Asian terrorists may launch chemical attacks in region


Al-Qaida-linked terrorist groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah could try to launch biological or chemical attacks against U.S. allies and secular Muslim governments in Asia using widely available materials, security experts warned Monday.

Jemaah Islamiyah is believed to be exploiting anti-Western sentiment over the situation in Iraq to recruit members and raise funds that could be used to obtain or develop such weapons, top Japanese security official Shinsuke Shimizu told a conference on terrorism in Kuala Lumpur.

“There are several warning signs” that terrorists could plan biological or chemical attacks in Asia, said Shimizu, the director for international counterterrorism cooperation at Japan’s Foreign Ministry. “The most realistic threat comes from al-Qaida and its associate groups.”

Warning signs include the discovery last October of manuals on bioterrorism at a Jemaah Islamiyah hideout in the southern Philippines, and the arrest in June 2003 of a man in Thailand who tried to sell cesium 137 — a radioactive material that could be used to make so-called “dirty bombs.”

Zainal Abidin Zain, the director-general of the U.S.-backed Southeast Asia Regional Center for Counterterrorism, said terrorists may try to adapt chemicals that are widely available commercially for use in weapons.

“Deadly chemical agents, including various insecticides, industrial chemicals and potent toxins are relatively easy to produce or acquire,” he said. Also, “It is possible to harvest deadly pathogens from nature with unsophisticated equipment and limited expertise.”

Jemaah Islamiyah shares a common ideology with al-Qaida — based on a hatred of Western influence and a strict version of Islam — making U.S. allies such as Japan and secular Muslim governments such as Indonesia’s and Malaysia’s the likely targets of attacks, Shimizu said.

The Southeast Asia based group is blamed for a series of bombings in recent years, including the 2002 attacks on Indonesia’s Bali island that killed 202 people, mostly Western tourists, that used chemical fertilizer as an explosive.

At least two Jemaah Islamiyah members had a key role in a fledgling al-Qaida chemical weapons program in Afghanistan before U.S.-led forces shut it down in 2002, officials say.

Japan and Malaysia are co-organizing the five-day conference, which gathers about 50 officials from Southeast Asia, China and South Korea, who have responsibility for control of chemicals, counterterrorism, health and national security.

Rhodora Poliquit, a representative of the Philippine Center on Transnational Crime, said it was “only a matter of time” before a biological or chemical attack occurs somewhere in Asia.

“We’re just not sure exactly when, where or how it might happen,” Poliquit said.

Singapore-based terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna said countries should prepare themselves for bioterrorism, but stressed the threat remained relatively low because militants still have success with conventional bomb attacks.