A ‘warning to the Korean Government’ was posted on an Arabic-language site al-Muntada on October 10, threatening to ‘make Korea suffer’ if Korean troops were not pulled out from Iraq within 14 days. The declaration, published by the Korean Chosun Ilbo newspaper, was made by the ‘Martyr Hammoud al-Masri Battalion’, a little known group styling itself ‘al-Qaeda’s network in Southeast Asia’. The warning detailed how the group would attack Korean troops in Iraq ‘one by one’ and also attack facilities within Korea itself. It claimed that it already had a base in Seoul and was stationed not far from its potential targets.
This is the second threat in just over a week to Korea. It follows the broadcast of the latest audio tape from Ayman al-Zawahiri broadcast on al-Jazeera satellite channel, in which attacks were urged on all allies of the United States and their interests as ‘counter-attacks’ to pre-empt invasions of Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen and Algeria. After inclusion in the list of targeted allies, Korean news agency Yonhap reported on Korea’s high alert status and announced a tightening up of security at major national facilities and areas of high population density.
The Koreans feel particularly exposed. Seoul imposed a news blackout that lasted several weeks when it deployed 3,000 troops in northern Iraq, alongside its 600-strong military medics and engineers already deployed in al-Nasiriyyah. It paid the first price for its participation in the coalition on June 17 when a group apparently linked to Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi’s Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, abducted and later killed one of its nationals, Kim Sun-il, a 33-year-old Arabic interpreter. South Korea’s intelligence agency later announced its suspicions that a group named ‘Lions of God’ had formed for the purpose of abducting more Koreans.
These incidents sent shock waves through Korea and triggered fears of a targeting on the scale of the March bombings in Spain. While authorities are still trying to determine the reliability of the threat (neither the Martyr Hammoud Al-Masri Battalion, nor the al-Muntada website are well known) attention is focused on infrastructural vulnerabilities in the country. In mid July airport authorities were warned of an attempt by an Indian national to blow up a US-bound plane departing from Seoul, and a week later received news from an intercepted email that Abd al-Razzaq, a known terrorist suspect linked to al-Qaeda, was to board a flight to South Korea. Korean shipping companies delivering goods to U.S. forces in Iraq have also received terror threats, and security measures have focused on ports that house explosive liquefied natural gas and liquefied petroleum gas terminals.
Other measures focus on members of the Muslim community in Korea, estimated at some 500,000. Strengthened security checks on those entering and leaving the country followed the deporting of three illegal Bangladeshi workers in April for establishing a network called Da’wat ul-Islam of Korea, which is suspected of aiding the entry of illegal foreign workers, and conducting activities deemed ‘anti-South Korea’, including fund-raising for a political party in Bangladesh.
Korea constitutes the largest coalition component in Iraq after the United States and Britain. The South Korean military contingent stationed in the northern Iraqi town of Irbil is keeping a ‘low-key’ posture. Domestically the troop deployment remains unpopular, but the government has attempted to tie it in closely with the 37,000 strong U.S. military deployment in the country against North Korea, and its support for a peaceful end to the standoff over its nuclear weapons programs. Pressure on Korea, however, will only increase if it dispatches the several hundred more troops to Iraq this year required to keep its initial pledge to commit more than 3,600 soldiers to the coalition. Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon, Yonhap reports, has ordered “foreign diplomatic missions to strengthen security and get fully ready.”