High-density HK a terrorist's dream

Updated: 2015-08-19 09:12

By Timothy Chui in Hong Kong(HK Edition)

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A terrorist act in Hong Kong on par with the bomb which tore through a Bangkok intersection on Monday during rush hour would lead to more than HK$ 1 billion in daily losses and untold human suffering, according to terrorism experts.

Any attack would be devastating to the public, Co-Director of International Relations Research Center, Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies Simon Shen Xuhui said.

"The psychological impact would be huge because the public is simply not prepared for it," he said.

A bombing similar to Bangkok's would lead to massive economic losses. Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Economics Professor Francis Lui Ting-ming estimated losses at HK$1.6 billion per day if Central, responsible for one-fifth or HK$2 trillion of Hong Kong's gross domestic product (GDP), were shut down due to an attack.

The human cost would also be catastrophic, former Hong Kong police senior superintendent Steve Vickers said.

"The biggest risk is a biological or chemical attack, because of Hong Kong's density and the fact that there are so many people in close proximity," he said.

Terrorist attacks on high-density human targets include the coordinated 1995 Sarin gas attack in Tokyo which killed 13 people and injured more than 1,000, and the 2005 bombings in London's Underground which killed 56 and injured 700. The potential for such attacks is taken seriously by infrastructure operators in Hong Kong.

The city's terror risk rating remains moderate and there is no reliable intelligence suggesting an imminent attack. But Hong Kong's tightly knit communication links and large numbers of foreign media made it a prime locale for an international or local group seeking to make a statement, Shen said.

Shen said terrorists hoping to get anti-China messages across publicly could select the city for its high profile. Hong Kong's large expat community and concentration of Western firms and interests also made it a tempting target for terrorists hoping to deliver a message to the West - with Shen drawing a comparison with the 2002 Bali bombings.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying in March warned that Hong Kong should not take terrorism lightly, after ISIS recruitment pamphlets were found circulating in the city. New Police Commissioner Stephen Lo Wai-chung has listed terrorism as a top priority during his tenure.

Vickers believes the most likely scenario would involve aviation, with Hong Kong drawn into a terrorist incident in the region. "We are a major international transport hub and could import anything, anytime," he said.

It has happened before. In 1948, a Hong Kong-bound seaplane flying out of Macao and operated by a Cathay Pacific subsidiary has the dubious honor of being the first commercial airline hijacking in Asia. And in 1971, a hijacked Philippine Airlines flight was forced to land at Kai Tak for refueling before carrying on to the mainland. It prompted the formation of the Special Duties Unit, which is Hong Kong's primary counter-terrorism and hostage rescue team.

Yet several elite squads are not enough. Former police counter-terrorism head Francis Shun Leung made it a point to enlist and train every able-bodied beat officer in the fight against terrorism. He said it was every officer's responsibility to uncover plots and try to identify the more elusive "lone-wolf" attackers.

For all Hong Kong's efforts, the final and best tool against a terrorist attack remains the nation's armed forces.

The city could not handle terrorism alone and relied on intelligence from national bodies, Shen said.

Vickers said, "We're well equipped to handle threats, yet a coordinated massacre such as the one which hit Mumbai in 2008 would require greater assistance from the (People's Liberation Army) Air Force."


(HK Edition 08/19/2015 page7)