Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - U.S., Australian and other embassies in south-east Asia are on heightened alert as more information emerges about an alleged terrorist plot to attack government, military and commercial targets in Singapore and possibly elsewhere in the region.
"Terrorism is a real thing," Singapore's Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng said Sunday. "It has landed on our doorstep."
Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong warned of "the extent of the al Qaeda network and its penetration into the region," saying at a dinner in honor of visiting Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi that Asia "must address firmly and rapidly the security threats posed by the existence of this terrorist network at our doorsteps."
Two more arrests in Malaysia at the weekend brought to 40 the number of suspected terrorists being held there, while Singapore continues to detain 13 out of 15 suspects arrested under security legislation.
The spate of arrests has provided police in various countries with additional pointers to an apparent regional network of terrorists, which investigators believe is associated with al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden's terror organization blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Malaysians are allegedly members of Kumpulan Militan Malaysia (KMM), a militant group Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad says has ties to militant Muslim groups in the Philippines, Indonesia and possibly Singapore. One of those under arrest in Malaysia is believed to have met two of the Sept. 11 hijackers in Malaysia, less than a year before the attacks in New York and Washington.
The Singaporean detainees belong to a group called Jemaah Islamiah, whose Malaysia-based leader, an Indonesian national known as Hambali Isamuddin, is wanted by both Malaysian and Indonesian police.
Eight of those in custody in Singapore have reportedly admitted receiving training in weapons use and military tactics at bin Laden's terror camps, having arrived in Afghanistan via Malaysia and Pakistan. Two had been nominated for specialized training in other skills, including assassination and bombmaking.
Prime Minister Goh said Sunday more terrorists may be at large. He echoed an earlier Home Affairs Ministry statement that said "several suspect operations cell members have fled the country and efforts are being made, in co-operation with the authorities of neighboring countries, to locate them."
The government has released information about three cells operating in the affluent city-state, which had now been smashed.
The first cell had apparently planned to attack a regular shuttle bus service carrying U.S. military personnel and to bomb U.S. Navy ships docked in Singapore. About 100 U.S. Navy ships visit each year.
Found among the alleged cell leader's possessions was a list of more than 200 American companies in Singapore. "Three of them were highlighted as potential targets apparently because the office-bearers were regarded as fairly prominent members of the American community in Singapore," the government statement said without identifying the three.
Police also found tempered passports, forged Malaysian and Philippines immigration stamps and literature on bomb-making.
Bolstering claims against the detainees is a videotape showing a Singapore suburban commuter train station. One of the men now in custody narrates as the camera films the area around station, providing commentary as he films on how an attack on U.S. military personnel using a shuttle bus from a naval base to the station could be carried out.
According to the Singapore government, the tape was recovered in the rubble of the house of an al-Qaeda leader in Afghanistan. If true, this may be the first time evidence found in Afghanistan during the U.S. military campaign there has been used to thwart potential al-Qaeda terror attacks.
Members of the second cell broken in Singapore had filmed U.S. aircraft at a Singapore airbase early last year. In October last year, two foreigners, one an Arab and other either Indonesian or Filipino, arrived to help the cell prepare for attacks on specific targets in Singapore.
They filmed the U.S., Australian, British and Israeli diplomatic missions, several buildings housing U.S. companies, and the Singapore Defense Ministry complex.
According to information provided to interrogators by the detainees, truck bombs were to be used in the attacks, and the required amount of ammonium nitrate fertilizer for several truck bombs was in the process of being obtained.
Four tons of the substance had already been acquired. (That's about twice the amount used by Timothy McVeigh to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.)
A third terrorist cell had been formed after Sept. 11, had begun to gather information on new targets, but stopped when the arrests began in early December.
The U.S. Embassy has declined to comment on the arrests, the information released by the Singapore Government, or its security status.
A spokesman would only say the embassy "remains confident in the ability of the government of Singapore to protect American citizens and institutions here. We are appreciative of their determined efforts.
"Singapore remains a safe place to live or do business. Because the investigation is ongoing, it would be inappropriate for the embassy to comment about the specifics of the case."
The spokesman said there were at least 15,000 Americans living in Singapore, a country of around four million people, of whom some 15 percent are Muslims.
Meanwhile Australian missions in at least four regional capitals - Singapore, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Manila - are on high alert. In Singapore, Australia's High Commission (embassy) is located alongside the U.S. Embassy.
Although there have been warnings since Sept. 11 that Australia may face retaliation for its military and diplomatic support for President Bush's campaign against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, this is the first time a direct threat has emerged.
New Zealand also placed its High Commission in Singapore on security alert, and its ambassador there was briefed by government officials.
See earlier story:
Singapore Militants Accused Of Planning To Attack US Targets (Jan. 7, 2002)