Sat, 24 May 2003

'Terrorism reports exaggerated'

Felix Soh, The Straits Times/Asia News Network, Singapore

There is no new, credible information about imminent terrorist attacks in Singapore and other Southeast Asian countries, says the U.S.

Recent "public announcements" by the State Department on terrorist activity in the region were a routine update, it adds.

"There is no new travel advisory for Singapore," a U.S. embassy spokesman told The Straits Times.

Security in the region was stepped up after news agencies reported that al-Qaeda-related attacks might be imminent in the Middle East, East Africa and Southeast Asia.

This followed last week's suicide bombings in Riyadh and Casablanca, which killed 73 people.

The news agencies had cited State Department announcements to Americans on travel to Southeast Asian countries.

Malaysia was singled out by the news agencies out as a potential target.

Taking cue from these developments, the Australian government also issued travel advisories on Southeast Asia.

This elicited barbed anti-Canberra comments from Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Travel advisories are a sensitive issue because of their negative impact on public and business confidence and on the flow of tourists.

Any warning of imminent terrorist strikes would deal a blow to public and investor confidence in the region.

It would also devastate the tourism industry in the region, already deeply wounded by the SARS viral outbreak. Regional airlines are seeing almost empty flights and hotels are reporting record low occupancy.

The consequences of a "double whammy" of SARS and warnings of imminent terrorist attacks would affect regional economies severely.

But, apparently, the news agencies reported the U.S. announcements out of context. They were confused by the terminology of the various types of alerts issued by the U.S.

A "public announcement" disseminates information abut terrorist threats and other short-term or transnational conditions posing risks to the security of American travelers.

An announcement is reviewed every six months and either updated or, if the threat had dissipated, canceled.

A more serious alert is a "travel warning" which is issued when the State Department recommends that Americans avoid travel to a certain country.

The U.S. acknowledges that there is a continuing risk of terrorist activity in Southeast Asia, saying that the Bali blasts in October last year was vivid and tragic evidence that the threat in the region is real.

All signs point to the al-Qaeda affiliate, Jamaah Islamiyah (JI), as the party that masterminded and executed the bombings, which killed over 200 people, mostly Westerners.

However, the U.S. embassy spokesman pointed out that the American "public announcements" were a routine update and not based on new intelligence of any forthcoming attack.

Recent press reports also referred to a U.S. warning about Malaysia, which focused primarily on the threat of attacks by the Abu Sayyaf group in the Philippines and the coastal areas of eastern Sabah.

"This is a public announcement originally issued on Nov. 20 and updated last week," said the U.S. embassy spokesman in Singapore.

"The announcement was not specifically linked to events in Saudi Arabia or Morocco nor did it represent new, credible information about possible attacks," he stressed.

In the U.S. travel blacklist, the only Southeast Asian country slapped with a travel warning is Indonesia. This is due primarily to the Bali bombings.