Al Qaeda’s Threat to Japan: Tokyo’s Wake Up Call to the War on Terrorism

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 2

In October of 2003 Japan received its first overt threat from al Qaeda. A videotape was released on which Osama Bin Laden purportedly promised suicide attacks against the United States and those countries supporting the American occupation of Iraq. That list includes Australia, Great Britain, Italy and Japan. This threat was taken to a whole other level in mid-November when al Qaeda issued a warning against Japan not to send troops to Iraq or it would face terrorist attacks. During the same week, an al Qaeda operative identified as Abu Mohamed al-Ablaj sent an e-mail to the Arab language weekly Al-Majallah in which he claimed that Tokyo would be “the easiest place to destroy.” Japan, and more importantly, the central government in either Kyoto or Tokyo, has been the target of terrorist attacks in one form or another for hundreds of years. But the vast majority of these attacks have come from indigenous opposition groups, whether from disillusioned samurai or military groups, or from extremist political or religious groups. This time a foreign force originating in a region far from the Japanese homeland has threatened to attack Japanese targets both at home and abroad. Once perhaps seen as just a peripheral player, Japan is now fully engaged in the war on terrorism as a matter both of principal and of physical security.

Japan’s History With Terrorism

The central government in Japan has long been a target for disaffected groups roving about the outer edges of Japanese society. Ronin, or masterless samurai, were often involved in suicide assassination attempts against top political leaders. Well documented are the attacks carried out against the civilian government in Tokyo by military officers during the early twentieth century. These included attempts at the wholesale assassination of the ruling cabinet. Korean nationalists also carried out attacks against the Japanese government once Japanese influence became paramount on the Korean Peninsula after 1905. Count Hirobumi Ito, one of Japan’s original genro (oligarchs, or founders of modern Japan), was assassinated in Harbin, China, in 1909 by a Korean subject. But one key aspect of these earlier terrorist attacks is that regular Japanese civilians were rarely, if ever, targeted.

In the early 1970s, the so-called Japanese Red Army terrorist group began a series of terrorist attacks, but most were directed against targets abroad. The most famous of these attacks was the bloody bombing of the Tel Aviv airport in May of 1972. But again, Japanese civilians were for the most part spared. Also, we have since come to learn that in the 1970s North Korean agents began kidnapping individual Japanese civilians in Japan. These civilians were forced to live in North Korea for decades, a fact that was officially affirmed only in the fall of 2002. Japan’s first real taste of mass, indiscriminate terror attacks came in March of 1995, when the religious cult group Aum Shinrikyo released the deadly chemical sarin on a Tokyo subway train, killing a dozen Japanese civilians. Since that time Japanese citizens have been acutely aware of the dangers of terrorism and do not take the issue lightly.

Japan And Al Qaeda

Following the September 11, 2001, terror attacks against the United States, the Japanese government quickly affirmed its place in the fight against international terrorism at the side of its greatest ally. Just over one week later, on September 19, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi announced seven measures that his government would undertake in the struggle against terrorist groups. These included the dispatch of Japanese Self Defense Forces (SDF) in support roles where necessary, the extra protection of U.S. military facilities in Japan, the sharing of intelligence, and the extension of humanitarian aid and economic assistance to those nations on the front line of the war on terrorism, including India and Pakistan (and later Afghanistan and Iraq). These measures were codified in the Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Law that was passed on October 29, 2001.

Nevertheless, Japan remained far from the headlines and the frontlines in the war on terror for the first year after the 9/11 attacks. In the fall of 2002, however, the war came closer to Japan both physically and psychologically. At the same time that the revelations were surfacing about the North Korean kidnapping of Japanese civilians, the war on terrorism was growing hotter in Southeast Asia. U.S. counter-terror operations in the Philippines and the Bali discotheque bombing in October of 2002 brought the war geographically closer to Japan. Many Japanese nationals reside in Indonesia and the Philippines, and Japanese investment in the region is large, facts which provide terror groups with inviting targets. This was highlighted when a Toyota auto showroom was bombed in the city of Makassar on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia in December 2002. Additionally, Imam Samudra, the alleged mastermind of the Bali bombing, purportedly declared that he would target the citizens of the United States and its allies, including Japan.

The Japanese government began exploring measures to keep those of its nationals residing abroad safe in the wake of the growing terror threat. Most important for Japan, however, was ensuring the security of the homeland. Immigration controls, already notoriously tough in Japan, were tightened. The National Police Agency set up an emergency terrorism headquarters, and stepped up the protection and surveillance of over 600 facilities across Japan thought to be likely terror targets. The Police Agency also stepped up the surveillance of the more than 90,000 residents of Japan from Islamic nations, most of them from Iran, North Africa, and the Middle East.

Meanwhile, after the United States launched its war against the Iraqi government in the spring of 2003, the Japanese government was forced to make a tough decision about the extent of its support for the United States and the “coalition of the willing.” Prime Minister Koizumi’s seven measures included support for U.S. forces in the field in Southwest and Central Asia, but they said little about the direct participation of Japanese troops in combat and occupation areas. The cabinet and Diet began discussions in the summer of 2003 about the dispatch of Japanese troops to Iraq as part of an occupation force. This would be the first official deployment of Japanese troops to combat areas since the end of the Second World War. Public opinion polls in Japan have been firmly against the dispatch from the beginning. According to the Mainichi Shimbun, the most recent such polls indicate that close to 80 percent of Japan’s citizens not only are against the deployment, but fear that it will actually increase the terrorist threat against Japan. The Japanese government, however, has been determined to back its U.S. ally and make a show of more than just economic support. It should be added, however, that Japan’s financial assistance has hardly been paltry. The Japanese government has pledged more than US$5 billion in support for the reconstruction of Iraq, an amount second only to that pledged by the United States.

Japan Crosses The Rubicon

This show of support for the United States at the highest level was demonstrated tragically in November of 2003 when two Japanese diplomats were killed near the city of Tikrit in northern Iraq. It was thought that the deaths would complicate the government’s efforts to send Japanese Self Defense Forces to Iraq, but Koizumi was undaunted. After speaking with the diplomats’ families, he said, “We will not give in to terrorism….Whether Self Defense Forces or civilians, we will do what we have to do.” Shortly thereafter, in December, the Japanese Diet showed its support for Koizumi by approving the dispatch of 1,000 SDF troops to Iraq. Exactly when the troops will be deployed is still being decided in Tokyo. A number of advance teams of soldiers, however, have already begun arriving in Iraq to assess the situation.

Japanese leaders and the citizens of Japan have come to the realization that the war on terror is no longer just a distant engagement. In December of 2003, the Tokyo Metropolitan government conducted bio-terrorism drills in the subway system, a chilling reminder of the 1995 sarin attacks. An article appearing in the Asahi Shimbun on December 20, 2003, speculated that Japan’s skyscrapers would be tempting targets for terrorists. The Asahi weekly journal AERA also published an article in December questioning how prepared Tokyo is for terrorist attacks. One sensationalist report in the journal Shukan Bunshun made the claim that a group of Chechens had already made their way into Japan and were planning to carry out terror attacks there. Needless to say, Japan’s citizens have become increasingly concerned about the sanctity of their homeland.

Japan has been able to rely on the United States for its homeland security for close to six decades. During the Cold War, Japanese citizens knew that they were protected from the threat of a Soviet or Chinese attack by the American nuclear umbrella. Now this security blanket has turned into something of a double-edged sword. Tokyo’s alliance with the United States means that Japan is now a viable target for terrorist groups, including al Qaeda. U.S. civilian and military forces in Japan are also large targets. Additionally, Japanese soft targets in the Middle East and, especially, Southeast Asia are inviting for terrorists, especially given the large Japanese economic presence in both regions. Japan faces many stiff tests in the coming years, including economic revitalization, administrative reform, and probably constitutional revision. But perhaps no challenge will test the mettle of the Japanese people and their government as that which they will face in this still young war on terrorism.

Mr. Joseph Ferguson is the director of Northeast Asia Studies at The National Bureau of Asian Research in Seattle, Washington.