Korean officials warn terrorist attack ‘highly likely’ at APEC
The ongoing “war on terror” is often seen as a war between the West and Islamic fundamentalist groups from the Middle East. However, South Korean intelligence experts say the war on terror may become a larger part of East Asian lives in November, when the APEC meeting in Busan could possibly become the region’s first target for an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist attack.
“A very high possibility exists that Al-Qaeda or related organizations will carry out an attack during the APEC meeting,” said Chung Hyung-keun, a Grand National Party lawmaker on the National Assembly’s intelligence committee. “Including world leaders, there will be around 100,000 people from many countries visiting Busan for the meeting.” U.S. President George W. Bush is one of those expected to attend.
Mr. Chung added that other parts of Korea may be targeted as well, including Seoul. “The National Intelligence Service has said Seoul is certainly a target,” he said. “When terrorists recently attacked London, they attacked the British capital even though the Group of 8 meeting was taking place in Scotland.”
Mr. Chung, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on international terrorism, added that Seoul is a particularly attractive target, as South Korean law enforcement agencies are expected to focus heavily on the APEC meeting, where a large number of protestors are expected. Such a situation, says Mr. Chung, may leave a security vacuum in the capital.
The South Korean government, in turn, is reportedly preparing for an APEC meeting attack far more actively than it did for the 1988 Summer Olympics and the 2002 World Cup.
“We’re preparing for attacks on land, air, railways and the sea,” said Mr. Chung. “The preparations currently being undertaken are unprecedented in Korean history.”
The reasons for any attack, say Mr. Chung and other intelligence officials interviewed by the JoongAng Ilbo, are mostly related to the U.S. military presence on the peninsula and the dispatch of Korean troops to Iraq, where South Koreans constitute the third-largest contingent among the coalition forces, behind the United States and Britain.
Last year, Ayman al-Zawahiri, a senior Al-Qaeda leader, included South Korea in his announcement that denounced the U.S. and European governments.
“The interests of America, Britain, Australia, France, Poland, Norway, South Korea and Japan are spread everywhere,” al-Zawahiri said. “They all took part in the invasion of Afghanistan, Iraq or Chechnya or enabled Israel to survive. We can’t wait or we [Muslim nations] will be eaten up country by country.”
An intelligence official told the JoongAng Ilbo on condition of anonymity that, “As terrorists have been targeting countries that have dispatched troops to Iraq, we are reinforcing our preparations for the APEC meeting.”
However, threats against the APEC meeting have not been the sole source of alarm for the intelligence community here. According to Mr. Chung, a group of Islamic fundamentalists from the Middle East was raided last year by the National Intelligence Service while planning an attack on South Korean soil. They were reportedly a mix of persons residing in South Korea and those entering on tourist visas.
In addition, news reports have revealed that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a senior Al-Qaeda leader, has several years ago come to Seoul to gather intelligence on South Korea’s airport security. In 1999, Nizar Nawar, who is allegedly responsible for a 2002 terrorist attack in Tunisia, stayed illegally in Pocheon, Gyeonggi province, for more than six months while collecting intelligence.
Both mens’ visits went undetected.
A common mission of terrorist operatives has been to scan U.S. military bases. “The National Intelligence Service has told us a package was sent overseas last April from Korea, which contained a disc with maps of U.S. military bases in South Korea and methodologies to be used in an attack,” a government official told the JoongAng Ilbo last week.
While South Korea has a reputation as a racially homogenous country, the growing number of Muslims living in South Korea, currently estimated at over 81,000, reportedly poses a security risk. While migrant workers have not been known to engage in terrorism-related activities, terrorist operatives have been finding it easier to hide among them.
However, Mr. Chung warned that the long-term threat of terrorism against South Korea will not come only from the Middle East. “In the long run, terrorists from Southeast Asia will be more of a threat than those from the Middle East,” Mr. Chung said. “I fear them more than I fear those from the Middle East.”
Mr. Chung believes that any attack during the APEC meeting might be executed by Southeast Asian organizations such as Jemaah Islamiyah, which was responsible for the Marriott Hotel bombing in Jakarta, Indonesia. “It is easier for them to go in and out of South Korea as they please,” he said.
The methods could also differ. Aside from the ground and air attacks witnessed over the past decades, Korean authorities are expecting a serious maritime threat in the form of “floating bombs,” ― hijacked ships carrying conventional or nuclear bombs that sail into major port cities, such as Busan.
Justifying such a concern is the threat of maritime terrorism, which is worsening in East Asia in places such as the Malacca Strait, which has been home to the majority of the world’s piracy.
In the past, pirates have ranged from organized criminals and rebel groups to sailors from the Indonesian and Chinese navies, according to Lee Chun-keun, a maritime expert. In recent years, hijackers have not always sought booty, but demanded hostages to teach them to sail container ships.
Last week, insurers of cargo ships and oil tankers elevated their rating for the strait to “war risk,” based on a report composed by the Aegis Defence System, a London-based security consultancy. The report, according to Reuters, claimed that Jemaah Islamiyah, which is closely linked to Al-Qaeda, has been trying to acquire maritime capabilities, and has shown interest in maritime traffic in the Strait.
However, Korea is far from being able to protect its ships sailing in areas where they are most vulnerable and are away from Korean waters.
“I highly doubt whether [Korea] would be able to sustain so-called ‘out-of-area’ missions as far away as the Malacca Strait and its adjacent seas,” says Lee Chung-min, a security expert and professor at Yonsei University.
“We don’t have the tankers nor the surveillance capability which is crucial for long-range missions.”
He added, “Tanker traffic through the Strait will increase in the years ahead, [and] protecting our tankers is going to be a key military goal.”
In the meantime, authorities are looking into other theaters of attack. The Korean police and military have carried out various counter-terrorism exercises throughout Seoul, particularly in business districts that are home to Korean conglomerates and multinational companies.
Meanwhile, a network of counter-terrorism organizations has been established under the Foreign Ministry, the National Security Council, the National Intelligence Service and the National Police Agency, helping to share information and better coordinate counter-terrorism efforts.
However, Mr. Chung says he cannot be fully confident that an attack will be prevented. “The United States and Britain have better intelligence agencies and their police forces are better prepared for terrorist attacks,” he said. Even still, “Terrorists penetrated them. South Korea has far less experience.”
He added, “Nobody can say whether the preparations will be enough.”
by Mingi Hyun