SINGAPORE (Reuters) - A “security lapse” led to the escape of an Islamic militant leader accused of planning an attack on Singapore’s airport, a minister said on Thursday, as regional experts predicted his next stop could be Indonesia.
Mas Selamat bin Kastari, the alleged leader of al Qaeda-linked Islamic militant network Jemaah Islamiah’s (JI) Singapore cell, escaped on Wednesday from the toilet of a detention centre.
The JI has been blamed for several deadly bombing attacks in Southeast Asia, including the 2002 bombings that killed more than 200 people on Indonesia’s resort island of Bali.
The escape led to an apology from the government over the “security lapse”, and a manhunt involving thousands of policemen.
Experts said they believed Kastari would try to return to Indonesia, where security is generally viewed as not as tight compared with Singapore.
“I believe he will try to get into Indonesia where he could avoid being detained a lot easier than in Singapore,” said Clive Williams, a professor at Australia’s Macquarie University, who lectures on terrorism.
The city-state, which has a population of 4.6 million, has a wide network of surveillance cameras in public areas and security breaches are rare.
Wong Kan Seng, Singapore’s minister for home affairs, acknowledged the lapse should never have happened and said everything was being done to arrest Kastari.
“The priority is to arrest him, no effort will be spared to track him down,” Wong told members of parliament.
Wong said the city-state’s land, air and sea borders have been tightened in view of Kastari’s escape. Singapore is linked by a bridge to neighboring Malaysia and it only takes an hour by ferry to the Indonesian island of Bintan.
“It’s clearly hugely embarrassing for Singapore because Singapore has had one of the most effective security policies in the region,” said Jakarta-based Sidney Jones, an expert on JI and a senior advisor to the International Crisis Group.
Jones said that although she believes the Indonesian authorities will be on the look out for Kastari, the working ethic of JI members to help one another when in trouble could help him dodge arrest.
However, Indonesia’s national police spokesman said Indonesia had not received a request from Singapore to look for Kastari, adding that it was unlikely the fugitive would enter Indonesia given that the militant had previously been in court there twice.
“His picture is already spread around here so I believe he will not enter Indonesia,” he told Reuters.
Malaysia’s police spokesman was not immediately available for comment but a local newspaper has reported Malaysian police were assisting their Singaporean counterparts.
Kastari, who was allegedly behind a plot to hijack a plane and crash it into Singapore’s Changi Airport, was an important and dangerous member of the JI, experts said.
“He is a significant individual in the terror network and a ruthless terrorist,” said Singapore-based Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research.
“Kastari was committed not only to the JI cause but the Al Qaeda cause of global jihad as well. He poses a threat not only to Singapore but the region,” Gunaratna said.
Singapore, a strong U.S. ally and a major base for Western businesses, sees itself as a prime terrorist target in the region and has said it foiled JI plots in 2001 to attack various Western-linked sites, including the U.S. embassy.
Kastari was arrested by the Indonesian police on Bintan in January 2006 before he was sent to Singapore.
Additional reporting by Telly Nathalia in Jakarta and Liau Y-Sing in Kuala Lumpur;. Editing by Neil Chatterjee and Jerry Norton