With the bombing of the J.W. Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, it seems the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah has left its mark again -- and shown once more how Southeast Asia is now a major battleground in the war against terror. Next to al-Qaeda, JI is the world's most dangerous terrorist group. It's responsible for the Bali bombing last October that killed 202 people and is widely suspected to be responsible for the Marriott bombing, which killed 14. The Indonesian police suspect JI of at least a half dozen other bombings across the vast Indonesian archipelago, and warn of more attacks to come.
Testimony given by captured JI members, along with evidence discovered in Afghanistan, has established a direct link between JI and al Qaeda. According to JI members, al Qaeda provided funding for the Bali bombing. Both groups also share similar ideologies, espousing a pan-Islamic state and working to destroy Western interests wherever they find them.
Southeast Asia is a near-perfect region for these groups to hide and recruit. Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world, its government is corrupt, and its police force is undermanned, underfunded and overburdened. It's surrounded by Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei and the Philippines -- all countries with substantial Muslim populations and JI cells.
Since international terrorists are operating in Southeast Asia, it's high time that the United States and Australia refocused their strategy on the region. Although more antiterrorist operations elsewhere in the world have been conducted by the military, almost all of the terrorists captured in Southeast Asia so far have been detained by local police. Only in the Philippines, where the terrorists have insurgent armies and defined territories, has the military played any significant role in combating terrorism. Even then, says one Philippine official, the police still capture 80% of the terrorists who are detained in the Philippines.
That's because local police are, by their very nature, more appropriate agents for tracking down the type of terrorists that exist in Southeast Asia. With the exception of the Philippines, none of the terrorist groups is fighting from jungle hideouts. Rather, JI operates underground, hiding among the people in the cities and rural schools. Tracking down JI requires the same kind of investigative skills needed to unearth any organized criminal group.
Unfortunately, the U.S. government faces significant obstacles in training and cooperating with foreign police. The biggest restriction is Section 660 to the Foreign Assistance Act, which prohibits the use of U.S. government foreign-assistance funds for training police and in related programs. In the late 1960s and 1970s, America was spending $60 million a year to train police in 34 countries, but the U.S. Congress became concerned about a lack of policy guidance and that some of the training was supporting repressive regimes, particularly in Latin America. Since then, safeguards and procedures for vetting candidates for training have been put into place, but Section 660 is still law.
Over the years Congress has recognized this prohibition is too broad and granted some exemptions, but this policy of making piecemeal exceptions has fractured and distorted U.S. efforts to support foreign police forces. As one Justice Department official told me recently, "To develop policies and programs under a prohibition is impossible. We have to ask Congress for an exception to every change in circumstances."
Section 660 also discourages accountability and leadership. Currently, at least five separate U.S. agencies -- the Justice, Defense, State, Treasury and Transportation departments -- have some kind of exempted foreign-police training program. No one agency has been singled out to lead or coordinate the efforts. Consequently, much of the training is duplicated or inappropriate for the police in a particular country.
It's possible a more coordinated policy could have prevented the Marriott bombing. Last month the Indonesian police arrested several JI operatives with a quarter ton of TNT and plans that suggested JI intended to attack the Marriott Hotel area in Jakarta. According to U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia Ralph Boyce, the Indonesian police failed to share that information with the U.S. Embassy prior to the bombing.
Having a legal attaché or "legat" attached to the embassy would have helped. A legat is an FBI special agent whose mission is to link U.S. law enforcement with local police to better ensure the safety of Americans both in the U.S. and overseas. There are legats at 45 U.S. Embassies worldwide, but none in Indonesia -- a grave oversight.
Given Indonesia's huge Muslim population, weak government institutions and track record as a hotbed for terrorism, it's likely that a more coordinated policy of developing contacts with foreign police would have led the U.S. Justice Department, with input from the State Department, to assign a legat to Indonesia. And if there had been such a legat at the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta with a working relationship with the Indonesian police, he would have been likely to have known of the Indonesian police information and could have recommended measures that might have prevented the bombing of the Marriott.
There are, of course, no guarantees that a legat would definitely have prevented that tragedy, but the lack of one underscores the problems with police development and antiterrorist strategy in Southeast Asia. In order to correct these shortfalls, the U.S. government needs to take immediate action. Section 660 of the Foreign Assistance Act should be repealed and U.S. President George W. Bush should issue a presidential decision directive that makes one agency, preferably the State Department, responsible for coordinating the work of all U.S. government agencies when it comes to developing ties with foreign police forces.
The U.S. government must identify JI as a clear and present danger to American interests and refocus its strategy in Southeast Asia on destroying JI and its affiliated organizations. Anything less will only invite more bombings, like last week's attack on the Marriott -- or something even worse.
Dana Dillon is a senior policy analyst in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.
Appeared in the Asian Wall Street Journal