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As Singapore prepares to host the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit next month with US President Barack Obama and other world leaders, authorities are warning of a terrorist threat. Since suicide bombers attacked the Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott hotels in Jakarta in July, killing nine people and injuring more than 50, Singapore fears that terrorist groups might look at similar targets during the November 14-15 APEC meeting.
“We know that we remain on the terrorists’ radar,” Senior Minister for Home Affairs Ho Peng Kee told Parliament last week.
The threat is a major challenge for the region, he said, despite recent captures and killings of several wanted terrorists, including bombmaker Noordin Mohammad Top in Indonesia.
“They will continue to look for opportunities to attack us,” Ho warned. “They may also try to take advantage of high-profile events hosted by Singapore to maximize publicity.”
Just weeks after the Jakarta bombings, the city-state was pushing stricter security standards for its hotel industry.
It required hotels to plan emergency procedures for a range of scenarios, run regular simulation drills and train staff.
In September, a report by the global intelligence company Strategic Forecasting, or Stratfor, attracted some attention in Singapore.
The recent terrorist attacks on hotels with their perceived success mean “that copycat attacks can be expected,” the report said, noting that terrorists had shifted tactics to soft targets.
In the eight years after the 2001 attacks in the United States, the number of major terrorist strikes against hotels more than doubled to 62, the Stratfor analysts said.
“Hotels are the quintessential soft targets,” the report said. “They have fixed locations and daily business activity that creates a perfect cover for pre-operational surveillance.”
Stratfor recommended upgrading security equipment and staff training, along with background checks on guests and employees.
Also in the wake of the Jakarta bombings, a report by Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University advised that “metal detectors, iron gates, car searches, bomb-sniffing dogs and other measures are to be considered as the absolute last line of defence.
“Hotel operators and owners must acknowledge that intelligence, not physical security, is the key to ward off terrorist attacks,” the report said.
Sydney Jones, a senior adviser for the Jakarta-based International Crisis Group, said it was crucial for authorities, hotel managers and staff to think ahead.
“You always look back at the last attack and expect the same kinds of tactics to be used,” she said, “but these people learn both from their mistakes and from developments.”
If there were high security at the front, the terrorist would just turn to the back of the hotel, Jones said, adding that in Jakarta, there also had been “danger signs that the hotel staff didn’t read.”
For example, if a hotel guest pays his bill in cash, Jones said, “that should trigger alarm bells. It’s like the one-way tickets on airlines.”
“Employees play a critical role by serving as the eyes and ears of the hotel,” Margaret Heng, executive director of the Singapore Hotel Association said, adding that staff and technology complement each other in ensuring security.
The challenge for hotels is to define “what is considered a right balance” between providing security and not intimidating guests, she said.
For Jones, Singapore always tended “to go overboard” with security issues, and, therefore it would be very difficult for anybody to attack a hotel in the prosperous city-state, she said.
However, “you are never going to have a completely full-proof system,” she warned, noting that Singapore’s most-wanted terrorist, Mas Selamat, managed to escape from a high-security prison to Malaysia in February 2008 before being caught again a year later.
“Since he could clearly find the lapse in the system, it is not unthinkable that other people can as well,” Jones said.