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January 28, 2004

Stopping an Al Qaeda Attack In the Malacca Straits

By and

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 ports.

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 Association.

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 neighboring states.

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 institution.

First appeared in Wall Street Journal

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