By Michael Shari
Despite the recent arrest of an Indonesian suspected of being a key al Qaeda operative, unease remains among regional authorities cracking down on terrorism. Some fear that the Aug. 5 bombing of the JW Marriott hotel in Jakarta was the first in a series of planned attacks on so-called soft targets representing U.S. and other Western interests, rather than diplomatic or government targets. The fear is driving tighter security procedures at hotels and diplomatic missions across Southeast Asia.
Security was already tight before the Marriott bombing. Hotel guards were inspecting all incoming cars for explosives, yet the bomb went off in a vehicle at the edge of the property. Now, officials of the Ritz Carlton, Raffles, Hilton, and Conrad management groups, which run hotels across the region, say they're introducing even more stringent security precautions. While they decline to discuss the new procedures in detail, an exec at one of the groups says the strategy is to put as much physical distance as possible between terrorist threats and hotel guests.
The stepped-up security is based on intelligence reports that have circulated in the diplomatic community since the Aug. 12 arrest by U.S. and Thai authorities of al Qaeda's alleged Southeast Asia chief of operations, Riduan Isamuddin, an Indonesian citizen also known as Hambali. Western diplomats say Isamuddin was plotting an attack in Thailand during October's Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum (APEC) summit, which President George W. Bush is scheduled to attend.
Because Hambali was al Qaeda's liaison with its Southeast Asia cell, known locally as Jemaah Islamiyah, some diplomats worry that Jemaah Islamiyah might rush ahead with attacks for fear that Hambali will divulge such plans under interrogation.
In addition, senior Singapore government officials believe that it could get harder to arrest terrorists in the region, as intelligence reports leaked to newspapers have indicated that Hambali was caught in the same manner as 38 other suspects. They include 29 accused Jemaah Islamiyah members now on trial for the Bali bombing and nine others arrested in late August after the Marriott attack. In each instance, electronic surveillance equipment was used to tap cell-phone calls. Jemaah Islamiyah may now adapt and change communication methods, which would require local authorities to figure out the terrorists' next step.
With these concerns shaking up the hospitality industry, Western diplomats are concerned about older U.S. embassies that were built before anti-terrorist fortifications became a standard design element in American missions abroad in the 1990s. Constructed like fortresses, the U.S. embassies in Bangkok and Singapore, for example, were built to minimize potential damage from car bombs and other common types of terrorist attacks. But the outdated U.S. embassy in Jakarta, which is protected by haphazard measures such as steel plates bolted over the windows after the Bali bombing, is now regarded as among the most vulnerable in the region, they say.
"It's going to be a long battle," says a Western diplomat in Singapore. "The list of targets is long, and people worry about them." Security officials can only hope for the best.
Shari covers Southeast Asia affairs for BusinessWeek from Singapore
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht