MANILA, Philippines – Security forces on alert for possible terrorist attacks in Southeast Asia during the Christmas-New Year holidays are trying to remain vigilant, although their focus has shifted to coping with the tsunami that has devastated regional coastlines.
Dealing with the disaster aftermath across the region with about a dozen countries affected by Sunday's earthquake and resulting tsunami "divides attention," said senior Supt. Rodolfo Mendoza, head of the Philippine National Police's anti-terrorism office.
"We have a certain degree of vulnerability," he added, suggesting terror groups might try to take advantage of the chaos as attackers did recently in his country.
While the Philippines was spared the havoc that its neighbors have suffered this week, it was still recovering from brutal storms that killed over 1,000 people when a large timebomb was found on a bus in Manila on Christmas Eve, just before it was set to explode.
"These people don't care. The most important thing is that they can wreak havoc on their targets," Mendoza said. "Terrorists don't consider human suffering because they're actually aspiring for this suffering to happen."
Still, terrorist or militant groups face the same limits on their movements as anyone else because local infrastructure has been destroyed, noted Bradley Allan, a security consultant.
"Even the militants, terrorists, have been caught off-guard," said Allan, a Hong Kong-based executive at the U.S. security consulting company Pinkerton. "Their infrastructure is being as damaged as everyone else's."
Allan said it's also unlikely that terrorists or militants will attack U.S. or local government troops providing relief because it hurts their public image.
"To survive, these insurgent, terrorist groups need a certain amount of popular support," Allan said. "There's no way it could be justified."
A Philippine National Police (search) intelligence officer involved in anti-terrorist operations disagreed, saying local terrorist groups have a standing list of targets and often it's just a matter of waiting for the right time to strike.
The disaster has added to the poverty and disillusionment that can provide the breeding grounds for terrorist recruitment, however.
Police in Indonesian — which has been hardest hit by the earthquake and tsunami — had undertaken a massive security operation at churches, malls and hotels amid warnings that Islamic terrorists were planning holiday attacks in the world's most populous Muslim nation.
Lt. Col. Triwuri Yani, a police spokeswoman in Jakarta, dismissed any concerns about terrorism related to the quake. But she said Wednesday that authorities remained on alert.
"We hope there will be no more terrorist attacks with this earthquake, but we have to be alert," Yani said. "We have to be careful with everyone celebrating the holiday, but we have been on increased alert since before Christmas."
The areas that were worst hit this week were generally not hotbeds of terrorism.
Indonesia's badly hit Aceh province is home to a long, bloody separatist movement, but the rebels have rebuffed overtures from the regional Al Qaeda-linked terror group Jemaah Islamiyah (search).
Thailand has been suffering attacks by Muslim insurgents in the country's deep south. Documents recently found at the house of a fugitive Islamic insurgent leader indicated plans were developing to spread attacks against tourist resorts in other parts of the country, but disaster areas have had no reports to indicate they are moving in now.
Security officials in Malaysia said they also remain on high alert.
A security official said many foreign tourists remain at Malaysian holiday resorts after the tsunami but there's adequate security to protect them. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also said there's little chance Jemaah Islamiyah could carry out an attack because the movement has been badly crippled there by crackdowns on the group and its affiliates.