The Risk of Travel in Asia

If you're a businessman, you've got plenty to worry about when you travel in Asia, according to FTI-International Risk, the Hong Kong-based risk assessment organization, and maybe it might just pay to stay home for the Year of the Tiger.

While things are marginally better this year, International Risk says in its annual report that prudent businessmen need to worry about the kidnapping of foreigners for ransom by Abu Sayyaf and other Philippines insurgent groups to raise funds and, while it's less prevalent in the rest of Southeast and South Asia, Jemaah Islaamiyah and other jihadi groups occasionally use the tactic as well.

And, the report says, as the July bombings in Jakarta in 2009 and Mumbai in 2008 show, foreign-owned hotels, shopping centers, and other businesses are high-value, soft targets. Also, the attempt by Umar Farouk Mutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian suspected of attempting to bring down a Delta Airlines jetliner in the US over Christmas is an indication that Al Qaeda has not given up on its ambitions to strike a blow against aviation and that less-modern airports could present an easier target.

That adds up to a sensible recommendation to be prudent, but as those who travel the region know, the chances of being killed are pretty slim. Nonetheless, as the American writer James Thurber once observed, the chances of being eaten by a lion on Main Street in an American city are roughly 270,000 to one. But it only takes once.

Although Asian governments made modest successes in their struggle against terrorism and extremist political violence in 2009, Pakistan and India remain locked in mutual distrust, creating one of the world's most dangerous flashpoints, according to International Risk, which refuses to rule out a limited nuclear war between the two countries, with substantial combat forces deployed close to their shared borders.

The risk assessment organization says the threat of terrorist activity in India is high and severe in Pakistan, and recommends that businessmen not travel to either Pakistan or southern Thailand, and that they think carefully about going to the Philippines in the runup to April and May elections – and stay out of southern Philippines, meaning Mindanao Island, altogether.

Beyond that, International Risk asks two major questions -- whether Asian governments, especially in the volatile South Asia region, can build on the last year's gains by continuing to go after terrorist and other militant groups, or whether they will revert to their traditional approaches of containment, reacting only when incidents occur. Second, the report asks what is the state of the two principal terrorist groups in Southeast Asia, the Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf, which remains active in the Southern Phlippines island of Mindanao.

The most serious threat to Southeast Asian security, the organization says, comes not from terrorist attacks but the Philippines' particularly violent practice of democracy: "The country is on a high state of alert and more than 500 locations have been identified as flashpoints for political violence. Nearly 60 people have already been killed in feuding among political gangs, which see elected office as a crucial means to gain control of political power, security forces, and access to lucrative economic returns."

Pakistan, the country most troubled by fundamentalist Islamic-based unrest, scored substantial gains by going after terrorist and militant sanctuaries in its Northwest tribal border regions "but it has also been extremely costly, led to an upsurge in violence, displaced large numbers of residents, and is politically unpopular. Moreover, the Pakistani military is worried that these operations may threaten the country's national security as they divert resources and attention from defending against India, which military chiefs view as their chief foe. Pakistani military officials have indicated in the past few weeks that no new offensives are likely against militants in its border areas for the next 6-12 months.

Any retreat by Pakistan to previous accommodationist policies, the report continues, would allow the terrorist groups to rebuild their capabilities and threaten the shaky regime in Islamabad as well as return to launching attacks against India. In fact, the report says, another Pakistan-inspired terrorist attack on Indian soil has a strong chance of occurring this year. Domestically, the country suffered more than 170 violent attacks in 2009 that killed more than 1,400 people after the government in Islamabad finally decided to tackle militant and terrorist groups head-on in its tribal border regions. Those attacks, particularly suicide bombings, have continued without a lull into the new year.

Although the report continues that the slowdown in 2009 external terrorist attacks against India may also lead the government in New Delhi to reduce its sense of urgency and commitment to overhauling its deficient counter-terrorism capabilities and strategies, that hardly seems likely. In the wake of the murderous attack on luxury hotels in Mumbai in November of 2008 which took 170 lives, New Delhi has embarked on perhaps the biggest arms and counterterrorism expansion in the country's history, vowing to spend US$30 billion by 2012 on a bristling package of weapons ranging from supersonic fighter jets to anti-terrorism gear. (see Asia Sentinel, India's Fighter Wars, Aug. 24, 2009)

Despite the defense buildup, however, International Risk reports, "The country's security services remain somewhat fragmented and have, to date, been unable to forge a cooperative relationship with their counterparts in Pakistan to prevent future attacks from Pakistani-based terrorist organizations. It may be virtually impossible for Islamabad and New Delhi to engage in any meaningful bilateral counter-terrorism cooperation that is essential in preventing more terrorist attacks, because of the two countries' deep-seated distrust and enduring hostilities against each other."

While no successful external terrorist attack occurred in India in 2009, the country is far from secure, the report says that senior Indian security officials say a dozen foreign-inspired plots were foiled. Although few details are known of these incidents, Indian and U.S. officials have hinted that they may be linked with Pakistani terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was responsible for carrying out a large-scale terrorist attack in Mumbai in November 2008.

Pakistan's elite Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, known universally by its initials ISI, is widely believe to be continuing its support for Lashkar-e-Taiba, the jihadi group that organized the devastating Mumbai bombings, and that its supporters and operatives are increasing despite the limited crackdown against the organization, primarily because of Lahskar-e-Taiba's effectiveness at stirring up trouble over the disputed Kashmir territory.

International Risk is more positive towards efforts in Southeast Asia to contain Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf. Most of their top leaders have been captured or killed, their access to funds has been largely cut off and they have increasingly been driven into remote areas of the Philippines and Indonesia. Despite the bombings of hotels in Jakarta in 2009 and other violence, in particular the killing of Mohd Noordin Top, who had eluded security forces since the Bali bombings of 2002 and 2006, was considered a major success.

Despite their successes in weakening Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf, the Indonesian and Philippine governments do not appear complacent and have continued to maintain a pro-active and adaptive approach in neutralizing the still-dangerous terrorist threat from these groups. The Indonesian and Philippine security services have been helped by extensive assistance from the U.S. and other foreign governments, which has allowed them to adopt state-of-the-art counter-terrorist practices and capabilities. While Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf may be able to mount limited opportunistic attacks such as which took place in Jakarta in July 2009, these incidents are likely to be limited in scope and very occasional.