Malacca Strait: Target for terror By Ioannis Gatsiounis
KUALA LUMPUR - While it benefits some parties to talk up the threat of terror -
whether to gain a contract or a foothold in a foreign land - the Singaporean,
Malaysian and Indonesian governments, burdened with monitoring the world's
busiest strait, would like nothing more than to prove to the world that
everything's under control.
Indeed, with 600 vessels and 11 million barrels of oil passing through the
Malacca Strait each day, everything has to be under control.
So it followed that on July 20, in conjunction with the three countries' launch
of coordinated patrols of the Malacca Strait - which will allow each country to
evaluate one another's strengths
and weaknesses and coordinate their patrols while maintaining sovereignty - the
Indonesian navy flexed a little muscle.
As flares pinkened the sky, soldiers parachuted into the sea and simulated a
pirate chase in speed boats. If only it were for real, and a day earlier, when
pirates toting automatic weapons boarded a liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) tanker
off the coast of Indonesia and escaped with equipment.
only. But what
if? What if it wasn't pirates but terrorists who had attacked the ship?
For terrorists, an LPG tanker would be a dream catch, just right for turning into a
"floating bomb" to crash into a port or city.
The point is, according to Malaysian, Indonesian and Singaporean naval
officials, the trilateral arrangement for coordinated patrols puts the three
littoral states in a better position to prevent just such an occurrence.
"Our cooperation in coordinating the patrol activity will take place all year,
every day, 24 hours a day," said Admiral Bernard Kent Sondakh, chief of the
Indonesian navy. Three to four ships will patrol the 600-mile Strait at any one
time. Intelligence will be shared; a 24-hour information center has been
But will the coordinated patrols, as advertised, significantly reduce the
possibility of a crippling terrorist attack taking place in the Strait?
It is ironic that the simulated pirate chase was a display of the same muscle
that has been touted for years - the same muscle that has hardly made the
Strait safer passing for vessels. Pirates have operated with virtual impunity
here, with less than 1% being caught. And according to the International
Maritime Bureau's (IMB) annual report, between January and June
piracy attacks in the Strait were up 33% from a year ago. The same
report found that Indonesia had the highest incidence of piracy in the
world, with around 100 actual and attempted attacks last year.
Indonesian navy Colonel Sulistyanto doesn't foresee the coordinated patrols -
known officially as Melaka Strait Singapore Coordinated Patrol (MSSCP) -
substantially reducing those figures. "Our three nations need more assets,
personnel, intelligence building. The policy and budgeting must change," he
said. Any funding increases are predicted to be minimal; they will be siphoned
from preexisting military budgets, or collected from donor nations.
But even with adequate funding, said Sulistyanto, the MSSCP's policy falls
short. Unlike "joint" patrols, "coordinated" patrols don't allow for hot
pursuits. This means one country giving chase to pirates or terrorists cannot
cross into the territorial waters of another country. Each country will still
operate under separate commands and patrols, a potential cause for confusion,
inefficiency and misallocation of resources.
Malaysian Defense Minister Najib Razak, who has long feared the
intentions of those militaries Malaysia collaborates with, dismissed the possibility
of joint naval patrols, insisting that territorial integrity must be
respected. (In April the US military commander in the Asia Pacific region,
Admiral Thomas Fargo, said his country was considering deploying marines and special forces on
high-speed vessels along the Malacca Strait to thwart terrorists. In June,
Fargo assured Najib he didn't mean what he said.)
But some wonder whether Najib's pride and paranoia are hindering the
stated aims of the MSSCP. The Indonesian navy finds itself, in the words
of Sulistyanto, "spread thin", unable to honor its share of the
agreement. Indonesia is home to myriad other problems, from political to economic
to sectarian in nature. The government hasn't been in a position to make
fighting terror a priority. Indeed, only 30 of the Indonesia navy's 117 warships
are currently operational, though it has announced a plan to procure 22 brand-new
Singapore, meanwhile, desperately wants a greater US presence in the Strait, as
it perceives itself to be the primary terrorist target in the region: it is the
only non-Muslim state of the three, a strong ally of the United States, and its
port is the busiest in the world. It doesn't help that the tiny republic sits
exposed like a sore thumb on the Strait.
Malaysia, on the other hand, has come across as calm and confident. As
Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi told reporters recently, "I wouldn't
say that [Jemaah Islamiyah [JI - the suspected Southeast Asian wing of the
al-Qaeda network] are destroyed, but if there are any more, we [Malaysia] are
able to contain them." Malaysia is in the process of building its own coast
guard, which would bring the marines, navy, fisheries and other maritime
agencies under one umbrella.
The three states' differing attitudes will hardly enhance the
coordinated patrols. But then, how vulnerable, really, is the Malacca Strait to
a terrorist attack? Judging by the number of pirates working the Strait
with impunity, the answer would seem to be: very.
One nightmare scenario involves pirates teaming up with terrorists. Brian
Jenkins, an expert on terrorism and security, warns against conflating an
increase in piracy with an increase in the terrorist threat. And so far,
there is no indication that terrorists and pirates are in cahoots. Their aims
are different. According to retired Malaysian Captain Mat Taib Yasin, "The
pirate wants to enjoy his loot. The terrorist wants to destroy the enemy, get
political mileage - and he's prepared to die."
But pirates have a proven track record hijacking oil tankers in the Strait. And
navy officials wonder how far a little money might go in convincing pirates to
assist terrorists. After all, money - loot - is the pirate's language, and the
terrorists who may be eyeing the Strait are well funded.
Some analysts point out that hijacking a tanker and steering it through the
narrow lanes of a port is a different matter entirely from a simple hijacking.
Navigating a ship through a harbor requires the skills of a harbor pilot, and
harbor pilots are often not part of a ship's crew but borrowed at the port
entrance. And last month it became mandatory under International Maritime
Organization rules for all ships over 500 gross tons to have alarm systems. In
case of a pirate or terrorist attack, the pressing of a button will notify the
nearest shore-based authority of a crisis. The system identifies the ship and
its location, speed and bearing, and the alarm won't be heard on the ship
itself, so the assailants will not be aware it has been sounded.
What, though, if a ship is hijacked long before it reaches the Strait? Indeed,
the world's biggest crew supplier is the Philippines - home of the militant
group Abu Sayyaf, no stranger to wreaking havoc on the high seas.
How navies of the MSSCP allocate their resources may well determine the fate of
the Strait. J N Mak, a visiting fellow at the Institute for Southeast Asian
Studies in Singapore and an expert on seafaring crime, said Singapore, Malaysia
and Indonesia might be focusing too much attention on the sea itself.
"Terrorists, like pirates, operate from land bases. They're beholden to land.
They need fuel and petrol," he said. History, he added, shows that success in
beating lawlessness at sea has involved targeting land bases.
security system is foolproof, and even those that appear
to be may not deter terrorists from trying their hand in
the Malacca Strait, for the potential aftermath of an
attack may be too great to pass up.
Oil and the economy
The West is the largest consuming bloc of oil, while the Middle East is
the biggest producer. This means oil as a commodity is highly dependent
on international trade. And most of this, two-thirds, is shipped by tanker (the
rest moves by pipeline).
No doubt terrorists have long been fascinated with oil and shipping targets.
In October 2002, al-Qaeda rammed a boat full of explosives into a
French supertanker stationed off Yemen. That same year, a group of
al-Qaeda operatives were arrested by the Moroccan government on suspicion of plotting
to sink British and US tankers in the Strait of Gibraltar.
Terrorists have also plotted attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf and off
the Horn of Africa. These incidents, coupled with al-Qaeda plots to attack US
warships, including those transiting the Malacca Strait, have fueled concerns
of a major catastrophe in the making.
Under interrogation, an al-Qaeda specialist in maritime operations, Abd
al-Rahim al-Nashri, told of the group's ability to attack shipping targets. The
al-Qaeda network has shown video footage of Malaysian police patrols along the
Malacca Strait, suggesting they may already be planning an attacking on the
Of all the shipping lanes in the world, the Malacca Strait may be the
most attractive to terrorists. One-third of all world trade is said to pass through
the Strait. Most trade to Asia passes through it - 80% of China's oil imports
alone pass through the Strait. As its economy grows, China finds itself more
dependent on the free flow of goods to and from other nations; and in turn
those nations depend on an economically stable China. Oil supplies are crucial
to that interdependence.
Global demand for oil this year is predicted to grow by 2 million barrels a
day, the largest increase since 1998. The terrorist confronts a world addicted
to oil. And of course the best way to bring an addict to his knees is to cut
off his supply.
Would devastating the Malacca Strait have the intended effect? One scenario has
a terrorist crashing a boat into an undocked oil tanker; it is believed that an
oil spill, particularly at the Strait's narrowest point of 1.5 miles, could
shut down the Strait for weeks. But with a global economy incessantly dependent
on the free flow of maritime goods, environmental and safety concerns are
likely to take a back seat - they can't afford not to.
History is inconclusive on the economic impact of impairment of the oil
trade. The 1973 Arab oil embargo caused oil prices to triple and the world to
dive into a recession. But an attack on a Western oil target in Khobar,
Saudi Arabia, this year did little to disrupt the flow of Saudi oil. And
though there have been 18 attacks on oil pipelines this year in Iraq, which has
the fourth-largest reserves, this has hardly destabilized the global economy.
Oil is fungible, and made more so by fears of a terrorist attack on oil routes
and supplies. The United States, for one, has been stocking up on petroleum
reserves, which now surpass 700 million barrels. And US oil supplies are
While supply is not a huge issue, this by no means ensures that a terrorist hit
on the Malacca Strait couldn't have a major impact on the oil price. Most
well-informed analysts say that from a supply-demand standpoint, oil should be
trading in the range of US$32 or so; the rest is risk premium and "taking out
insurance" against the unknown. On Tuesday, world oil prices set fresh records,
just short of $45 a barrel for US crude, as violence in Iraq disrupted exports.
Any significant terrorist event, even if it does not actually greatly cut down
on supply, would kick this risk premium up further; markets are all about
expectations. Closing the Strait even for a short period would likely have a
large psychological price effect, and this is a great worry for China, Japan
and South Korea.
In real terms, closure of the Strait would force a diversion through the Sunda
or Lombok straits and add 1.5 sailing days. That, in turn, would immediately
stretch tanker capacity - already stetched - to the limit. Moreover, it would
take the Singapore refineries and refined products out of the picture, at least
to some extent.
coordinated patrols are a product of these fears. And
their announcement puts all eyes back on the Strait as a
potential terrorist target - but with that comes a
reminder of just how vulnerable and attractive to
terrorists the Strait is. And one's left to wonder
whether the patrols will stoke or deter the enemy.
(Additional reporting by Bill
(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact [email protected] for information on our
sales and syndication policies.)