U.S. officials are warning of possible terrorist attacks in Southeast Asia two days after car bombings in Saudi Arabia killed more than 30 people. Malaysian officials have criticized the warning although some experts in the region say it is justified.
Malaysian officials Thursday accused the U.S. government of creating fear around the world by issuing travel warnings saying that certain countries may be threatened with terrorist attacks.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar told Reuters news agency that such warnings are often exaggerated and create fear and uncertainty that is uncalled for.
He was commenting on a warning by the U.S. State Department that Americans should avoid travel to the eastern coast of Malaysia's Sabah state on Borneo island. The warning says the Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayaf groups, both of which have been linked to the al-Qaida terrorist network, may be operating in Sabah.
The warning comes despite the fact that Malaysia in the past 18 months has arrested 80 alleged sympathizers of Jemaah Islamiyah and a Philippine military offensive has considerably weakened the Abu Sayyaf.
A professor of Asian studies at Australia's Griffiths University, William Case, says anti-Western sentiment in the region has risen because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But he says Malaysia is one of the countries in the region best prepared to prevent terrorist attacks. "Malaysia, despite the fact that this Islamic resurgence there seems to be undergoing something of a revitalization just now and, given recent world developments, Islamic sentiments seem to be very strong, nonetheless it appears to me that Malaysia is not the main threat in the region," he said.
Professor Case says greater threats lie in the Philippines and Indonesia, where the security forces are less well organized.
He also says Islamist groups are finding it easier to attract adherents because of an economic downturn that has been aggravated by the war in Iraq and the terrorist threat. "Across the region, we're going to find an intensification of these kinds of militant sentiments and these kinds of terrorism activities," said Dr. Case. "And it's truly global in nature, but it seems to have found a very vital repository here in Southeast Asia."
Dr. Case notes that this kind of violence dates back many decades. He says what has changed is the spectacular nature of the attacks, as seen last year in Bali, and the fact that western governments are now taking a much greater interest in this type of violence.