS CONSULTANT, says he bears no grudges but remains full of regret for the unnecessary loss of life. "Australia's great concern was people smuggling and I certainly don't want to second guess that. I can understand the alarm the Government felt. Australia was just starting to come out of its isolation and it had limited resources. It doesn't surprise that they didn't get the terrorism threat because it just seemed so alien to them. And my own government with vastly more experience with terrorism didn't get it in Indonesia either. So no, I certainly won't be harsh on the Australians."
On October 12, 2002, nearly three years after Gelbard first tried to raise problems of international terrorism in our backyard, and was denigrated for his fervour, JI exploded three bombs at two popular tourist nightclubs in Bali, killing 202 people including 88 Australians. In September, 2004, it killed nine more in a car bombing outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta. JI remains a potent terrorist threat in the region. ♦