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Part 2: Tides of terror lap Southeast Asia
By Eric Koo

See also Part 1: Southeast Asia's modern-day pirates

SINGAPORE - Preliminary investigations by US intelligence agencies have yielded no direct evidence linking piracy to terrorism. Yet the possibility of an alliance between piracy and terrorism cannot be ruled out. Piracy provides lucrative means of raising funds with which to purchase weapons for terrorists. In turn, terrorist groups can provide the expertise with which pirates may better avoid capture or arrest by lawful authorities. Such a possible collaborative relationship brings vital benefits to either party. If circumstances allow, terrorist bases and safe havens may even provide the necessary protection for pirates to hide their operations and activities.

With the intense crackdown on terrorist cells on land, terrorist groups are likely to shift their operations to sea out of necessity and to avoid attention. Recent discoveries show that sophisticated groups such as al-Qaeda already have placed their sights on attacking maritime targets: terrorist suspect Babar Ahmad, apprehended on August 4 in London, had plans detailing vulnerabilities in US naval fleets. State governments in Southeast Asia have long recognized this fact and have set up cooperative efforts in coordinating maritime patrols, in particular along the Malacca Strait.

Maritime smuggling
Smuggling, or the illegal transport of goods, is a maritime crime committed to evade paying custom dues. It is an act that on the surface has only minor significance in regard to security issues. Smugglers, after all, are aiming to make lucrative profits by illegal cost-cutting. Theoretically, smuggling entails no risk of life and limb, even if the smugglers are apprehended, so long as they are not armed. Smuggling, in fact, falls more under the jurisdiction of maritime customs authorities.

Maritime smuggling, however, can serve as an avenue by which weapons and explosives may be supplied to terrorists. Logically, a maritime smuggling operation is more secure than an overland operation, as surveillance at sea is much more difficult than on land. This means that thwarting smuggling attempts requires excellent intelligence from moles or infiltrated spies within the smuggling ring itself.

One recent smuggling case is particularly noteworthy. On July 24 the Philippine authorities apprehended a shipment of rifles and other assorted weapons aboard a motor vessel. These weapons were to be transferred to fishing boats and taken ashore to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the biggest armed insurgent group operating in the Philippines. Both sides, rebels and government officials, have taken to accusing each other for involvement in the weapons shipment.

This incident highlights the need for maritime security forces to guard against smugglers. Aside from being a source of direct weapon supplies, smuggling also provides a lucrative form of revenue that can help finance terrorist activities.

Mimicked terror tactics
As with terrorism on land, maritime terrorism tends to mimic successful tactics employed by other terrorist groups. This was a claim made by a leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a Sri Lankan armed insurgent group, when he commented on the attack on the USS Cole in 2000.

Terrorist tactics that have proved successful or effective are then repeated elsewhere and modified according to local circumstances and situations. Attention devoted by both media and intelligence communities to maritime terrorism is much less than that given to land-based terrorism. The following factors may explain why.

  • Important activities such as commerce, production or political events are mostly carried out on land. Activities at sea, even those of vital importance, are mainly the concerns of a minority group in society - sailors, naval personnel, or maritime merchants. These people, by virtue of their trade, are usually cut off from mainstream social affairs by the necessity of long periods spent away at sea.
  • Terrorist attacks at sea tend to hit mostly individual targets (ships), unlike terrorist attacks on land, such as a bombing in a crowded place, that may kill or injure multiple targets. The effects of sudden death in usually predominantly urban environments on land have a greater psychological impact on the public, especially if filmed by media or reported in newspaper photographs. This is in contrast to humanitarian disasters at sea, where evidence of the carnage is recovered over time, and the usual loss of evidence beneath the waves leads to much ambiguity. The fear factor in the wake of a successful maritime terrorist attack is thus depleted.
  • The frequency of maritime terrorist attacks is significantly less than of land-based attacks. This is partly due to the level of difficulty in obtaining, preparing and piloting a seacraft for a suicide-bomb attack as compared with a land-based car or truck bomb. Also the opportunities of hitting a ship stationed at port may not always abound, as port security can be easily reinforced if necessary.

    Terrorist groups, however, are openly exploring opportunities to stage acts of terrorism on commercial shipping. According to a CNN report in May, Western intelligence uncovered plans by al-Qaeda contemplating an attack on ships moored at ports and maritime choke points, including the Strait of Gibraltar and the Suez Canal. In Southeast Asia, the Malacca Strait is another important waterway that remains vulnerable to terrorist activity or piracy if security measures are lax.

    Terrorist acts pertaining to maritime terrorism have happened several times already.

    The USS Cole bombing
    On October 12, 2000, the US Navy destroyer USS Cole was at the Yemeni port of Aden for refueling. According to witnesses, a rubber speedboat helping the destroyer moor exploded alongside the ship, opening a six-by-12-meter hole at the waterline on the left of its broadside.

    The bombing incident of the USS Cole drew a lot of media attention, unlike a later maritime terrorist attack on the French oil supertanker Limburg in 2002. Both incidents, however, involved similar operating methods, utilizing explosives-laden vessels that approached the target before self-detonating. The assaulting vessel may be running at top speed, driven by pilots mentally prepared to sacrifice their lives kamikaze style. Suicide terrorism is an effective tactic and has been used with increasing frequency since the attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001.

    Strategically, the attack on the USS Cole was considered a failure. The attack led neither to the ship's sinking nor annihilation of the entire crew; only 17 sailors were killed. The bombing of the Cole, merely a destroyer, also had little significant impact on the aggregate fleet strength of the US Navy, nor would it even if it had been destroyed. Moreover, the bombing alerted the world's intelligence community to a new type of terrorist tactic.

    The attacks on the Cole and the Limburg were maritime incidents where terrorists attempted to strike ships stationed at port with small, explosives-laden vessels. It also highlighted the clear vulnerability of larger ships in coastal areas being hit in this way by much smaller vessels that could masquerade as vessels performing some other function. In hiding their true purpose, before being launched at high velocities, these vessels had the ability to take the larger ships by surprise.

    The Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka
    The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is an armed insurgent group with considerable political and military strength in Sri Lanka. The Tigers are virtually de facto rulers of a huge swath of land called the Jaffna region and peninsula in northern Sri Lanka. The LTTE has been designated a terrorist group by both the United States and the United Kingdom.

    Founded and led by Vellupillai Prabakaran, a leader with undoubtedly brilliant military ability, the LTTE is a sophisticated organization that provides alternative governing administration in areas under its control. Its military organization is much akin to the conventional armed services of any modern state, with its cadre divided into several wings, including the main ground forces, naval group, anti-aircraft group and artillery.

    The LTTE also has a wing of suicide bombers called the Black Tigers, whose members are chosen to conduct assassinations of top political opposition figures using explosives strapped to the body. The LTTE pioneered a form of maritime suicide terrorism that uses specially designed watercraft loaded with explosives and spikes fastened to the bow of the boat in order to latch on to the broadside of the larger vessel upon high-velocity impact. The tactics are similar in kind to the operations carried out against the USS Cole and the Limburg.

    In addition to the Black Tigers, the naval wing of the LTTE, the Sea Tigers, has a suicide bomber sub-unit called the Black Sea Tigers. On June 5, 2000, the Black Sea Tigers attacked Sri Lankan naval gunboats in the waters off the Vadamarachchi coast. Twenty-one naval personnel and 13 Black Sea Tiger cadres were killed in the attack. The Sea Tigers employed these kamikaze-style suicide tactics with explosives-laden boats on a huge operation in September 2001 against the Sri Lankan navy, utilizing about 20 such boats.

    The LTTE has avoided attention and crackdowns by foreign intelligence and security communities only because, with the exception of Indian prime minister Rajiv Ghandi's assassination, it has kept most of its violent activities confined to Sri Lanka.

    Although since 2003 the LTTE has been officially committed to peaceful negotiations aimed at reconciliation with the Sri Lankan government, its undoubted military capabilities and high level of sophisticated terrorist methods and tactics remain relatively intact. Its highly organized political and military organization clearly illustrates the potential for development of maritime terrorist tactics and capabilities overseas.

    Although its main political agenda may be limited and irrelevant to other states, the LTTE could easily act as an intermediary or auxiliary contact, providing training, expertise and arms supplies to other terrorist groups in Southeast Asia that may have an interest in developing maritime terrorism. Monetary rewards remain the strongest incentives for such clandestine alliances.

    The Abu Sayyaf
    The Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines is an extremist Islamic militant group that originated in 1990 as a splinter faction of another much larger militant organization, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). It is currently led by Khadaffy Janjalani, the brother of deceased founder Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani. The Abu Sayyaf rose to prominence and notoriety because of its ruthlessness in the kidnapping and beheading of hostages in 2000.

    The large southern island province of Mindanao has always been the stronghold of opposition and armed resistance by both the MILF and the Abu Sayyaf against the Philippine government. The Abu Sayyaf was established and is active on Jolo and Basilan islands in the southwestern Philippines. Southwest of Mindanao Island are a chain of islands from which gun-running and weapons smuggling were made possible by speedboats and other small vessels owned by the Abu Sayyaf. The sources of the weapons were unidentified smugglers from the larger island of Borneo, which is under the jurisdiction of Malaysia and Indonesia.

    As seen from the map, Jolo and Basilan islands are straddled along a relatively short sea route between the Malaysian part of Borneo and Mindanao. Because of this strategic significance, small vessels such as speedboats can make short journeys by "island hopping" if a network of established contacts are well placed on various islands to facilitate necessary boat activities such as replenishing supplies, loading of cargo, etc. As such, the Abu Sayyaf has used smuggling to obtain supplies and weapons by sea.

    The Abu Sayyaf also seems interested in staging maritime terrorist acts. On February 28, an explosion occurred on SuperFerry 14, a Philippine passenger ship. The Abu Sayyaf claimed responsibility for this terrorist act, which supposedly involved a suicide bomber masquerading as a passenger.

    The Philippines has announced a number of ongoing and consecutive arrests as well as eradication operations taken against this group from 2001 onward. Important leaders and cadres have been captured. Many of its members were also killed in periodic shootouts with soldiers from the Philippine Armed Forces.

    As the Abu Sayyaf is known to have close links to al-Qaeda, the United States has taken exceptional interest in this group, extending financial aid and training expertise to the Philippines for the purpose of improving counter-terrorism efforts against this group.

    Although the Abu Sayyaf is relatively smaller than its parent organization, the MILF, and despite having many of its members eliminated, its leader Khadaffy Janjalani is still at large. To date, the Philippine authorities, in particular the armed forces, are still not able to eradicate this group completely. The Abu Sayyaf remains a potential maritime threat.

    TOMORROW - Strategies for maritime security

    Eric Koo has a bachelor's degree in materials engineering and a master's degree of science in strategic studies from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. He is currently writing commentary and analysis articles about international events, security issues and terrorism for newspapers.

    (Copyright 2004 Eric Koo.)

  • Oct 20, 2004
    Asia Times Online Community

    From one blunder to the next
    (Aug 11, '04)

    Malacca Strait: Target for terror
    (Aug 11, '04)

    Malaysian coastline easy pickings
    (May 22, '03)

    Piracy: Terror on the high seas
    (Aug 21, '02)


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