The release of Australian hostage Warren Rodwell after being held hostage for the past 15 months has provided a lucky ending to hostage-taking in the southern Philippines. In a region that has had perhaps the world's most consistently high kidnapping rate for the past couple of decades, it is an especially rare outcome for a kidnapping allegedly by the Abu Sayyaf Group.
The ASG is notorious for executing its hostages if ransoms are not paid quickly. That Rodwell has been released with a payment believed to be less than 5% of the original demand of $2 million suggests that while he was indeed kidnapped, it was not by the ASG as claimed.
On Saturday morning, Rodwell was put in a boat near the town of Pagadian City and told to "paddle for your life" following the payment of what is believed to have been a little more than A$90,000. While the ASG claims an Islamist rationale and has engaged in bombings and other terrorist attacks in the Philippines, its principle method of operation has been kidnappings for ransom.
The ASG has developed a fearsome reputation for executing hostages, often by beheading, if ransoms are not paid quickly in full. This has led some counter-terrorism experts to suggest that either the ASG has "gone soft" or, more likely, the group that kidnapped Rodwell was not ASG.
"A lot of us agree that something about this whole affair does not sit right," one CT expert said shortly after Rodwell's "proof of life" video last December. He said at that time that if Rodwell were released, "he would be one of the longest foreigners ever held captive by the ASG, for the least amount of money in their sordid history".
It was noted at that time Rodwell looked relatively well, clean-shaven and did not have a gun at his head, which had been used in videos of other ASG hostages.
The Zamboanga peninsula on the island of Mindanao has for a couple of decades had a reputation as consistently the worst place for kidnapping in the world. As well as three armed separatist organisations operating in the region -- ASG, the MNLF and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front -- there are also elements of the communist New Peoples' Army and numerous freelance kidnapping gangs, all of which have competed with each other to kidnap people most likely able to pay ransom.
The ASG does not generally operate on mainland Mindanao but in the Sulu Archipelago. That Rodwell was released in an area well outside of the ASG's operational zone indicates it is likely he was abducted by a smaller kidnap gang which claimed that it was ASG in order to stimulate action on the part of parties that might consider paying a ransom for his release.
But even if Rodwell was not kidnapped by the ASG, he was lucky to have had a deal struck on his behalf to be freed. While the ASG's name may have been taken in vain, the region remains intensely dangerous, with foreigners in particular being victims of choice for kidnappers, with outcomes that are often less successful than Rodwell's.
We will never know, now, what inspired Ben Zygier to become a spy. His death, probably by suicide but who will ever really know, has put an end to that.
Plenty of red-blooded individuals who have watched one spy movie too many or been intrigued by a Le Carre novel have fantasised about becoming a spy, in much the same way that soldiers joined the army in the Great War in search of adventure; they had little or no idea what they were getting into.
Zygier chose to become an Israeli citizen in the mid-1990s, and to apply to Israel's principle intelligence agency Mossad in 2004. By the time he had completed training, he would have been aware of the less glamorous reality that occupied about 99% of intelligence.
Being an intelligence agent is overwhelmingly about gathering information, usually from quite pedestrian sources, or analysing that information. Occasionally there is scope for obtaining secret information, but that comprises a very small piece in the intelligence jigsaw puzzle.
There is also a small operational branch of most intelligence agencies, who engage in hostage rescue or, very rarely, covert attacks. These agents are commonly former special forces soldiers or special operations police. There is limited overlap between operational agents and information gathering agents.
Fairfax's ex-Middle East correspondent Jason Koutsoukis reveals more fascinating details today. Zygier's first significant assignment was to infiltrate a company with links in countries that were hostile to Israel. As with much intelligence gathering, it was relatively dull work. Being a good spy, however, requires focused attention to even the dullest detail, which is where the occasional gems of information might lie.
But Zygier lacked that focus and the greater purpose of his role. He was sacked from his public position and recalled by Mossad to a desk job. That was where fantasy and reality collided.
Wanting to return to field work, Zygier initiated an unauthorised plan to gather information from a Hezbollah operative. As is convention, he had to establish his own bona fides and, in doing so, became the pawn in the more experienced Hezbollah operative's game. Zygier gave away extremely valuable information, in exchange for nothing. Two Mossad informants in Hezbollah was subsequently arrested and jailed. The only surprise there is that they were not summarily executed.
Regardless of his intentions, Zygier had crossed an un-crossable line; he had made a mistake from which one does not recover. That he was also jailed was testament to Mossad's essential internal fairness. Many other organisations would simply have made Zygier "disappear". In any case, Zygier faced an extended jail term, a bleak future in Israel and the end of whatever dreams he might have had.
There is, then, little motive for Zygier's death to have been other than self-inflicted. But if it was otherwise that, too, would be of little surprise. Clearly there was little sense of loss by Zygier's guards at his death.
The lesson in this, if one was needed, is that intelligence work, while critically necessary, is often dull, poorly rewarded, with little glamour and usually no action. People who want to become spies are usually the least suited to the task.
The best spies are quiet, nerdy detail-freaks who have little appetite for drama or action and who are usually tapped on the shoulder, rather than volunteering. Zygier did not fit this mould and, for this poor fit, he ultimately ended up dead.
Australia’s relationship with Timor-Leste has been an inconsistent one but, despite some partisan positioning, has considerably improved since the events within Timor-Leste in 2006. In particular, as Timor-Leste’s close neighbour and largest development aid provider, Australia looms large in Timor-Leste’s international orientation.
Because of the relative size and potential capacity to influence, Australia’s decisions can sometimes have, or be seen to have, disproportionate effect within Timor-Leste. Responses from within Timor-Leste, either directly or indirectly, can in turn sometimes be disproportionate by way sub-consciously redressing that perceived imbalance. This has, in the past, led to some difficulties in the bilateral relationship, if of a largely symbolic kind.
However, formal relations between the two countries have remained strong and there is a growing maturity in the relationship on both sides, reflected in a greater mutual appreciation of each other’s interests, perspectives and needs.
Importantly, too, because Australia was home to a significant proportion of the solidarity movement that supported independence for Timor-Leste during the period of occupation and because Timor-Leste has since been the home to arguably Australia’s strongest community to community network (‘Friendship’ network), there remains a remarkably close and often detailed relationship between many Australians and many Timorese. Moreover, since 1975 (and perhaps before), Timor-Leste has resonated deeply among a large proportion of the Australian population, arguably in a way that no other place has done. 14 years after Timor-Leste voted for independence and 11 years after it was formally achieved, Timor-Leste continues to occupy a place in the Australian public imagination much larger than its actual size or objective importance (considerably though that is) would imply.
Australia formally has a strong commitment to helping ensure stability and security in Timor-Leste, as demonstrated by Australia’s substantial aid program and its recent history of commitment to the International Stabilisation Force and in other areas.
From Timor-Leste’s perspective, it is a small and strategically vulnerable state that finds its principle security not in any specific relationship but in engaging as much as possible with the wider global community, in particular through multilateral fora. Timor-Leste does enjoy strong relations with a number of specific countries, including (not in order) Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Portugal, Brazil, China, the US and Japan. These relations are of varying direct importance, but each sits within a constellation of relationships that allows Timor-Leste to seek support in differing and sometimes not mutually advantageous quarters. The benefit of this strategy is that it allows Timor-Leste a degree of independence that might otherwise be compromised by excessively close relations with any one country (or strategically aligned cluster of countries). Australia should not be concerned with this strategy, but rather understand Timor-Leste’s desire for a wide range of friendships and actively support that.
More importantly, however, for Timor-Leste, is that it seeks to involve itself in multi-lateral institutions, notably the UN in the first instance, but is also making considerable efforts to become accepted into ASEAN, in which it has some supporters (including Indonesia, but not Singapore) and which will probably eventually accede to this request. Timor-Leste should continue to also be supported for its multilateral engagement, both for its longer term international engagement and such opportunities that might bring, and in particular to secure its long term security among a multitude of states rather than with particular states.
In particular, while Australia and Timor-Leste enjoy good and maturing relations, there are a number of steps that the Australian government could take in order to further enhance the depth and strength of that relationship.
1.The Australian government should give strong consideration to officially recognising, through a motion passed in Parliament, the role played and the substantial sacrifices made by the people of Timor-Leste in supporting Australian military forces in the defence of Australia in 1942. Further to this point, it should give full consideration to re-naming Australian scholarships to Timor-Leste students in recognition of the role played by the people of Timor-Leste as a continuing reminder of the historical and close relations that exists between the two countries (e.g. ‘Sparrow-Creado Scholarships’ or similar).
2. The Australian Government should negotiate in good faith and under the terms of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea with the Government of Timor-Leste over any future discussion over the sea boundary between the two countries. While there are competing claims as to whether UNCLOS I (mid-point between shorelines) or UNCLOS III (edge of continental shelf) should apply, to the extent that there might be disagreement, Australia should submit itself and comply with the rulings of the International Court of Justice. Any such negotiation or adjudication should remain consciously quarantined from the wider bilateral relationship between the two countries.
3. The Australian government should commit to continuing the current levels and extent of its aid program to Timor-Leste. Australia’s aid program to Timor-Leste remains critical to that country’s future stability and development, and it is in Australia’s ‘enlightened self-interest’ to continue to support Timor-Leste at current levels of aid, as a good neighbour, a good international citizen and because a stable and developing Timor-Leste as a neighbour is in Australia’s regional interest. In particular, Australia should continue to cooperate closely with the government of Timor-Leste and other aid providers to ensure that aid matches Timor-Leste’s development strategy and goals, and is coordinated with other aid providers to ensure minimal overlap.
While sustainability and ‘grass roots’ participation are givens in the broader development paradigm, it is critical that these two factors be front and centre of Australia’s development assistance. Grass roots or ‘bottom up’ development is necessary to ensure that the benefits of aid programs reach the people it is intended to assist and responds appropriately to their lives needs. Sustainable development is necessary to ensure that aid that is delivered is able to continue to provide benefits to its recipients after the aid provider has departed, and does not replace and then abandon previously sustainable systems (e.g. water supply, agriculture).
4. Encourage and support Australian businesses to invest in Timor-Leste, especially in employment creation industries such as agriculture and tourism. Australia has an opportunity to invest in Timor-Leste in future growth areas, in specific areas of industry and in tourism. Australia’s aid program should assist the government of Timor-Leste with standardising and simplifying investment procedures and to offer security through consistent and equal rule of contract law to help ensure that such investments are not subject to the vagaries of bureaucratic and legal application.
5. Support and extend Timor-Leste Seasonal Workers and training programs in Australia. At the time of writing, Australia had agreed in principle to extend its guest workers program to Timor-Leste. This program has the benefit of providing labor to sectors of Australian industry (e.g. agriculture) in which there is little interest in Australia, while making available to Timor-Leste the benefit of remittances which make a direct benefit to their local communities. This project should be developed and extended to ensure that there are no areas of Australian industry, especially seasonal industry, that are left wanting for labor at peak times .
6. Encouragement and support for community to community relations between Australia and Timor-Leste, through Friendship groups, service organisations (e.g. Rotary), church groups, educational/school tours and other people to people relations. Australian community organisations with close links to Timor-Leste operate independently of government, often achieving very substantial results and helping to build close bilateral relations in a way that would be the envy of most other bilateral programs. However, from time to time their programs would benefit from the availability of government assistance, for example with conferences and community meetings. To this end, community groups should be formally recognised as contributing to the bilateral relationship and provision made for them to be able to seek AusAID or related assistance from time to time for specific and clearly defined purposes.
7. There has been discussion of a formal Australia-Indonesia defence alliance, which is unlikely for mutual domestic political reasons. However, a closer strategic arrangement could be reached in cooperation with Timor-Leste as a third partner. Despite their problematic history, Timor-Leste has been moving towards closerlinks with Indonesia, in particular through training of the Timor-Leste police (PNTL) with Indonesian police (Polri), and the development of military-to-military links with Indonesia, including proposed military training. Given the potentially problematic domestic orientation of Timor-Leste’s military (F-FDTL), Australia’s strategic interest in ensuring that Timor-Leste remains stable in the post-UN period could be enhanced by refocusing F-FDTL externally through a tripartite security agreement/treaty between Australia, Indonesia and Timor-Leste. In particular, extending officer training programs for Indonesia and Timor-Leste defence personnel would both assist their professionalisation and enhance both links and cross-cultural understandings between the defence forces of the three states.
The civil war in Syria looks to be entering a new and potentially more dangerous phase, with the alleged use of chemical weapons both escalating the conflict and making foreign intervention more likely. During his visit to Israel, US President Barack Obama said confirmation that chemical weapons had been used in Syria would be a "game changer".
Dozens of people have been reportedly killed in the city of Aleppo following what is believed to have been a gas attack. When news of the attack first broke, the Syrian government immediately blamed Syrian rebels for the use of chemical weapons. The rebels quickly denied responsibility, saying they had no access to such weapons and had no suitable weapons delivery systems. Obama said he was sceptical of the Syrian government's claim that the chemical weapons had been used by the rebels.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called for an investigation into the use of the gas as a weapon in Syria. Obama said: "When you start seeing weapons that can cause potential devastation and mass casualties and you let that genie out of the bottle, then you are looking at potentially even more horrific scenes than we've already seen in Syria."
Obama is now under increasing domestic pressure from both sides of US politics to intervene in the Syrian conflict. He has so far avoided intervention in the hope the war would be resolved through negotiation; however, he said the use of chemical weapons could trigger intervention.
The UK has already started to supply gas masks to Syria’s rebel fighters, along with other humanitarian aid.
If the US intervenes, it is expected to be under the rubric of the "Responsibility to Protect" policy (R2P). Under R2P, states have a responsibility to intervene in domestic conflicts when a government cannot protect its people from, or engages in, war crimes, crimes against humanity or other mass human rights abuses. There are several levels of invoking R2P, only the last of which is military intervention. Ordinarily, R2P requires the approval of the UN Security Council. However, Russia and China have both made clear they will not allow the Security Council to invoke R2P on this issue.
Obama is highly unlikely to opt for unilateral on-ground military intervention, given the US is still assessing the cost of being bogged down in Iraq and then Afghanistan. However, there is some possibility he could authorise selective air strikes against chemical weapons sights and related targets, or reach agreement with other NATO states to allow such strikes.
This would probably be less than NATO's barrage of air strikes in Kosovo in 1999, which ended Serbian occupation, and probably less than the air support for anti-Muammar Gaddafi forces in Libya in 2011. In particular, the US would be particularly concerned not to provoke Russia into also intervening, thus turning the Syrian civil war into a war by proxy between major powers.
The US is also concerned to eliminate chemical weapons from a post-Bashar al-Assad strategic equation. It fears if the Assad regime falls, weapons could fall into the hands of the radical Islamist groups that are carrying much of the anti-Assad effort. This, too, may prompt the use of air strikes.
Along with other Western states, the US wants to see an end to the Syrian conflict. But few want to see the rise of a militant Islamist state, especially one that demonstrably has access to "weapons of mass destruction".
The four-day visit to Australia by Burmese President Thein Sein, the first by a Burmese leader since the country descended into self-imposed isolation in 1974, marks the increasing international acceptability of the once outcast state. Thein Sein's arrival in Australia on Sunday reciprocates a visit by Foreign Minister Bob Carr to Myanmar (formerly Burma) last year.
Thein Sein's visit to Australia reflects the quickening pace of deepening relations between Australia and Myanmar and Australia's support for Myanmar's reform process, including increased aid to more than $100 million over the next three years. Thein Sein met with US President Barack Obama last November, marking the beginning of a rapid thaw in Myanmar's international relations and the ending of its international status as a pariah state.
Protesters in Australia have called on the Australian government to press the Burmese leader over continuing human rights concerns in Myanmar. These include continuing abuses by the military and police and two ethnic-based wars, in the northern Kachin State and Shan State. There has also been widespread international concern over attacks against ethnic Muslim Rohingyas in the western Rakhine State starting late last year, in which up to 2000 people are believed to have been killed and more than 80,000 displaced.
Thein Sein, a former general, was hand-picked for the presidency by hard-line predecessor General Than Shwe. Than Shwe is alleged to have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, including directing the violent crackdown against protesters, led by Buddhist monks, in 2007. It has become increasingly apparent Than Shwe handed power to Thein Sein to slowly transition the country towards a form of democracy. The exchange for this political transition was that senior military leaders would be protected from prosecution and the often substantial business interests of their families would remain unaffected.
Since assuming the leadership in 2011, Thein Sein has released political prisoners, relaxed media censorship and allowed the pro-democratic National League for Democracy, headed by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, to compete in byelections, ahead of an open political competition in 2015.
The NLD recently held internal elections for candidates for the 2015 elections. Assuming the elections proceed without interference, it is widely expected the NLD will win a substantial majority. Thein Sein said last year he would be willing to hand over political power if the NLD achieved a parliamentary majority and Suu Kyi were elected president.
The Burmese leader's visit to Australia coincides with the launch of the Australia Myanmar Institute in Melbourne today. The AMI, a project between Deakin and Melbourne universities, is intended to develop a greater flow of information between Australia and Myanmar and to promote Myanmar's reform process.
Participants at the inaugural "Progress, Opportunities and Concerns in Myanmar's Transition" conference include two former Australian ambassadors to Myanmar, medical, legal and educational specialists, academics and businesses.
If you had to guess the number one spot for terrorism worldwide, what would you guess? Afghanistan?
According to a new document from the defence and security intelligence and analysis group IHS Janes, first prize for terrorist attacks belongs to Syria. Putting aside the pedantic untidiness of who the terrorists actually were, Syria certainly suffered a lot of grief over 2012, with 2670 attacks, more than 10 times the number of attacks in 2011. No aspect of the war there is going well.
There would be a reasonable expectation that, putting aside this definitional anomaly, Afghanistan would slot securely in at number two, given the war still rages there. But the number of terrorist attacks in Iraq has increased 10% to 2296 following the conclusion of the war.
As more than a few pundits have observed, if the war in Iraq was a success, you’d hate to see a failure. Coming second in motorcycle racing is referred to as being "first of the losers", which seems particularly apposite in this context.
In a recent conversation with a foreign affairs colleague who was a survivor of one of the Afghanistan attacks, I suggested that Pakistan was really the centre of the anti-Taliban war now, rather than Afghanistan. The terrorist attack figures in Pakistan bear that out, with 2206 attacks, also up around 10% on 2011. Pakistan is a seriously dangerous place, and not one to be visiting any time soon for a holiday.
Try as Afghanistan (or some people there) might, it did not make the podium, in part due to an overall decline in attacks, from 1821 to a much more modest 1313. One might assume that this reflects the success of the International Security Assistance Force strategy there and the ultimate defeat of the Taliban. Or one might be a little more realistic and assume that the Taliban is dropping the tempo of its attacks until after the ISAF withdraws next year, at which time it will return in full force.
India is a surprise inclusion at fifth place, with almost three times as many attacks as Somalia in sixth, just ahead of Israel, which also suffered an increased number of attacks, in seventh place. Israel only just outpaced Thailand, which comes close to averaging an attack a day. Almost all of these attacks are in the troubled Muslim south.
What the HIS Janes figures show is that, if there really is a "war on terrorism", it has not been particularly successful. Overwhelmingly, things got worse, globally, rather than better.
If there is a positive side to any of this, at least very few terrorist attacks occurred in developed Western countries, which is where we live. We are safe, so long as we are careful about where we travel, for the time being.
Timor-Leste is a country born of a keen awareness of its security needs and aspirations. In the period of transition from Portuguese rule, the country and its people descended into a brief but bloody civil war, then almost immediately faced incursions from across the western border. Its people underwent 24 devastating years of occupation and resistance, emerging to confront a new security threat – that of a country largely destroyed. Timor-Leste has built since then, but again faced an internal security crisis as some of our citizens and institutions of state, still unready for full self-responsibility, took Timor-Leste back to the edge. It has since come out of that process having learned and grown.
Timor-Leste now has two security focuses:
Hot on the heels of the revelation that Sri Lankan soldiers murdered the 12-year-old son of Tamil Tiger leader Prabhakaran in cold blood and last week’s shooting of a journalist in Colombo, the International Crisis Group has released a report deploring what it calls Sri Lanka’s "authoritarian turn". The ICG report calls for international action to halt the Sri Lankan government's erosion of democracy and its recent "constitutional coup".
The ICG report says that the Sri Lankan government has made no meaningful progress on accountability for war crimes that occurred during the conclusion of its war against the Tamil Tigers in 2009. "Instead," it said, the Sri Lankan government "has accelerated the country’s authoritarian turn, with attacks on the judiciary and political dissent that threaten long-term stability and peace".
Although it is a minor diplomatic affront to Australia, it was unsurprising that Senator Nick Xenophon was deported from Malaysia yesterday. Most regional governments rarely tolerate criticism of how they exercise political power. Being kicked out of a regional country -- or, worse, facing court -- has been, for some regional critics, a relatively common experience.
Xenophon was detained and deported as a "security risk" under the Immigration Act and this status follows the sweeping logic of Malaysia’s Internal Security Act (ISA). The ISA is a grab-all law, introduced by the colonial British to repress any form of dissent.
Xenophon’s identification as a "security risk" reflects the high degree of concern that Malaysia’s ruling Barisan Nasional (BN -- National Front) government has over the coming Malaysian elections. The elections are scheduled to be held by June 27.
Australia's relationship with East Timor is at risk as the deadline looms on a hotly disputed and lucrative liquid natural gas project -- with no resolution in sight.
West Australian-based Woodside Petroleum has until February 23 to reach an agreement with the government of East Timor over the site of processing LNG or else the arrangement between the two is likely to be stopped. This would then trigger the cancellation of Australia’s sea boundary agreements with East Timor.
At this late stage it's unlikely Woodside will change its long-held position and accede to East Timor's demand that the LNG be processed on East Timor’s south coast. Woodside's preferred option is a floating processing platform at the Greater Sunrise LNG field in the Timor Sea.