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Singapore Arrests Turn Terror Focus on East Asia - 2002-01-15


Authorities in Singapore continue to tighten security following the arrest of 13 people suspected of planning terrorist attacks against targets belonging to the United States and other countries. The arrests in Singapore have focused attention on the extent of the terrorist threat in East Asia.

The effects of the arrests continue to reverberate in tiny Singapore, as well as in neighboring Malaysia, where authorities released new information about bomb-making material brought into the country by suspected al-Qaida terrorists.

Since December, the Malaysian government has arrested 15 suspected members of a group with alleged ties to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network.

Malaysia's deputy prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, said authorities have information indicating individuals in Malaysia had stored four tons of ammonium nitrate - which can be used to make bombs.

Singapore's transport minister, Yeo Cheow Tong, used a speech in Japan to announce new security measures at airports and seaports. Among steps taken - X-ray and other screening of all check-in and carry-on baggage, and tightened security at offshore oil and chemical terminals.

The arrests in Singapore, and the foiling of one or more potential attacks there, were made possible by the discovery of video tapes and other information found in former Taleban houses in Afghanistan.

Security experts and analysts say there are important lessons to learn from events in Singapore. One such expert is Larry Johnson, who says the terrorist suspects in Singapore appear to have under-estimated what they could achieve in such a tightly-controlled society.

"The fact that they selected a place like Singapore, which is probably the most inhospitable country in the world for terrorism, that they would try to operate there, it's almost as if they had their own death wish," he said. "I think there is no doubt these folks were planning and intending to try to do something, but the fact that they really did not understand the country they were operating in, I take some comfort that they were not terribly effective."

Mr. Johnson says exchange of information is crucial to heading off possible terrorist attacks. Referring to the Philippines, he says there were early warnings of trouble from the government in Manila, in the form of requests to the United States for help.

"The government of the Philippines repeatedly asked the United States, in 1999 and 2000, for assistance in dealing with the threat posed by Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. And their requests were routinely turned down," he said. "So it was not so much the local country not willing to cooperate, but in the past the United States was unwilling to cooperate. That has changed now, and that is good."

The Philippine government announced Tuesday that 650 U.S. troops, including about 150 Special Forces, will joint government troops as part of the increased U.S. support for anti-terrorist actions aimed at the Abu Sayyaf guerrilla group.

John Pike is director of Global Security.org, a security firm based in Virginia. He says the world now knows that the al-Qaida terrorist network had global reach, so events in Singapore should not have come as a surprise.

"I don't think anybody should be surprised by the possibility of attacks on American presence in Singapore," he said. "This is one area where the American military presence has significantly expanded over the past five years. The American military and the American government more generally have presence in any number of countries around the world and Singapore is certainly one place where you would have to be worried about such an attack, although obviously it is far from the only place."

Mr. Pike says governments in East Asia have reason to be concerned about potential terrorist attacks on their soil. While there is no sure way to prevent such incidents, maximum cooperation is critical.

"Working with local governments to help them understand the seriousness of the problem," he said. "Also, taking a look at likely targets and trying to improve the security of those targets making it much more difficult for them to be successfully attacked, all of those are going to be key components of the American strategy over the next several years."

Meanwhile, in Australia officials described as "extremely worrying" a video, obtained by Australian television (ABC) showing al-Qaida militants in Afghanistan rehearing terrorist attacks.

Australian television (ABC) said U.S. defense officials are analyzing the tape, but the Pentagon had no immediate comment. Security experts say the tape, like the one that led to the Singapore arrests, will yield valuable information that could help avert further attacks.

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