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Singapore hones defences against new terror tactics

Six terrorist teams brazenly attempt to sneak into Singapore aboard speedboats launched from a hijacked ship anchored offshore.

world Updated: Jul 19, 2009 09:14 IST

Six terrorist teams brazenly attempt to sneak into Singapore aboard speedboats launched from a hijacked ship anchored offshore.

The navy detects the presence of the main vessel and alerts the police coast guard, which intercepts one team in a sea chase. The rest land at various points on the southern coast.

Carrying assault rifles concealed inside large bags, the attackers fan out in small groups by foot, train or taxi.

They target posh hotels, shopping malls and an underground station, shooting people at will and taking hostages before security forces overpower them.

Last week’s elaborate simulation was modelled on the November 2008 rampage in Mumbai in which 166 people were killed and more than 300 wounded in a 60-hour shooting spree by Islamist gunmen who entered the Indian city by boat.

Designed to see how prepared Singapore was, the three-day drill was the city-state’s biggest ever counter-terrorism exercise and ended just days before attacks in neighbouring Indonesia left at least eight dead and 55 wounded.

A United States ally in a region not unfamiliar with the terrorist threat -- underlined by the suicide blasts at two luxury Jakarta hotels on Friday -- Singapore considers itself a prime target.

Security analysts say threats from militants are continually evolving and Singapore, a densely populated port city hosting thousands of multinational firms, has to stay a step ahead.

John Harrison, a security analyst at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said “Singapore has always demonstrated an ability to identify and plan for would-be emerging threats.”

Police and experts said the Mumbai attacks, in which a Singaporean hotel guest was killed, highlighted an emerging trend called the “swarm attack” involving coordinated assaults on a variety of targets by small teams.

“Rather than going for the big dramatic attack against high-profile targets, they are going for smaller things that are perhaps even more terrifying because they are so easy to conduct and so difficult to detect,” said Harrison.

Inspector Ivan Choo, a spokesman for the Singapore Police, said it was in contact with Indonesian counterparts to find out more about the latest attacks.

“We have no present information of any specific threat to Singapore,” he stressed.

“Nevertheless, we must be alert and security-conscious on the ground,” Choo said, adding that the police keep “community partners” like hotel security management “apprised and engaged” when it comes to potential threats.

Singapore tightened security measures after the alleged leader of a local terror cell, Mas Selamat bin Kastari, escaped from custody in February 2008 and slipped into Malaysia, where he was recaptured in April this year.

The government also says it foiled a plot by Jemaah Islamiyah militants to crash a plane into Changi Airport in 2001 as well as plans to bomb the US embassy and other targets, arresting several suspects in the process.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who witnessed the final day of the drill, urged Singaporeans to “carry on living life as normal”, but asked them to be vigilant.

Dubbed Exercise Northstar VII, the drill involved more than 2,000 participants from 15 agencies including the military, police, civil defence, hotel staff and transport operators.

In one mock attack, on the swanky Rasa Sentosa Resort Hotel, elite troops were dropped off from a helicopter onto the rooftop to rescue guests taken hostage by ‘terrorists´ who had killed and wounded several people.

Hotel staff tested evacuation plans, police and soldiers cordoned off the area and civil defence crews tended to the mock casualties.

“This type of attack is something that will happen in an urban area and there will be many different actors that will be involved. So everyone has to understand what their role is going to be,” analyst Harrison said.