Tue, Jul 06, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Asia at risk from chemical, biological attacks: experts


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

Jemaah Islamiyah is believed to be exploiting anti-Western sentiment over the situation in Iraq to recruit new members and raise funds that could be used 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 be planning 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-Qaeda 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 last year of a man who tried to sell cesium 137 -- a radioactive material used in industry that could be used to make so-called "dirty bombs."

Zainal Abidin Zain, the director-general of the US-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."

"The probability of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear terrorist attacks cannot be overlooked," said Zain.

Jemmah Islamiyah shares a common ideology with al-Qaeda -- based on a hatred of Western influence and a strict version of Islam -- making US 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 nightclub attacks in Indonesia's Bali island that killed 202 people, mostly Western tourists.

At least two Jemaah Islamiyah members played a key role in a fledgling al-Qaeda chemical weapons program in Afghanistan before invading US-led forces shut it down in 2002, officials say.

Japan and Malaysia are co-hosting 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.

Trainers from the US and Canada are taking part, and the Hague-based watchdog group Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is also attending.

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