Sydney Morning Herald – Australian intelligence agencies had numerous reports about imminent terrorist operations but misread the signs and failed to predict the 2002 Bali attacks. The final of a two-part Herald series on targeting terrorism found that although Australians have been told repeatedly that no “specific” intelligence on Bali was available before October 12, dozens of reports by ASIO and the Office of National Assessments (ONA) warned of rising agitation in the region.
However, the intelligence agencies did not pass on just how detailed the internal warnings had become and the accompanying sense of foreboding.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade warned tourists of the “high” risk of travelling in South-East Asia throughout 2002 and the advisories were regularly updated. But Bali was never singled out, on the basis of sheer tourist numbers alone, for a separate threat assessment.
Dennis Richardson, director general of the nation’s top domestic security organisation, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, told a Senate inquiry investigating travel warnings before the Kuta attacks: “There is, I think, a tendency for us all to forget the self evident truth that you cannot look forward with certainty . . . only backwards . . . ”
The foiling by Singaporean authorities of a Jemaah Islamiah plot to explode truck bombs outside Western embassies and military installations on December 8, 2001 was the seed for the Bali bombings. Days later, Hambali, aka Riduan Isamuddin – Osama bin Laden’s then-Asian terrorism envoy – met JI figures in Johor, Malaysia to, continue the attacks.
Australian intelligence must have been aware of the developments through the United States, which had alerted the Singaporeans after finding a video in an al-Qaeda house in Afghanistan of targets filmed by JI .
Mohammed Mansour Jabarah, a Kuwaiti student with Canadian citizenship and impeccable links to al-Qaeda leadership, was present along with Hambali. Jabarah later told US interrogators that Hambali put forward a new strategy “to conduct small bombings in bars, cafes or nightclubs frequented by Westerners in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia”.
As details of the JI links to al-Qaeda poured into Canberra, ONA’s chief, Kim Jones, organised a critical briefing for the Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, on June 18 and 19, 2002. Mr Downer asked if there were targets in the region JI might hit.
ONA’s Indonesian specialist, David Farmer, isolated Bali, Riau and Singapore. Specifically, Mr Downer was told, “international hotels, nightclubs and airlines/airports were assessed as being high on terrorists’ target lists”.
Two weeks later, ASIO warned that “neither Jakarta nor Bali could be considered exempt from attack”.