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Japan’s counterterrorism efforts falling short

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Special To The Japan Times

The Foreign Ministry invited ridicule toward the end of 2015 after it advertised job openings for part-time counterterrorism analysts. While the expansion of the exploited precariat of non-regular workers to nearly 40 percent of the workforce is lamentable in itself, who would have thought some of them would be responsible for safeguarding the public from terrorism?!

Although generating lousy jobs is intrinsic to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Abenomics initiative, given the urgency of boosting Japan’s counterterrorism capabilities it is bizarre that the government is so tight-fisted when it comes to hiring intelligence analysts, especially since they are required to have excellent language skills and a background in analyzing terrorism. These analysts are tasked with keeping the nation safe from terrorists on a three-day-a-week schedule and are paid a paltry ¥10,000 ($89) a day! Given that a day’s wages would come to less than the cost of a bottle of the vintage wines favored by Japanese diplomats, let’s hope these analysts can at least get free access to the Foreign Ministry’s cafeteria.

Another concern is that these analysts have probably lived and studied overseas, which means that under the controversial state secrets law they are supposedly barred from handling classified dossiers.

It is no secret that Japan’s counterterrorism capabilities lag well behind those of the United States, Europe and in other parts of the world where terrorist incidents have forced governments to act. Policy analysts often talk about windows of opportunity that facilitate the enactment of long-standing agendas in the spirit of not letting a crisis go to waste. The beheading of two Japanese hostages at the hands of the Islamic State group last year was just such a crisis, putting wind in the sails of organizations that have long pined for expanded policing and intelligence-gathering powers, and the requisite budgets and staffing. The more recent Paris, Jakarta and Ankara bombings have added fuel to the fire.

Jun Honna, a specialist on Indonesian politics and security at Ritsumeikan University, has studied how that nation responded to the wave of terrorism unleashed by Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a group linked to al-Qaida that operated in Southeast Asia and claimed responsibility for the 2002 bombings on the Indonesian island of Bali, a popular tourist destination. Jakarta created a special task force in the national police that proved highly effective in degrading JI and rolling back its network. In the wake of a recent attack by the Islamic State group in Jakarta — a low-budget botched operation in January — there are signs that the more seasoned JI is regrouping. In addition, there are well over 400 Indonesian jihadis who have gone to Syria where they will develop dangerous skill sets; many of the JI terrorists had similar “training” in Afghanistan.

“My concern is Abe’s blind following of the U.S.-led global war on terrorism targeting ISIS,” Honna says. “His administration believes joining the ‘war’ club may boost Japan’s counterterrorism commitment and capacity in preparing for the G7 Summit and 2020 Olympics, but joining the club boosts the risk of being the target of an ISIS attack.”

While the government touts its cooperative arrangements with nations around the world, Honna is skeptical.

“Japan-ASEAN cooperation is nothing substantial; only seminars and workshops,” he says.

Last year the government fast-tracked the establishment of the International Terrorism Intelligence-Gathering Unit, based within the Foreign Ministry, which is supposed to cooperate with foreign intelligence agencies and oversee the collection and analysis of relevant intelligence. Although it operates out of the ministry, its staff is drawn from the National Police Agency (NPA), the Defense Ministry, the Public Security Intelligence Agency and the Cabinet Intelligence Research Office. The government has also announced plans to eventually post 20 staff members to various Japanese embassies and consulates, with initial postings to Amman, Cairo, Jakarta and New Delhi.

Masaki Mizobuchi, a terrorism expert at Nagoya University of Business and Commerce and participant in the New Voices of Japan program run by the Social Science Research Council’s Tokyo office, is skeptical about this endeavor because the ministry lacks Arabic-speaking employees trained in intelligence-gathering.

Yuki Tatsumi, senior associate of the East Asia program at the Stimson Center in Washington, is also doubtful about the Japanese government’s counterterrorism initiatives.

“The Japanese government has not been able to invest enough financial resources to equip its intelligence organizations with meaningful wherewithal to boost their capacity to collect, analyze and distribute the intelligence they gather,” Tatsumi wrote in The Diplomat in June. “Japanese intelligence organizations have been often criticized for being stovepiped and having a predominantly law-enforcement focus, often at the expense of other national security considerations.”

Moreover, she asserts: “The Cabinet Intelligence Officer does not have the authority to allocate resources or to move personnel among the intelligence organizations across the government, leaving these organizations to conduct their own activities with little coordination or communication. The newly proposed measures do little to solve this problem.”

Tatsumi also believes the new measures are too narrowly focused on human intelligence, or HUMINT, “almost completely disregarding” the necessity of synthesizing this with other forms of information, such as: signals intelligence, electronic intelligence, imagery intelligence, technical intelligence, measurement and signature intelligence, and open-source intelligence (OSINT).

If Japan is serious about developing an organization similar to MI6 or the CIA, she points out that “it takes more than developing Japanese analysts who are fluent in foreign languages to develop a real HUMINT capacity, including the cultivation of indigenous informants and establishing the extraction of in-country agents and/or informants when necessary.”

In December, a section was established in the Cabinet Secretariat with a mandate to coordinate counterterrorism efforts between different ministries and agencies, but it remains to be seen how effective it will be in managing turf wars. In addition, a new NPA department called the Internet OSINT Center will collect terrorism-related information online. A rash of revelations about cyber-attacks, many of Chinese origin, has provided the Abe government additional ammunition to support and push for the establishment of an intelligence agency.

But in the meantime, various agencies are beefing up their crisis-response capabilities. For example, the NPA announced recently that it will provide highly mobile armored vehicles to counterterrorism units such as the special assault teams and anti-firearms squads in the Tokyo and Osaka police departments and those in the vicinity of other potential targets around Japan, because up until now they apparently lacked mobility to chase suspects. If true, that seems an amazing oversight, but as Koichi Oizumi, an expert on risk management and terrorism at Aomori Chuo Gakuin University, says, “Japan is still a novice in counterterrorism measures and there are lots of blind spots.” Not a reassuring assessment given the G-7 Ise-Shima Summit in May and the fast-approaching 2020 Olympics.

Mizobuchi says upgrading Japan’s counterterrorism capacity will take time because: “the size is very small; the rivalry between the ministries; and Japan has no organization specializing in clandestine foreign HUMINT.”

In his view, the main obstacles to developing a more effective counterterrorism capacity are complacency due to the absence of any terrorist incident for two decades in Japan and “the rivalry between the ministries and the public outcry in Japan … (as) there is a strong emotional/ideological opposition toward strengthening the power of police or intelligence organizations.”

The fact remains, though, that the government is poorly prepared to cope with threats to relatively vulnerable overseas interests and domestic targets, and experts agree that enhancing limited counterterrorism capabilities will take some time. But the clock is ticking, as Abe’s antiterrorism swagger has already painted a bull’s-eye on Japan.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.