US missions in Indonesia and Malaysia remained closed for a third day Thursday and the Philippines mission remained on heightened alert to protect against what State Department officials described as "specific, credible threats'' of terrorist attacks turned up in interrogations of alleged Al Qaeda operatives.
US officials say the embassies will likely remain closed through the weekend.
The closures, which coincide with President Bush's bid this week for UN support for a war with Iraq, illustrate how the US war on terror in Southeast Asia and other interests in the region might suffer if Washington takes action against Baghdad.
Nowhere is that more true than in Indonesia, a volatile nation that has the world's largest Muslim population and is struggling through a democratic transition. It's a country that America has worried could harbor Al Qaeda agents and that has not yet given wholehearted support for the war on terror.
That's a problem, because US and regional intelligence officials say terrorist networks remain intact here, and would probably look to strike at US interests if war were declared on Iraq.
But diplomats and analysts are also bracing for an outpouring of public support for Iraq and condemnation of the US. In that event, President Megawati Sukarnoputri's ability to move against domestic radicals will be severely constrained.
The aftermath of an attack on Iraq "will badly damage America's ability to work with the Indonesians," predicts a regional security analyst.
US officials became alarmed about a possible spate of regional truck-bomb attacks following interrogations of alleged Al Qaeda operatives, including Omar al-Faruq, a Kuwaiti national arrested in Indonesia in early June, given into US custody, and flown to an undisclosed US ally for interrogation.
Mr. Faruq, also known as Mahmoud bin Ahmad Assegaf, is alleged to have been a midlevel Al Qaeda financier and a go-between for Al Qaeda and sympathetic radical groups in Indonesia, like Jemaah Islamiyah. US officials declined to provide any details of the supposed plot, but said that a number of people are under surveillance as a consequence of the information provided to them.
Philippines officials say the US told them that its evidence pointed to truck bombs. The Philippines released a memo Wednesday by US Ambassador Albert del Rosario, which detailed a phone call he had with US Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly on Tuesday.
Mr. Kelly said US intelligence indicated that Al Qaeda agents in the region had acquired several tons of ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer that can serve as a powerful explosive, and that the threat was "imminent," according to Mr. Del Rosario's memo.
Rather than generate sympathy, the US reports of impending terrorist attacks have been greeted with popular skepticism in Southeast Asia's two predominantly Muslim nations. Here, against a backdrop of anger over America's threats toward Iraq, claims of terrorist activity are increasingly seen as attempts to justify US foreign policy.
"There's a big credibility gap for the US in the region,'' says Kumar Ramakrishna, an assistant professor at Singapore's Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies. "With the death of Afghan civilians, hard-line US support for Israel, and now the prospects of civilian Iraqi deaths, the region's Muslims are coming to see the war on terror as a war on Islam.''
Indonesian officials expressed mostly annoyance at the embassy closures. "It makes it seem as if the government cannot provide security for foreigners,'' Vice President Hamzah Haz told reporters.
Chief Security Minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono made similar comments, and echoed global frustration with the US over its Iraq policy when he described the decision to close as "unilateral," arguing that Indonesia could guarantee embassy security.
Yet despite regional skepticism, there are good reasons for US caution. During the Gulf War in 1991, Iraqi agents fanned out through Southeast Asia looking for soft US targets after Saddam Hussein threatened to bring the war to Americans wherever they live.
Through good intelligence work and botched efforts by the Iraqis, no one was hurt.
In Jakarta, a bomb planted in the breakfast room of US Ambassador John Monjo's house was found and defused; in Manila, an Iraqi agent blew himself up trying to plant a bomb at the US cultural center; and in Bangkok, Thailand, two Iraqi diplomats were deported after they were found to be using their embassy to smuggle weapons into the country.
There have been more recent incidents. Late last year, Singapore and Malaysian authorities broke up an Al Qaeda-linked plot to bomb the US Embassy and other Western targets in Singapore. Authorities in those two countries allege the attack was planned by the Jemaah Islamiyah, a group of regional Muslim militants founded by a trio of Indonesian preachers two of whom remain at large. One of those two, Abu Bakar Bashir lives openly in Indonesia. Mr. Bashir, who denies any links to terrorism, says the US is trying to frame him because he's a "true believer in Islam."
The US has repeatedly asked Indonesia to arrest Bashir, but the Indonesian government says it has been shown no evidence that he's done anything illegal. Privately, Indonesian officials say they worry about a Muslim backlash if they move against him.
US officials now say there's a strong possibility that the Jemaah Islamiyah will be added to the State Department's list of international terrorists in the next two months, and that Bashir will be named as its leader. That would put pressure on Indonesia to arrest him, and could further strain relations.
"Evidence is being compiled that show the group has a much deeper involvement with known terrorist groups than was previously thought,'' says a security analyst. "But putting pressure on Indonesia to arrest Bashir could backfire."