City must keep up its guard against terrorism

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 October, 2009, 12:00am

Hong Kong is fortunate to have been spared the terrorist attacks that have traumatised other big cities. Whether this was due to luck or preparation is something for experts to debate. But as investment advisers routinely point out, past results are no guide to the future. Therefore, the Security Bureau and police are right to take no chances.

As we report today, a new police anti-terrorist unit has been established and will be ready for the East Asian Games in December. The specially trained officers will provide a stop-gap between uniformed police and the special duties unit, the elite police squad better known as the Flying Tigers. In a terrorist attack, a rapid response is essential to save lives and contain the threat. Ordinary police officers are not sufficiently trained to handle such extreme situations, yet the special duties unit often needs time to assemble and react to a threat. The new counterterrorism readiness unit will therefore help fill a gap.

Similar to the airport's police security team, its officers will be heavily armed when they patrol major city landmarks, diplomatic compounds and sports stadiums. Their high visibility will, hopefully, reassure rather than alarm people. Police said experience at the airport had shown that people quickly adjust to the sight of heavily armed officers. However, the unit will not be a permanent presence on our streets; its services will only be required at special events.

In a post-9/11 world, it has become mandatory for host countries to provide special security at major sporting events and diplomatic gatherings. As a major international city, Hong Kong must likewise provide such services. This is a responsibility to other nations and a deterrent to terrorists. The new anti-terrorist unit will help to lift our security capabilities.

Hong Kong is potentially an easy and desirable target for terrorists. Our open economy and liberal immigration policy attract millions of foreigners. Major Western countries have properties, consulates and business headquarters in our city. Our porous borders are not difficult to penetrate by sea or land. Recently, police have acknowledged that illegal immigrants can, without much difficulty, slip in and out of the city through Lau Fau Shan, a village a mere 20-minute boat ride from Shenzhen. A steady stream of South Asian and African illegal immigrants have been exploiting this route through the northern New Territories.

More importantly, the rise of China has greatly increased its international profile; the nation now has business and diplomatic ties spanning the globe. Accordingly, terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda have made credible threats against Chinese interests. This month Abu Yahya al-Libi, al-Qaeda's third in command, urged Uygurs in Xinjiang to launch a holy war against 'oppressive' China. Previously, the global terror group had called for attacks against Chinese interests in Africa.

But the readiness of our police force is only one aspect of preparedness. Good intelligence is more important to prevent and prepare for an attack. That is why Hong Kong must keep up and enhance contacts with foreign intelligence and law enforcement communities. Indeed, such networks as we have maintained have been one of the government's underappreciated success stories since the handover. The mainland's security and intelligence services will also give us a head start. As China's most international city, we cannot afford to be complacent about terrorism.