Put out of business
By Cameron Stewart
21 August 2004
IT is the quiet war fought on Australia's doorstep - an operation so cloaked in mystery that Labor Senate leader John Faulkner has described it as "the untold story of people smuggling".
"We don't know what went on, who did it, who was accountable and what the Government knew about it," Faulkner says. He is talking about the most invisible plank of the Howard Government's border protection regime -- the behind-the-lines operation by Australia's spies and the Australian Federal Police to destroy people-smuggling rings inside Indonesia and stop asylum-seeker boats from setting sail for Australia. It is a tale the Howard Government has never fully told, partly because of diplomatic and legal implications and partly because it would expose the operations of Australian Secret Intelligence Service officers in a foreign country.
Now, on the third anniversary of the Tampa crisis, an investigation by Inquirer has uncovered new details of what ASIS and the AFP have done to help stop the flow of almost all boats to Australia. Using hi-tech electronic intercepts, a network of informers and a fear campaign in remote fishing villages, Australian agents passed key intelligence to Indonesian National Police that led to the collapse of the most notorious people-smuggling networks inside Indonesia.
The operation played a key but largely unheralded role in abruptly ending the flow of any sizeable asylum-seeker vessels to Australia since December 2001. Government officials estimate the operation has prevented the arrival of up to 7000 asylum-seekers.
But according to intelligence and police sources familiar with the operation, Australian agents had to dance close to the devil to slay it. To infiltrate and expose the smuggler networks, sources say AFP agents offered cash to men closely connected to known people-smugglers in return for information on the Mr Bigs of the trade. Australian spies are also said to have provided phones to those with links to people-smugglers, then monitored those phones to identify ringleaders and prevent boat departures.
Sources strongly deny allegations that the AFP and ASIS acted unethically in shutting down people-smuggler networks, but one concedes both agencies "sailed close to wind" in Indonesia, adopting the theory that the ends justified the means in crippling people smugglers.
"The AFP routinely got very close to some of the people smugglers," an Australian official who read intelligence reports of the operation tells Inquirer. "The Australians on the ground in Indonesia paid cash to [those with close links to] people smugglers in return for information about rival people smugglers. They used this information to help collapse the networks. Australian agents also gave them phones and then we monitored the use of those phones."
These tactics were part of a broader psychological campaign by Australian agencies targeting fishing villages along the Indonesian coast to deter locals from co-operating with people smugglers. Fishermen were told they would be eaten by sharks, abandoned on leaky boats and face extended jail terms alongside violent Australian prisoners if they co-operated with people smugglers.
The decision to use the AFP -- and later ASIS -- to attack the people smugglers inside Indonesia was hatched in mid-2000 amid mounting concern in Canberra over unauthorised boat arrivals, which had brought 3274 asylum-seekers to Australia the previous year.
In July 2000, the AFP established a joint people-smuggling team of 10 Australian officers in partnership with five officers of the immigration department and immediately began cultivating a network of paid informants in Indonesia working along the fringes of the people-smuggling trade. Then, in September 2000, the AFP entered into special protocol with the INP to specifically target people-smuggling syndicates inside Indonesia.
The protocol was a coup for the AFP, given that people smuggling was not a crime under Indonesian law or a high-profile law enforcement issue in Jakarta. Under the deal, the AFP -- which has no law enforcement power in foreign countries -- would gather intelligence and pass it on to the INP.
The AFP, which had teams of up to 10 officers in Indonesia devoted to the task, also provided communications equipment and training to the INP on how to break the smuggler networks.
Neither Canberra nor Jakarta has fully explained exactly how the police stopped boats from leaving Indonesia. In the absence of fact, rumour has flourished, including unsubstantiated claims that the INP sabotaged fully-laden vessels -- possibly including Siev X, which sank en route to Australia in October 2001, drowning 353 men, women and children.
AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty says operational and legal concerns constrain what he can say publicly about the operation, but in July 2002 he told a Senate committee: "[An example of] a disruption activity would be to prevent the passengers from getting to the point of embarkation or, if we knew who the people smuggler was, to have the Indonesian National Police arrest the organiser or in other ways disrupt the gathering of people prior to the vessel departing."
Australian officials during this period also conducted an aggressive grassroots campaign throughout the fishing villages of southern Java to deny people smugglers the crews they needed for their vessels. Flanked by translators and members of Indonesian fishing associations, Australian embassy officials held town-hall meetings in front of hundreds of locals, warning of the dangers of crewing people-smuggler boats.
"We went and told them that they [people smugglers] were out there recruiting and that if you join them you will be caught," one Australian involved in the operation says. "'Don't become a victim' was the catchphrase."
But it wasn't an easy message to sell. "They were hard men and they'd had a hard life. We could tell that any appeal to do the right thing wasn't likely to work alone -- it had to be more blunt, it had to be about the fact that they would be locked up for a long time," the official recalls. To reinforce the message, the Australians handed out T-shirts depicting a rich Arab smoking a cigar alongside a forlorn-looking Indonesian fisherman in jail. "We also had a video of a people smuggler in jail in Alice Springs who was saying: 'Don't do this, I miss my family, I missed my mother's funeral."'
In one case, the source says, Australian officials even implied that physical violence awaited them by making "allusions to big strong Australian prisoners and small Indonesian prisoners". "Over time we made our pitch increasingly to the families of the men," says one officer. "We would tell the mum he may be jailed for five years and how would that be."
The Australians also impressed on the crews the dangers of making the crossing to Australia in rickety boats.
But in June 2001, with the flow of boats to Australia continuing, the Government moved to beef up its disruption operation. The AFP and the INP had already established five special investigation units to combat the people-smuggling syndicates and Keelty would later claim that during this period the disruption operation had directly prevented 3800 asylum-seekers from sailing to Australia.
But when the then immigration minister Philip Ruddock visited the Australian embassy in Jakarta in June 2001, he asked what more could be done about disrupting people smugglers. Such was Ruddock's enthusiasm that the AFP's chief liaison officer at the embassy, Leigh Dixon, is said to have felt the need to outline to Ruddock the legal and ethical limits of the AFP's disruption operation.
When the Tampa crisis began to unfold in late August 2001, the Government decided it was time to play hardball. On August 28, the Government charged ASIS with the task of conducting a parallel but separate war against people smugglers in Indonesia. Unlike the AFP, ASIS could operate "under the radar", almost totally free of scrutiny. But then disaster struck -- at the worst possible moment, the disruption program was derailed by politics.
On September 12, 2001 -- with the world still reeling from the terror attacks in the US the previous day -- a senior INP officer called the AFP's Dixon to say that the protocol between the AFP and the INP to fight people smugglers had been suspended. The decision had been made by Indonesia's Department of Foreign Affairs, DEPLU, which claimed the joint AFP-INP disruption operation needed a more formal government-to-government agreement.
Was DEPLU punishing Australia for other perceived diplomatic slights -- such as criticism of its stand on East Timor and its handling of people smugglers -- or was it concerned about what was taking place under the disruption program? Neither the AFP nor the Australian Government found out because DEPLU never offered an explanation.
What happened next was a triumph of pragmatism over diplomacy. The AFP simply continued its war on people smugglers regardless of DEPLU and on September 17, 2001, Keelty flew to Indonesia to talk to the INP directly.
The visit was a success. The joint operation continued informally but its focus had been nonetheless weakened by DEPLU's actions. Keelty later admitted that it took months to nurse it back to full strength and the protocol was restored formally only in June 2002.
Tragically, those weeks and months after its suspension would cover the span of the 2001 federal election campaign and the departure of the notorious "children overboard" Siev 4 and the doomed Siev X.
The AFP's control over the disruption operation was also limited by the fact that it had no formal authority over the actions of the INP.
"The AFP, in tasking the INP to do anything that would disrupt the movement of people smugglers, has never asked -- nor would it ask -- them to do anything illegal," Keelty says. "The difficulty is that once we ask them to do it, we have to largely leave it in their hands as to how best they do it."
This has fuelled speculation about the legality and ethics of some of the disruption tactics employed to prevent boat departures. In 2002, a paid AFP informant, Kevin Enniss, told the Nine Network he hired people to sink asylum-seeker boats close to shore as part of the disruption program. The AFP strongly denied his claims.
But Labor's Faulkner remains suspicious and has led the Senate's call for an independent judicial inquiry into the disruption program, including the explosive question of whether Siev X might have been sabotaged as part of the disruption operation.
"At no stage do I want to break, or will I break, the protocols in relation to operational matters involving ASIS or the AFP," Faulkner told parliament. "But those protocols were not meant as a direct or an indirect licence to kill."
In their book Dark Victory, David Marr and Marian Wilkinson quote a source who claimed that ASIS's role in Indonesia did involve the physical interference with people-smuggling boats while they were in port.
And this month former diplomat Tony Kevin, in his new book on the sinking of Siev X, A Certain Maritime Incident, goes further, implying that the people smuggler who organised the Siev X voyage, Abu Quassey, may have been a sting agent of the Indonesian police.
The Government has strongly denied any involvement -- directly or indirectly -- in the sabotage of boats in Indonesia.
One official who has read classified reports of the disruption operations tells Inquirer he saw no evidence of unethical conduct by Australian agents.
The unsubstantiated allegations of dirty tricks have exasperated the AFP, which sees them as grave slur on what it says was a successful, legal and ethical law enforcement operation to combat people smugglers.
By April 2002, the effects of the AFP-INP and ASIS disruption operations was becoming increasingly evident. Three of the six principal agents in the people-smuggling trade had been put out of business while the others were keeping a low profile. The disruption operation has led to the arrest of at least five people-smuggler ringleaders since 2000, including Abu Quassey. Those alleged ringleaders arrested include Hasan Ayoub, Khaleed Shnayf Daoed, Keis Asfoor and Ali Al Jenabi.
The last big vessel to depart Indonesia for Australia set sail in December 2001.
"It has been a tough road," says one source. "But the outcome has been good. The aim was to stop the boats from coming. They no longer come."
photo captions: Tragedy: Clockwise from top left, Siev X smuggler Abu Quassey; rescuing Siev 4 asylum seekers; Siev X survivor Sondos Ismail; sisters Zhra, Eman and Fatimah Al-Zalime, who drowned in Siev X sinking; and Siev X survivor [sic] Mohammad Alghazzi with his family, who drowned.