January 28, 2004
By Dana Dillon and Lucia Selvaggi
If the shippers who use the Malacca Straits think they have a
big problem with piracy now, wait till they see what experts say
may be in store for the straits and the other troubled-but-critical
shipping lanes off the coast of Indonesia.
Lloyd's List International, the International Maritime Bureau, the
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Aegis
Defense Services and a host of other maritime and security
organizations have begun to warn that al Qaeda and its local
Southeast Asian affiliates may be planning attacks that would
render the Bali bombings of October 2002 -- al Qaeda's biggest
attack since Sept. 11 in the United States -- small potatoes.
Sadly, the Indonesian government appears to be reacting in the same
way it did when intelligence sources warned of the Bali bombings --
by ignoring or belittling the information. Other governments in the
area have also failed to register the alarm that would seem
appropriate to this threat. Despite the fact that 50,000 ships and
half the world's crude oil travel through the straits each year,
efforts to protect the vessels have proven sporadic and
ineffective. Attacks in the straits -- which narrow to 1.5 miles
wide at some points -- account for more than half the piracy in the
world. And experts with the International Chamber of Commerce,
which tracks piracy, expect more than 400 such attacks world-wide
this year, which means at least 200 in the straits.
As the pirates become increasingly brazen -- as much as 70% of the
attacks take place in ports or nearby -- the patrols begun in 1992
by Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia seem to become even less
effective. In fact, they are so little respected that insurance
companies in Indonesia have begun to charge "war-risk" insurance
rates for using some of the country's ports. But again, this is
small potatoes compared to the danger of terrorist attacks.
Governments in the region and industry experts have come to fear
that terrorists, noting the region's vulnerability to maritime
attack, will hijack a ship and use it to devastate an important
harbor or naval installation.
Some experts suspect that terrorists are being trained to capture a
ship, pilot it into a port or chokepoint and detonate it. There has
been a spate of temporary ship hijackings that may be training
exercises for terrorists. For example, pirates recently hijacked a
chemical tanker off Sumatra and practiced piloting the vessel for
more than an hour. Abu Sayyaf, an al Qaeda-linked Philippine
terrorist group, kidnapped a marine maintenance engineer and forced
him to give them diving instructions. And videotapes captured from
al Qaeda in Afghanistan in 2002 turned out to be surveillance films
of Malaysian police patrol craft. Reports of missing tugboats
aggravate fears of terrorist suicide runs into Southeast Asian
With so many ships carrying fuel through the straits -- experts
estimate 10 very large crude carriers pass through the straits
every day, not to mention two-thirds of the world's liquefied
natural gas -- the consequences could be devastating. For instance,
a suicide run into Singapore by a ship loaded with LNG would be
"more devastating than any bomb" and "too horrible to think about,"
said an official with the International Tanker Operators
Provided prompt action is taken, these problems are preventable.
Today's pirates don't live on their ships or hide on islands. They
carry out their crimes where law enforcement is weak. If Indonesia
made a national commitment to strengthen law enforcement, both
piracy and terrorism would decline.
Terrorism and piracy are transnational crimes that require national
commitment and international cooperation. Yet, so far, Japan is one
of the few countries outside Southeast Asia actively attempting to
address the problem. Japan regularly conducts bilateral antipiracy
exercises with India, Singapore and the Philippines and recently
conducted a half-day antipiracy drill with Singapore in which both
nations tested their ability to board hijacked freighters. Japan
has attempted to involve Indonesia in these exercises, but the
Indonesian government resists.
In 1992, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore instituted joint patrols
of the straits. But by 1995, these exercises had ceased to be
effective and criminals had resumed their activities. These three
states should join together with the other members of the
Association of Southeast Asian Nations to ensure the security of
ships passing through the straits. They should coordinate
communications and intelligence and allow "hot pursuits" of pirates
even if it means patrol units entering the territorial waters of
Before the tragic Bali bombings that killed 202 people, Indonesia's
government had been warned many times that terrorism was becoming a
problem but did nothing. It must not wait for another attack this
time. Shoring up the straits won't be easy and it won't be cheap.
But compared to allowing the pirates and terrorists to operate
unchecked, it's well worth the cost.
Dana R. Dillon is a
senior policy analyst in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage
Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research
First appeared in Wall Street Journal
If the shippers who use the Malacca Straits think they have a big problem with piracy now, wait till they see what experts say may be in store for the straits and the other troubled-but-critical shipping lanes off the coast of Indonesia.
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