Japan: A Target for al-Qaeda?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 5

While surprising, Japan is a secondary target for al-Qaeda. Tokyo backed the intervention in Afghanistan and deployed a small detachment of troops to Iraq; these two moves were interpreted by Osama bin Laden as a declaration of war. On October 18, 2003, in a message broadcast by al-Jazeera, al-Qaeda’s leader said: “We reserve the right to respond at the appropriate time and place against all the countries participating in this unjust war, particularly Britain, Spain, Australia, Poland, Japan and Italy” (for an earlier assessment on al-Qaeda’s threat to Japan, see Joseph Ferguson’s Terrorism Monitor article from January 30, 2004). Threats against targets in the center of Tokyo have also been made by the elusive Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades. Last summer, Jean-Louis Bruguiere, a French judge with considerable expertise and vast knowledge of the world of intelligence, said a devastating terrorist attack on Japanese soil was indeed a possibility (Financial Times, August 26, 2005).

In the spring of 2005, intelligence services were following the trail of a mysterious al-Qaeda operative. According to intelligence sources, the operative had left Pakistan to travel to Southeast Asia, where he was planning to recruit a cell for a terrorist attack in Japan. It is possible this team was made up of Arabs supported by local Islamist extremists who may have been Jemaah Islamiah activists. Intelligence sources believe al-Qaeda was contemplating an attack just before the September 2005 Japanese elections in an obvious attempt to reproduce the “Spanish” effect of 3/11. What is referred to as the “Spanish route” in some intelligence circles works like this: it starts with threats from al-Qaeda leaders on the Arab satellite TV networks; it continues with warnings on the internet; a debate starts to rage in online jihadi forums; actions are tested on a small scale, and eventually front-line terrorists strike against major targets. While no concrete proof exists, French intelligence has added an important piece to the puzzle: it is possible that a mission may be entrusted to a mixed group, with Lebanese and Iraqi extremists sent to assist fellow militants who are long-time residents of Japan. In any case, signals intelligence reports an increase in electronic communications between key figures living in Waziristan in Pakistan and others now permanently based in East Asia.

Possible Targets

Japan is an attractive target for terrorists for the following reasons. First of all, Japan’s security services are unfamiliar with threats of this type and magnitude. In the past, they have been up against Japan’s Red Army, minor radical groups and the Aum Shinrikyo sect (Japan Times, June 27, 2002). Second, Japanese society is open, and there is intensive movement of people and goods. Third, an attack would have an immediate adverse impact on Tokyo’s global economic weight. According to the Japanese National Police, the country’s ports are the most attractive targets for Islamist extremists. A major explosion in a Japanese port would lead to serious political and economic repercussions. More broadly, the country’s transport infrastructure (in particular bullet trains), symbols of economic power, large corporations and multinationals constitute other primary targets. These targets are a constant in al-Qaeda’s terrorist offensives against the West for three reasons: first, they replicate the effects in Madrid and London, with transport systems left in chaos; second, they spread panic among cities’ inhabitants by magnifying the sense of the terrorists’ power; third, they further al-Qaeda’s strategy of sabotaging the economies of key U.S. allies (Terrorism Monitor, March 25, 2004).

Moreover, terrorists might opt to target Japanese interests abroad. The oil tankers that ply the waters between the Persian Gulf and Japan are an enticing prey for Islamist extremists. In this case, the attackers’ hunting ground is a geographical area they are familiar with. Simulations carried out in several intelligence centers have considered the hijack of a supertanker, followed by the threat to either sink or block it in one of the area’s strategic passageways, such as the straits of Hormuz or Malacca (Institute for Counter-Terrorism, Herzylia, Israel, September 2004). Initially, there would be two protagonists involved in this attempted blackmail: the terrorists and Japan. Subsequently—especially if demands are made for the release of prisoners held in a third country—the crisis would acquire a wider impact, and lead to diverging opinions on how to respond. Furthermore, terrorists may attempt to strike either a U.S. military base or a warship in Japanese maritime territory. The likelihood of this, however, is very low, not least because U.S. military assets in Japan are highly secured.

Pakistani Presence

The Japanese authorities are always very cautious about disseminating information on the presence of terrorist cells and radical groups. It is an open secret, however, that the security services are closely monitoring the country’s Muslim community. It is made up of between 70,000 and 90,000 immigrants, mostly from Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Iran and Turkey. The Sunni Pakistanis attract most of the suspicion and are monitored especially closely. In December 2005, local newspaper Sankei Shimbum published a police report alleging that members of Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) are trying to establish a base in Japan. SSP (now ostensibly called the Milat-e-Islamia Pakistan) is widely regarded as the most ferocious Sunni supremacist organization in the world and is believed to have loose links to al-Qaeda (Terrorism Monitor, January 27, 2005). The group was outlawed in Pakistan—not primarily for massacring Pakistani Shiites—but because of its alleged al-Qaeda links.

SSP first caught the eye of Japanese security agents two years earlier when checks were being made on lists of foreigners who had entered Japan. The security agents spotted a 30 year-old Pakistani who was conducting political and religious propaganda. After careful investigations, it was determined that the man intended to establish a Sipah outpost between Tokyo and Yokohama. Police later arrested him together with an accomplice who was working as a trader. The authorities then investigated further to establish whether the detained men were in contact with possible accomplices abroad. The presence of Sipah is a cause of serious concern. On the one hand, the organization could provide support for al-Qaeda’s activities since it operates in over 17 countries. On the other hand, the group has long waged a violent onslaught against Shiites and it could be looking for new battlefields in Asia. Obvious targets would include the tiny number of Pakistani Shiites in Japan in addition to Iranians. Japanese security services are also worried by increasing money-laundering activities in Asia and the proliferation of the hawala (informal network for money transfer) system.

The Dumont Case

In late May 2004, Japanese police units made a series of raids in and around Tokyo, netting five suspects. On checking documents, bank accounts, money movements and phone calls, the investigators established that the suspects were in contact with Lionel Dumont, a convert to Islam and one of the first Euro-jihadists. A Frenchman of Algerian origin and a former paratrooper, Dumont was a member of the notorious Roubaix gang which mixed organized crime with radical forms of Islam (The Standard, January 9). Forced to stay out of the limelight for a long period of time, Dumont eventually made his way to Japan and lived in the quiet town of Nishi-Kawaguchi from 2002-2003 where he developed a cover as a car salesman (Japan Times, June 2, 2004).

Police discovered a post office account on which the terrorist had conducted transactions involving thousands of dollars. It appears that Dumont was continuously receiving and withdrawing money, and only in part was this intensive activity connected with his job: in no way could certain deposits have been compatible with the sale of used cars to Russia and North Korea. Numerous international phone calls made by Dumont were of particular interest to the police. His direct and indirect acquaintances in extremist circles lead to the suspicion that his presence in Japan was connected with the preparation of some kind of terrorist action (Japan Times, May 20, 2004). The police found contacts with more than a dozen suspects: among them a Russian sailor tied to the Russian mafia (a possible channel for weapons), an immigrant from Guinea and a man from Bangladesh working in a mobile phone shop. The last suspect had access to a U.S. military base in Japan.

Dumont left Japan in 2003 and was later arrested in Germany where he was finally extradited to France. At his recent trial (after which Dumont was sentenced to 30 years imprisonment), magistrates reconstructed the journeys the accused had made and provided some important details. During his stay in Asia, Dumont visited Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia as well as Japan. It was in Malaysia that he met up with Andrew Rowe, a Briton of Jamaican descent who had fought with Dumont in Bosnia and, like him, was a globetrotter of Islamist terrorism (The Standard, January 9). According to unofficial reports, their assigned mission was to establish themselves in Asia (by using the cover of tourists and businessmen) in order to prepare the way for future operations. It was actually on Rowe’s trail that German intelligence discovered Dumont in Munich. The long period spent in Japan by the French-Algerian terrorist brings to mind two other relatively distant episodes that relate to al-Qaeda and Japan. In 1987, Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, one of the masterminds of the 9/11 attacks, bought some tunnel digging machines in Japan which were later used to build hideouts for mujahideen in Afghanistan. In 1995, Mohammed Khaled Salim (aka Rashed Daoud al ‘Owhali), who played a part in the African bomb attacks of August 1998, had purchased electronic materials in Tokyo. These were later found in Ethiopia after the failed assassination attempt of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa in June 1995.

Considered as a whole, the factual information and the more nebulous reports provide a disquieting picture. Japan, like Italy and Denmark, is seriously at risk of a terrorist attack (Terrorism Monitor, January 30, 2004). Al-Qaeda’s propaganda machine has included it in its list of enemies and claims it has legitimate motives for doing so (al-Jazeera, October 18, 2003). It should, therefore, come as no surprise if Japanese politicians increasingly maintain—in much the same way as in Britain before July 7—that the question is not “whether,” but “when” the terrorists will attack.