Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
War talk: edited highlights from a conference on defence and terrorism.

Download WordDownload Word



This transcript has been prepared by a source external to the Department of the Parliamentary Library.


It may not have been checked against the broadcast or in any other way. Freedom from error, omissions or misunderstandings cannot be guaranteed.


For the purposes of quoting verbatim from a transcript, it is advisable to verify the transcript against the broadcast.




Background Briefing


Sunday 22 September 2002


Wendy Carlisle: Across our region, in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, authorities have been busily rounding up suspected Al Qaeda operatives and locking them up for our own good.

The FBI says Malaysia is a bin Laden stronghold. In Singapore the other day, 21 terrorist suspects were arrested for their part in a plot to blow up the Australian High Commission.

Hallo, I'm Wendy Carlisle. Today on Background Briefing we're bringing you the edited highlights of a conference held on the 1st anniversary of September 11. It brought together some of the most experienced and influential intelligence and defence analysts in the country.

Des Ball: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the Australian National University, and to this special one-day conference to review security developments since 11 September last year, and to consider the prospects for the war on terror, terrorists threats in South East Asia, and the strategic and security implications for Australia.

Wendy Carlisle: The conference was convened by the ANU's Defence and Strategic Studies Centre. Professor Ball's opening remarks were brief, but he did say that the winners and losers in the war against terror might not be those who win on the battlefields.

The first part of the conference was mainly taken up with the events in the Middle East.  

Clive Williams, who until just recently was Director of Security Intelligence in the Department of Defence, said that bin Laden's fatwah against the US really began in 1998. Since then there'd been a couple of successful strikes, like the one against the US Embassy in East Africa, but he also said there's been nine failed ones, prior to September 11.

Clive Williams: So what were they actually hoping to achieve from all of this? I think that what they really were after was to create a US response that would unify all Muslims. I don't think they were successful in that, but certainly what they have done is they have created a degree of popular support in the Muslim world which was greater than it was before 11th September. Clearly they wanted to show solidarity with the Palestinians, they wanted to protest at the US military presence in Saudi Arabia, and all of these things come out in bin Laden's speeches. They wanted to protest at the sanctions against Iraq, they wanted to show Muslims generally that the US could be hurt.

Wendy Carlisle: And what's left of Al Qaeda now? Clive Williams says they're running at about 70% of their former capacity, with many operatives quietly disappearing into other militant Islamic groups, especially in Pakistan.

And then he turned his thoughts to our region.

Clive Williams: I think in South East Asia to sort of move on more closer to our situation, I don't think any of the insurgencies or some countries would label them terrorism in our region, are actually directly threatening to us or the United States, but what they do do is they provide an environment which could perhaps be used to leverage by groups like Al Qaeda, and I think particularly that's the case in Indonesia, where Al Qaeda certainly would get a reasonably sympathetic hearing. I mean if you say that perhaps one in a thousand people in Indonesia is strongly supportive of Al Qaeda, if you work out the numbers, that's still 180,000 people, so it's an enormous support base potentially for them there. In my view certainly terrorism is not going to significantly decline. I think that everything is there to encourage the process to continue over a very long time.

Wendy Carlisle: Next up to the speakers' podium was veteran international relations specialist, Dr Coral Bell. One of her themes was that the United States is now the world's only super power, and that we now live in a 'uni-polar' world.

Coral Bell: Well on 9/11 last year, the US was the paramount power of an uni-polar world. On this first anniversary, it's still the paramount power of a uni-polar world, only now it's people are suffused with a sense of vulnerability that drives Washington's policies, especially on Iraq. Not because Iraq was a party to those attacks, nor because it's the source of the doctrine that motivates the Jihardists, but because it's thought of as the likeliest source of a weapon of mass destruction for Al Qaeda or its successors. The nightmare reasoning goes, if the Jihardists could kill 3,000 people with just four hijacked planes, they might kill 300,000 with a nuclear weapon loaded onto an old freighter which could slip into New York or San Francisco or any harbourside city, including ours.

Now I don't go along with that reasoning, in fact in my view I would argue that it's very much in Iraq's interests to keep weapons of mass destruction such as it has, out of Al Qaeda's hands because if one were in fact delivered to the US, it would certainly be the prime suspect at once, and there would be many US voices calling for Baghdad to be flattened.

I heard [Richard] Cheney the other day on the television saying that the Iraqis were still at the stage of trying to acquire for their nuclear program the special tubes that go into the centrifuge that makes the fissile material that is necessary for the weapons. Well if they're still back at that stage, then they are at least 2 or 3 years away from an actual deliverable weapon. So unless somebody actually gives them a nuclear weapon or a lot of fissile material (and I don't believe that people with nuclear weapons and fissile material actually give them away) the time urgency which is sometimes claimed for western military action against Iraq is not as great as it sometimes is purported to be, and so, as I say, I am actually at the moment in hopes of a relatively peaceful solution, at least for the next few years, for this problem.

Wendy Carlisle: Just south of Iraq is Saudi Arabia. Since Coral Bell spoke at the conference ten days ago, the Saudis have agreed to host US bases in the event of an attack on Iraq.

At the conference earlier this month, Dr Bell raised the question: What did the Saudis know about September 11 and when did they know it?

Coral Bell: For the first three months after 9/11 it was almost compulsory in the US to take a very charitable view of the Saudi connection with the events of 9/11, when for the past six months that policy has been steadily eroding under the weight of the evidence. I don't mean just the evidence that Osama himself was a Saudi, that 15 or the 19 hijackers were Saudis, that most of the Al Qaeda people moved to Guantanamo Bay have been Saudis, that the money going to Al Qaeda and the Taliban was mostly Saudi money, as was the money going to the madrasas and mosques which have cultivated radical Islamic militarism. All those factors have to be considered, but there was something even more sinister in some ways I think, for the Americans. From about July, 2001 until the actual attack in September, there had been a flurry of intelligence chatter as they call it, that something big was coming and that Osama bin Laden's fingerprints were all over it. Now inevitably, the Americans would have consulted the Saudi intelligence establishment and the rumour is that the Saudis were not co-operative. Now that rumour has been officially denied, but as they used to say in the Foreign Office, 'Never believe anything until it has been officially denied.'

Of course the people who are at present bringing a lawsuit, the relatives of the dead of 9/11 who are at present being a lawsuit not only against the Saudi government and the Saddam government, but against specific Saudi princes, some of whom have been very, very much connected with the Saudi intelligence establishment, that law case will keep the wound open, so to speak, in the alliance for years and years, you know how American law cases go. If real evidence is collected either by the lawyers for the people bringing the lawsuit, or by the FBI or CIA, or of investigative journalists, all of whom are working on this, that really, people highly placed in the Saudi establishment knew what was coming and said nothing. I think the alliance could probably never recover from that.

Crunch time I think for both Baghdad and Washington will be the final couple of weeks of November, after the Congressional elections, after Security Council debate, and after a Congressional resolution which will back Bush, which is almost certain. If there's a major land attack therefore, it would probably be in January or February. But I'm more inclined to think that the talk of pre-emptive strike might relate to something rather more like what the Israelis did in 1981, that is, an actual air strike on nuclear installations to take them out.

Wendy Carlisle: Whether or not the US will go in and attack suspected nuclear plants in Iraq no-one really knows at this point.

Dr Ron Huisken said the US should continue to engage with the rest of the world, and resist the urge to act alone. It is after all, the most powerful nation on earth and its leaders should take comfort in that.

Ron Huisken: One of the great skills of the statesman is the ability to present a potentially divisive reality (and unipolarity is exactly that) in ways that promote understanding and acceptance. This skill is not necessarily absent in Washington today; in my experience very few skills are ever absent in Washington. It would appear however, that in recent times the skill of the statesman is not been seen as a skill of great value or importance. A deeply ingrained capacity to self-correct ranks among the United States' greatest political strengths. And it goes a long way I think toward explaining why the world is so comfortable with a country that is more powerful with a country that is more powerful than any imaginable coalition of other states. Still America's allies and friends should never hesitate to assist the process of self-correction. As the United States surveys the global chessboard, it considers options and strategies alone, now might be a particularly good time to say so. And the thrust of such advice and counsel in my view might be to encourage the administration literally, to use an americanism, to 'lighten up'; to remind them that virtually everyone is on their side; that they have more allies and genuine friends at this point than I suspect any hegemon in history; to encourage them to continue to embrace the discipline of engagement with the rest of the world and to urge them to lead rather than slip deeper into the lonely belief that they have no choice but to impose.

Wendy Carlisle: Dr Ron Huisken from the Strategic Defence Study Centre.

The next speaker was Professor Amin Saikal, who heads up the Arab Studies program at the Australian National University. His brief was to talk about how the Muslim world had reacted to September 11.

Amin Saikal: At the official level all governments, except that of Iraqi ruler, Saddam Hussein, condemned terrorism and supported US moral authority in power to wage war against terror. The only other regime that placed a caveat in its stand was the Islamic Republic of Iran. It had all along opposed the Taliban, but now also cautioned the United States over its military involvement in Afghanistan, though without any move to create obstacles.

However, given the authoritarian nature of most regimes in the Moslem countries, this indicated little about the fact that public emotions below government levels, and they still are, running high in the domain of Islam. In a Gallup poll survey of public opinion carried out in the weeks following 11th September, in 19 Moslem countries, while 67% of respondents described 11th September events as morally unjustifiable, a majority of them also registered deep grievances against the West in general and the United States in particular. They in a way identified with bin Laden's cause by stressing that they did not think that the United States and the nations of the West have respect for Arabs or for Islamic culture or religion. 53% maintained an unfavourable view of the United States, and 58% expressed dislike for President George W. Bush.

Citizens all over the Moslem world found themselves squeezed to suffocation in one way or another between domestic repression and exogenous vilification. They felt anger over the way they had been forced to defend their religion and Islamic identity and despaired over the way the United States and its allies were claiming moral virtue irrespective of their often contradictory and self-serving behaviour towards Muslims. While disapproving of what had happened on 11th September and while maintaining that Islam was a religious of peace, tolerance and forgiveness, many could not understand how the United States and its allies could simply dismiss bin Laden and his operatives as terrorists without asking the main question: Why did he do it? From their perspective, neither bin Laden nor his operatives were uneducated lunatics. They acted not in a vacuum but in a context of historical and contemporary causes, which had motivated many Moslems to distrust and even resent the US government and some of its allies. They have remained frustrated that the question of why has found no meaningful space in the debate about 11th September in the West and the United States in particular.

Wendy Carlisle: Professor Saikal went on to elaborate on how the Palestinian issue is one of the keys to understanding the Moslem reaction.

Amin Saikal: Washington's urgency about the Palestinian issue waned as quickly as it had waxed. President Bush shocked the Palestinians and their Arab and Moslem supporters when he decided to give a free hand to the right wing Israeli Prime Minister Sharon to exploit the legitimacy of America's war against terror to intensify Israel's suppression of Palestinian resistance. And subsequently to put on hold the creation of an independent Palestinian State until such time as the Palestinians had a leadership palatable to Israel and the United States. President Bush's courting of Sharon as a man of peace caused outrage, not just among the Palestinians but across the domain of Islam.

Wendy Carlisle: The audience then put a couple of questions to Professor Saikal. He was asked what he thought might happen in the Arab world if the US did attack Iraq.

Amin Saikal: On the whole, the governments will be in a position to contain the rage of the masses against the United States. But what the government will not be able to do is to contain those radical Islamists who would be prepared to make more sacrifices, in which case the American interests and for that matter the interests of those allies of the United States which have come out and given unqualified support to the United States, and that includes Australia, will be in serious jeopardy throughout the Muslim world.

Wendy Carlisle: Another questioner wanted to know Professor Saikal's thoughts on who might replace Saddam Hussein if the Americans knocked him off.

Amin Saikal: The United States still does not have a viable alternative to Saddam Hussein. And it is an enormous worry that what may happen on the morning after, because what has united the Iraqi National Congress as the opposition, is really two things: one is their common opposition to Saddam Hussein, and the other is that they are under enormous pressure from the United States. But once Saddam Hussein's regime is overthrown, there is nothing to keep these guys together. The focus of their unity will evaporate. And they may well turn their guns on one another and at the same time there are various other forces at work inside Iraq. Even among the Kurds in the north, you have got two major groups. You've got the Talibany group, you've got the Balzony group. The Talibany group has historically had very close ties with the Iranians although recently he has signed an agreement of creating a united front with the Balzony group with the help of the Americans. But these guys have been fighting one another for a long time, it really goes back to clan animosities, family animosities, tribal animosities and all these sorts of things. I think for the Americans to get their act together inside Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein is not going to be as easy as it was in the case of Afghanistan. In the case of Afghanistan at least you had the so-called Northern Alliance, or the United Front.

Wendy Carlisle: And then the questions turned to money, Arab money, and there's lot of it. Professor Saikal said that already in Lebanon, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, people have stopped buying Coke and Big Macs and sales have fallen by more than 80%. And there's more to come.

Amin Saikal: But perhaps the most dangerous sign so far has been the withdrawal of funds from the United States by private sources from the Arab world. I think over the last three weeks, something like $200-billion were withdrawn from the United States and have been transferred, not to the Middle East, but to Europe, and mainly to France and Germany and Italy. No wonder President Chirac and Chancellor Schroeder are very keen not to be identified with the American gung-ho approach to the whole thing. This advice, by the way, was also given to Alexander Downer. 'Look, you know, we might be able to be the beneficiary of that; $100-billion of it could be diverted towards Australia if you can just cool down your rhetoric a little bit.' Well, I don't think that's had any effect, and I would imagine if the situation gets worse, more Arab funds would be withdrawn from the United States.

Wendy Carlisle: At this point the discussion turned to the region. Over the last year there have been many media and intelligence reports of South East Asia being the second front on the war against terror. That just over the horizon Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda terrorist cells are planning their next campaign. It's a view that Indonesia watchers like Dr Greg Fealy regard with scepticism.

Greg Fealy: Various Indonesians, or alleged Indonesian terrorists were accused of being Asia's Osama bin Laden; elaborates accounts were published of supposed training camps in jungles and various islands off Indonesia. And also maps were drawn, a shadowy network spanning across the region and into Central Asia and the Middle East. We have it on no less an authority than some of the Ministers in our own government that Indonesia had a serious terrorism problem, John Howard saying at one point that he knew that Indonesia had terrorist bases. This came as news to many of his officials, and more than a few Indonesians, who should be in a position to know.

But a point that I'd like to stress here is that we need to be very cautious in assessing the magnitude and the dynamics of this terrorism problem in Indonesia. Partly because terrorism has become entangled in local politics and diplomacy. Both the Indonesian military, particularly the intelligence community, and also Islamic groups themselves have vested interests in manipulating the issue. Following the 11th September attack, we have had a number of cases of this. The most obvious is the case of the so-called Posso Al Qaeda training camps. Posso is an area in central Sulawesi and the head of the State Intelligence Agency in Indonesia, the appropriately named 'BIN', or the name of the organisation is Hendra Priono, a former Major-General, and he declared to the press on 13th December last year that these bases existed, that they had evidence that up to 200 to 300 foreigners had trained there. He was later forced to recant after there was a torrent of abuse from Moslem organisations but also after many of his Cabinet colleagues directly contradicted his information about the nature of the evidence of foreigners at those bases. And he later admitted that he had beaten the issue up in order to provide a warning for the citizens of Central Sulawesi to be wary of the presence of foreigners, particularly foreigners becoming involved in religious conflict between Muslims and Christians in that province.

He also referred to US satellite imagery, and this is back up by US officials, satellite imagery which proved that the bases were being used by foreigners. And I'm told that imagery was very much contested by both Australian analysts and also British and other European analysts. They thought it was far from conclusive. It may have shown a base, but it gave us no indication of who was using it. And that was the attitude of Hendro Priono's colleagues as well. We know there's a base there, but it's most likely, all the evidence points to it being used by local groups, not being used by foreigners.

Another couple of points to make about this is that the US seems to have been a party to this exaggeration and this misinformation. US Bush Administration officials continue to brief US journalists about the existence of this camp, continually citing the evidence, the imagery, as it if was incontrovertible, when clearly it wasn't, when clearly a lot of their allies dispute the interpretation of that evidence.

Wendy Carlisle: In his speech, Dr Fealy conceded that there are some individuals in Indonesia who are terrorists. But the question is, how organised are they?

Greg Fealy: Basically these fall into two categories. The first is Indonesian citizens who are engaged in terrorism, and there are six that stand out: Abu Baka Bashir, Humbali, Mohammed Iqbal, Fatagrafman, el Cosi, Agus Rukana and Palindung Ansirigar. The second category is that of foreigners based in Indonesia, but seemingly engaged in terrorist-related activity. The first is that to date, to my knowledge, no cells, no terrorist cells had been uncovered in Indonesia.

Wendy Carlisle: In his final remarks Dr Fealy turned to the idea that a new Islamic State is necessarily something to be feared.

Greg Fealy: When you see for example, in the media, they think Abu Baka Bashir wants to form an Islamic State between Muslim countries in South East Asia, Malaysia, Indonesia and Southern Philippines. Horror! Well what's wrong with someone putting forward that idea? We should not necessarily take the proposing of an Islamic State in South East Asia as a heinous crime in itself. It's an idea, it's a concept, it's an ideal that those people have. So if you were to arrest someone on that basis, or if you were to stamp them as a terrorist simply because they propose that, well then that's kind the kind of thing which I think has counterproductive effects. The Singaporeans I suspect would love to hit at people for putting forward precisely those kinds of ideas. Really, the line in the sand should be if they say that we achieve that objective by violent means, that's the point at which they become a terrorist, that's the point at which you act against them. But if they want to publish books talking about the constitution of a South East Asian Islamic States, fine, let them do it. If it's an ideal they want to struggle for, if they can get majority support for it in several countries, well let it happen.

And I think this notion Bush had about Islam is a religion of peace, it's a centralised notion that Islam is this or Islam is that. Just as Christianity is this, or Christianity is that, in reality there are various traditions within Islam and you can discern two major traditions. There's quietism on the one hand and militancy on the other and much depends on the conditions that people find themselves in, in any one point in time. So if you say that Islam is only a religion of peace, it doesn't really explain why so many Muslims are committed to militant causes. If you say that given certain conditions, if we oppress a majority Muslim population or if we emiserate them, well then they will react in a militant way, that would be a far more constructive contribution to the debate. Because from there you could say If we continue to support Israel in this way, and that affects these perceptions these perceptions within Islamic communities, well then, it may not necessarily be a religion of peace, it may well become a militant religion just as you find all sorts of other religions in the same situation, responding in the same way.

Wendy Carlisle: The next speaker took the focus to Malaysia. Dr John Funston is from the Department of Asian Studies at the ANU and a specialist in defence and strategic issues. He says that to understand the claims the Islamic militant terrorists are operating in Malaysia, you first have to appreciate the nuances of Malaysian politics.

John Funston: Earlier this year, Newsweek citing FBI sources, described Malaysia as a Bin Laden stronghold and a primary operational launch pad for September 11. Several other US media reports at that time, including The Washington Post, Time, and others, described Malaysia as a hotbed of Muslim militants, organised in the Jemma Islamiah, which they also described as being an Al Qaeda branch. Well Malaysian leaders have rejected this kind of analysis. They argue that there is a serious local and regional threat from Muslim extremists. Some of them may have received training from Taliban or Al Qaeda; Mahathir mentioned on one occasion that as many as 50 might have. And Osama bin Laden might have inspired them to overthrow the Malaysian government, but that there were no Al Qaeda cells in Malaysia.

That's the general views of both the US, the Malaysians and much of the international media. There's less disagreement about how Malaysia has responded to this sort of problem, in particular, the way that Prime Minister Mahathir has handled it, and the related phenomenon of September 11. For example, the Australian journalist Greg Sheridan has on several occasions argued that Dr Mahathir has handled the Islamic problems better than any other leader in the region. And indeed as a result of September 11 I think one could say that Dr Mahathir has been substantially rehabilitated in the eyes of the media. When he recently announced retirement he's been almost universally acclaimed in the international media as a man who built Malaysia up from a backwater and has protected it from racial communalists and Muslim extremists. A model Islamic moderate. Well my own views on this are going to be somewhat more sceptical.

Wendy Carlisle: At this point, Dr Funston discussed some of the evidence following claims that Islamic militant terrorists are on the rise in the South East Asian region.

John Funston: The key evidence of Malaysia is a reported videotape which was taped by the Malaysian Special Branch at US request, of a meeting between two Al Qaeda operatives involved in September 11 and a Malaysian by the name of Yasid Suffa. There are also claims about Yasid having provided guarantees for another Al Qaeda operative to obtain a US visa. I have a little bit of caution this, because to my knowledge this video's never been shown, and I've also read quite a detailed refutation of these charges by Yasid. He claims that he met with two amputees visiting Malaysia for protheses, and that was the limit of his involvement. It could be argued of course that he would say that, but it's a very detailed refutation that he's made, it's 16 or 17 pages, and it has an internal coherence that just makes me pause and hesitate to accept that the US and the Malaysian case is exactly as it claims to be.

Wendy Carlisle: In his speech, Dr Funston said that the Malaysian Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir, may not be the model Islamic moderate he's hailed to be. He's been arresting people under the Internal Security Act, the ISA, which allows detention without trial.

John Funston: Since June 2001, Malaysia has arrested 63 so-called Islamic extremists, allegedly planning to overthrow the government by the use of force. And that's been pretty much uncritically accepted by the international media as proof that Islamic militants exist in Malaysia. And let me suggest three reasons why we should be very cautious about this.

The first, virtually all the information has been obtained from interrogation under the Internal Security Act, which certainly uses at least intense psychological, if not physical coercion. And the ISA in Malaysia has very frequently, particularly since the fallout from September '98 in Malaysia, the sacking of the Deputy Prime Minister at the time, his bashing by the Head of Police on the first night, and the subsequent turmoil that that caused, the ISA has frequently been used for political purposes.

A second reason for being cautious about this evidence is that Malaysian authorities have very strong reasons to play up any alleged terrorist threat. Internationally it's helped Dr Mahathir gain a much-coveted invitation to Washington and new international respectability.

Wendy Carlisle: Dr Funston pointed out that Malaysia is already a country divided by race and religion. 45% of the population is non-Muslim, and there's also a substantial Chinese minority. He said Prime Minister Mahathir is now comparing his main political opponents in the Party of Islam, or PAS, with the Taliban.

John Funston: Domestically, it's helped to reinforce non-Malay, non[Muslim fears about Islam, about 45% of the population in Malaysia are non-Muslims. And that has seen them turn back to support the government and away from the opposition of which Party Islam, PAS, is the strongest party. It's also given the government a major opportunity to attack PAS, frequently airing info-commercials on TV equating PAS with the Taliban. Before one of the recent by-elections there was a 90-second info commercial played at the news time each day for a couple of weeks in which a Taliban soldier was beheading an Afghan woman. And that was played over the background of PAS activities and so on, implying that this was the sort of party that PAS was.

Wendy Carlisle: And Dr Mahathir is a clever political leader, taking every opportunity to steal the political ground from his opponents.

John Funston: At one level of course it's involved the arrest of the 63 that I've mentioned, increased restrictions of freedom of speech, assembly, and so on for Party Islam and other opposition groups. But more significantly, Dr Mahathir has chosen to respond by attempting to outbid PAS. On 29th September last year, Dr Mahathir declared Malaysia an Islamic State, leaving ambiguity about the secular nature of the constitution. And his supporters quickly moved n to give substance to this. For example, an Information Department booklet published which defined an Islamic State in a way that quite clearly reduced the rights of non-Muslims. That was eventually withdrawn, but several other publications maintained a similar line. Road names were changed away from the names of former Chinese leaders to Islamic names. At the most recent AMNO General Assembly, Dr Mahathir said that Malaysia was not only an Islamic State, but an Islamic fundamentalist State. Now it's quite true of course that there's an element of playing on words in the way that Dr Mahathir is using these sorts f terms, and quite deliberately so. But they do provide an opening for others to pick up. And Dr Mahathir himself has increasingly sought to present himself as not just a political leader but an Islamic leader. One of the leading religious figures in AMNO proclaimed that Dr Mahathir was the most pious Muslim in Malaysia. Dr Mahathir came out in support of flogging for people found guilty of incest quite recently. And after one of his overseas visits recently, a choir sang a song representing him as a Caliph, a traditional Islamic and political and religious leader. Internationally of course he's also sought to project himself as a leader of the Islamic world. That's something that has had a lot of difficulties, balancing on the one hand trying to keep the US on side, and trying to keep the local Muslims on side. Just to give you one example, an OIC meeting in March, Dr Mahathir opened it, and in that said that Palestinian suicide bombers should also be considered terrorists. This was widely welcomed by the US, by international media commentators, but not by Muslims in Malaysia, and four days later, Dr Mahathir said Yes, Palestinian suicide bombers should be considered terrorists, but they should be considered legitimate terrorists.

Wendy Carlisle: John Funstone them turned his attention to Singapore. In recent days 21 suspected terrorists have been arrested over a plot to blow up the Australian High Commission. Singapore authorities say these people are members of an extremist group called Jemmah Islamiyah, or JI, which is connected to Al Qaeda.

Speaking ten days ago, Dr Funston said claims that Al Qaeda is operating out of Singapore need to be viewed with caution.

John Funston: Now that there was some sort of plot linked at least in a loose way with Al Qaeda, seems impossible to deny. How well organised or serious these plans were is something that's a bit more difficult to make a judgement on, I think. Certainly when one reads the Singaporean accounts, the Muslim extremists involved seemed to have been at the very least extremely incompetent in the way that they went about these things. And one wonders really just how seriously organised that they were. Nor however is there much other evidence about other claims by Singapore, claims for example that they foiled plots to crash a plane into Changi, and to sink US ships in the harbour. And in particular claims that Singapore has made that the JI was a co-ordinated, Al Qaeda linked organisation aimed at uniting all Islamic countries and regions in South East Asia.

As with Malaysia, one has to be a bit wary about official claims because of the fact again this information has been provided from information given by ISA detainees and for different reasons but in similar ways, Singapore benefits internationally and domestically, by highlighting Islamic threats.

Not all the information from Singapore also has proved reliable. The Straits Times at one stage reported that it had obtained a 15-page JI planning document on terror activities in the region from Indonesian intelligence. There does not seem to be any evidence that there was such a document. Managing the threat in Singapore? With only 15% of the population Muslim, Singapore doesn't have the sort of management problems that Malaysia has, the ISA detention already serves as a strong warning that the government will act severely, pre-emptively against any Muslims who don't make the best effort to fit into multicultural Singapore. And they've supported this of course with a very strong media campaign, even taking it to the extent of taking a strong stand against forbidding Muslim schoolgirls attending school in a head scarf, a fairly tough line to take under the present circumstances.

Just some very brief final comments: in both Malaysia and Singapore there certainly is some evidence of Islamic terrorism; it's part of a broader regional picture, it's part of a broader scene of Islamic activities in the region. Islamic preachers have for years roamed around the region, governments have supported Islamic insurgent groups in neighbouring countries. There's been this movement around the region for quite some time. What's not at all clear and indeed seems unlikely at this stage, is that these sort of activities are Al Qaeda directed, or that they include a coherent and organised regional plan to establish a new Islamic State.

Wendy Carlisle: The final speaker was Professor Paul Dibb, former Deputy Director of the Defence Intelligence Organisation, and now head of the Strategic Defence Study Centre at the ANU. He said the decision to place Australia's defence forces alongside US campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq is weakening our ability to focus on our own region. Our defence forces just don't have the resources for these kind of long-range expeditions, and we're spread too thin.

Paul Dibb: We face an old strategic agenda in Asia, which I'm going to walk you through, and we face an arc of instability to our north and east, and we need to focus on that, not exclusively structuring the defence force, the long-range expeditionary operations alongside the United States.

If you look then at Australia's strategic environment, and you remember the priorities that were in the December 2000, Defence White Paper, which let me remind you, were first, the defence of Australia; second, the immediate neighbourhood. By which the White Paper meant Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the islands of the South Pacific, New Zealand; thirdly, the broader South East Asia region beyond Indonesia; fourthly, North East Asia.

The Minister in the speech he gave at the Defence College some weeks ago had the following to say about that conceptualisation. He's talking again about our deployments overseas in Afghanistan and elsewhere and what he called the globalisation of security. And he says 'Now more than ever before, security is indivisible. Threats transcend borders and cannot be met by any one country acting alone.' True. 'For Australia it demonstrates again that defence of Australia and its interests does not stop at the edge of the air-sea gap. It probably never made sense to conceptualise our security interests as a series of diminishing concentric circles around our coastline, but it certainly does not do so now.'

Well as you know there was quite a reaction to that, and I think that with respect to the Minister, who is a highly intelligent, well-read man, his drafters have confused Australia's defence interests with how you structure the defence force. We have interests in trade with Patagonia, but we don't develop a navy to protect the sea lines of communication across the South Pacific.

Wendy Carlisle: Professor Dibb then spoke about what might happen if terrorists used a weapon of mass destruction against the United States.

Paul Dibb: A week after September 11th last year, when I came back from Geneva, I had lunch with Chris Barry, the then Chief of the Defence Force, and he asked me, a week after the event, 'Paul, how do you think our American ally would react if a terrorist organisation uses a weapon of mass destruction?' And I had no easy answer because it's outside of our knowledge, it's outside of our parameters of understanding. When some of my academic friends, when I discuss this with them, they come back to me and say, 'But how would America define the target?' Well my response to that is, in America's current mood I would use the phrase that a former Secretary of Defence used to use to me when I was being over intellectual on the matter, 'You're being logical, stupid. They'll find a target.'

Wendy Carlisle: Professor Dibb believes the South East Asian neighbourhood is increasingly unstable, and now more than ever we have to focus on our own region.

Paul Dibb: The White Paper said about the defence of Australia, (remember this was written in December last year) 'At its most basic, Australia's strategic policy aims to prevent or defeat any armed attack on Australia. This is the bedrock of our security and the most fundamental responsibility of government.' Now you can argue, and a lot of people will argue, that there is no foreseeable threat to Australia for the next - you pick a figure, 10 or 15 or more years. That has been the case since at least the Second World War that successive governments of whatever political persuasion have put the defence of Australia first for two reasons: One, we don't live in a benign strategic neighbourhood; two, the Australian people strongly believe that the defence of Australia comes first; and thirdly, it helps you to define tough-minded force structure priorities.

The difference between Australia and countries like New Zealand, Canada, and even the United Kingdom these days, is that they all have a benign non-threatening strategic environment. Think about it. You know New Zealand has the threat from the islands of the South Pacific and the penguins of Antarctica. Canada has the threat from the United States and the Arctic. And the United Kingdom has the threat across the channel I presume from the European Union. Britain for the first time in hundreds of years, probably since 1066, now faces no threat of major power war in Europe.

The arc of instability that I talked about arguably since the White Paper was written, has become more unstable. It is not more stable. Indonesia, the world's fourth largest country, 212-million people, nominally the largest Muslim country, is going through an extremely challenging progression from an authoritarian military government to some form of its own political participation. You notice I do not use that Western word, democracy. But you have to say that things could go wrong. And if it did go wrong, it's on our northern doorstep.

Secondly with East Timor we have a fragile, newly-independent country, which will expect our economic assistance and protection for the foreseeable future.

Thirdly, with Papua-New Guinea, a country that we given $350-million a year to in aid, a country that is close in my view, to a failed State, and I say that with no joy to those of us who used to often visit that country. But it's a country wrecked by violence, corruption, and you can imagine contingencies where we have to either evacuate Australian citizens and/or go in at the request of the democratically-elected government to quell a military mutiny. Indeed in 1988 or '89 we were on standby at the request of the Papua-New Guinea government to do exactly that.

And then we have the islands of the South Pacific where you have already a failed State called the Solomons, Fiji, which has had a series of military coups since 1987, Vanuatu, where recently the mobile force arrested the Police Commissioner I think, and so on. And when we go to North East Asia and South Asia where the big players are, China, Japan, the Koreas, Taiwan, India and Pakistan, we have another difference with Europe. In the Europe the idea of major war is now an obsolete idea, for the first time in hundreds of years. Major war in Europe is not going to happen. Major war in Asia is not an obsolete idea. The Korean Peninsula, the Taiwan Straits, and as we've seen this year, India and Pakistan all are three contingencies, realistic ones. And at least two of those we would be involved.

So we need to be careful when we junk the idea of concentric circles; we need to be careful when we imply that the neighbourhood is benign, and we need to be careful when we don't pay due attention to demands that may be made on us both in the neighbourhood for lower to medium level contingencies, and in North East Asia for higher level operations.

Wendy Carlisle: Background Briefing's Co-ordinating Producer is Linda McGinness. Technical production, Russell Stapleton. Executive Producer is Kirsten Garrett. I'm Wendy Carlisle, and you're listening to ABC Radio National.