Since 9/11, experts have repeatedly cautioned that Al-Qaeda operates in 60 countries, some far removed from the organization’s major spheres of influence in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. While these warnings have often fallen on deaf ears, recent evidence suggests that Osama Bin Laden's henchmen are indeed active in parts of the world whose largely homogenous, non-Muslim populations would seem to make them precarious destinations for Islamic terrorist cells. In November, authorities in the Baltic republic of Latvia arrested 10 Pakistani nationals believed to be planning an attack on a visiting Israeli soccer team. Likewise, in December, Bolivian authorities arrested nine Bangladeshis who were allegedly plotting to hijack an airplane and hit U.S. interests in Argentina. These incidents show that Al-Qaeda is now bent on expanding its operations into countries previously unaffected by Islamic terrorism. It comes as no surprise, then, that South Korea and Japan—two longtime U.S. allies nestled deep in Northeast Asia—have recently entered the organization’s sights.
Potential terrorist targets abound in both countries, from the U.S. military installations that are scattered throughout to the numerous soft targets offered in heavily populated cities like Seoul and Tokyo. South Korea, of course, holds the added appeal of 37,000 U.S. troops stationed along its DMZ with the North, not to mention the presence of 100,000 U.S. civilians and numerous U.S. business interests. South Korea’s National Intelligence Service has already confirmed that U.S. military bases and industrial centers are at high risk of a terrorist attack, and the country is currently under an anti-terrorism alert issued by the South Korean government.
Two recent Al-Qaeda “near-misses” may have helped hasten this alert. In November, South Korean diplomats in Afghanistan were evacuated after South Korea’s embassy in Kabul received threats by Al-Qaeda. In October, South Korean police—acting on tips from the U.S.—investigated a Greek-owned cargo ship suspected of carrying Al- Qaeda members that landed in the port of Kunsan. This apparent false alarm (nothing suspicious was found aboard the ship, and it was subsequently released) did little to ease South Korean fears of an impending terrorist attack; nor did the recent revelation that Al-Qaeda operatives have visited South Korea numerous times in the past several years in order to scout targets. According to the National Intelligence Service, an Al-Qaeda operative entered South Korea last year from Southeast Asia to evaluate and collect information about potential U.S. targets in the country. The man was later arrested in Pakistan and is currently in U.S. custody. In addition, a man known only as “Omar” suspected of being involved in the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi has visited South Korea at least three times since 1999 to scout U.S. military bases.
The number of native South Korean Muslims is estimated at anywhere between 20,000 and 40,000. The country is also host to as many as 200,000 foreign-born Muslims hailing mainly from Pakistan, Indonesia and Bangladesh. But South Korean intelligence confirms that Al-Qaeda members are attempting to enter the country with increasing frequency. Luckily, many have been detained and deported by immigration officials, usually within 10 hours after their arrival. Still, the continued efforts of Al-Qaeda operatives to penetrate South Korea are deeply troubling to both South Korean intelligence officials and lawmakers.
At present, however, the terrorist threat may be even more imminent in Japan. A few days after Japan’s decision to commit troops to Iraq, an Al-Qaeda “spokesman” sent an e-mail to the London-based Arabic magazine Al Majallah threatening a terrorist attack on Tokyo. The e-mail followed an audio tape released by Al-Qaeda in October in which Osama Bin Laden named Japan as a country that will be attacked by the group “at an appropriate time and place.” This was a far cry from past Bin Laden statements decrying the U.S.’s use of atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. In any event, Bin Laden’s numerous mentions of Japan verify that the country is neither out of sight nor out of mind to Al-Qaeda; in fact, Japan has been visited by several of the organization’s key operatives in the past.
In 1987, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Al-Qaeda’s former third in command and the suspected mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, underwent training in rock-boring equipment in Shizuoka Prefecture. Mohammed, who is currently in U.S. custody, allegedly used rock-drilling machines obtained during his time in Japan to dig cave complexes in the mountains of Afghanistan. Additionally, in 1995, Mohammed Khalid Salim, one of the architects of the 1998 African Embassy bombings, bought technical equipment from a company in Akihabara. Transmitters purchased by Salim in Japan were later found in the hideout of some of the Al Gamaa Al Islamiya operatives who attempted to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Ethiopia. During the late ‘90s, still more Al-Qaeda officials entered Japan, mostly to conduct fundraising activities. Nevertheless, despite warnings from the U.S. as well as other Asian countries, Japanese internal intelligence agencies paid little attention to these trips or to the goings-on in Japan’s mosques.
However, following 9/11, Japan—like many countries—revised its approach to the gathering terrorist threat and decided to monitor its small Muslim presence, which is estimated to be only 0.1 % of the general population and is comprised mainly of immigrants from Pakistan and Southeast Asia. Shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Japan’s National Police Agency ordered its regional offices to keep mosques under surveillance, alleging that some had been used as “meeting places for Islamic fundamentalists.” This heightened attention led to a string of arrests throughout the country, most notably in November of 2001, when police uncovered an illegal bank operated by a group of Pakistanis who were funneling money to Islamic militant groups in Pakistan. Other Pakistani nationals linked to terrorism have since been either detained on immigration charges or prevented from entering Japan. In addition, Japanese authorities have identified a mosque in the sleepy Tokyo suburb of Ebina City as a weekly meeting place for Islamic radicals.
After years of indifference, it appears that authorities in both South Korea and Japan are now fully committed to battling Islamic terrorism. Following Bin Laden’s latest threat to strike Japan, the National Police Agency declared that it would be expanding its role in the country’s counter-terrorism operations. The agency is also considering the establishment of a separate department that would gather information on terrorist attacks that take place overseas. In November, after much deliberation, South Korea’s parliamentary intelligence panel endorsed that country's first ever counter-terrorism bill. Indeed, South Korea and Japan have little choice in the matter, as their close relationships with the U.S. virtually guarantee them a place on Al-Qaeda’s hit list, regardless of their geographical location. Incidentally, recent reports indicate that Taiwan, another Northeast Asian country with longstanding ties to the U.S., may also be in danger of an attack from Al-Qaeda. The organization’s plans for the region appear to be expanding by the day. Erick Stakelbeck is head writer and Lorenzo Vidino is a terrorism analyst at the Investigative Project, a Washington DC-based counter-terrorism research institute.