Subject: Bulletin: Secret Agent Plan

The Bulletin (Australia)

July 2, 2003


Eric Ellis reports on Australia's man in East Timor's intelligence service.

Bob Lowry knows his way around Indonesia. A retired Australian Army colonel, Lowry speaks Bahasa and Javanese, the latter the language of Jakarta's establishment, which for much of modern Indonesia's history has tended to be the military. In 1996, Allen & Unwin published his seminal Armed Forces of Indonesia. More recently, Gareth Evans hired Lowry to work out of Jakarta as an analyst for his Brussels-based think-tank, the International Crisis Group.

Unsurprising then, given Lowry's CV and both Dili and Canberra's history of relations with Jakarta, that Lowry has been entrusted with the task of creating order from the chaos that is East Timor's intelligence service or, more correctly, what passes for one. Lowry is in the midst of a year-long stint funded by the Department of Defence to set up East Timor's ASIO/ASIS hybrid. It's called the National Security Service of the State, answerable not to parliament but directly to East Timor's prime minister, Mari Alkatiri.

What passes for intelligence in the year-old state has so far been handled by the 1500-strong East Timor Defence Force, a bunch of mostly ex-Falintil guerillas, and the 3000-man police force, also heavy with former resistance fighters. Lowry's agency will override their current ­functions, amalgamating about five quasi-official bodies and myriad informal "bush telegraph-style" groups that helped undermine Jakarta's rule but still loosely operate.

Lowry's role is something of a diplomatic coup for Australia, which is in an undeclared battle with former colonial ruler Portugal and, increasingly, Jakarta for influence in Dili. Diplomats in Canberra worry that East Timor's lawlessness and lack of stable institutions could make it fertile ground for attacks on foreign targets by extremists such as those affiliated with al Qaeda and its Indonesia-based associate Jemaah Islamiyah, the group alleged to have carried out the Bali bombings last October.

As it fends off allegations it knew about Bali but was slow to warn Australians of the risk, Canberra ­ and indeed Dili ­ will ­doubtless welcome another avenue of influence in the fractious archipelago. Lowry is as good an operator as Canberra has to help put that in place.

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