Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The Malacca Straits and the Threat of Maritime Terrorism

Drafted By: Catherine Zara Raymond

On August 1, 2005, the foreign ministers of the three littoral states of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore met to discuss maritime safety and security in the Malacca Straits. They concluded their talks with a stronger commitment to addressing comprehensively the issue of maritime security, including the threats of piracy, armed robbery and terrorism. The meeting marked the recognition by the littoral states that much remains to be done in terms of improving the safety and security of the Malacca Straits.

The situation became all the more urgent following the recent decision by Lloyd's Market Association's Joint War Committee to declare the Malacca Straits an area that is in jeopardy of "war, strikes, terrorism and related perils." The decision to add the Straits of Malacca to the Committee's list of high-risk areas was taken following recommendations by the private defense consultants, Aegis Defence Services, who are said to have carried out risk assessments on the area. Others on the list are countries such as Iraq, Somalia and Lebanon. Although the Committee has a purely advisory role, the result of this declaration could be dramatically higher insurance costs for the many thousands of ships that transit the Straits on an annual basis.

The Aegis report stated that due to the fact that there had been an intensification of the weaponry and techniques used by the pirates in the Straits, they are now largely indistinguishable from terrorists. In addition, it stated that the Straits are a target for terrorism. The report cited a statement by al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in which he spoke about hitting enemy countries through their economies. It also highlighted Jemaah Islamiyah's (J.I.) past interest in the traffic passing through the Straits. [See: "The Threat of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic Revolutionary Movement"]

The Straits of Malacca: A High-Risk Zone?

A terrorist attack in this economically strategic waterway would certainly have the potential to cause large-scale economic impact, not just regionally but on a global scale. The waterway is transited by about 60,000 ships each year, and approximately one third of the world's trade and half of the world's oil pass through the Straits on their way to countries such as China and Japan.

However, both the littoral states and ship owners around the world have expressed their concern over whether the decision by the Joint War Committee is justified. In a joint statement, the foreign ministers of the littoral states urged the Committee to "review its risk assessment accordingly." The ministers expressed their regret that the decision was taken without their consultation and failed to take into account their existing efforts to deal with the threats to safety and security in the Straits. The Federation of A.S.E.A.N. Shipowners' Association declared that the decision was "misguided."

While the reaction by the littoral states and ship owners may to some extent be warranted given the lack of evidence pointing to an immediate threat from maritime terrorism, completely ruling out the possibility of an attack taking place would be an incorrect assessment. A terrorist attack in the Straits may have a low probability of occurring but the impact of such an attack could be very high.

It is important to point out that the threat of international terrorism still casts its shadow over the region. Despite a series of arrests, the J.I. network remains resilient and is expected to strike again. The suicide bombing at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta on September 9, 2004, which killed some 11 people and injured more than 180, is certainly proof of this.

As mentioned in the Aegis report, J.I. has planned attacks against naval vessels in the region. Fears of a J.I. attack were renewed after U.S. intelligence passed on warnings about a plot to hijack a vessel in the region's waterways. The warnings, issued in September 2004, stated that activists from J.I. had been discussing plans to seize a vessel with the assistance of local pirates.

Other terrorist attacks attributed to J.I. are: the Christmas Eve bombings of churches in Indonesia in 2000, which killed some 19 people, the October 12, 2002 Bali suicide attack that killed around 200 people, mostly Western tourists including approximately 88 Australians, in a nightclub, and the Marriott Hotel bombing in Jakarta that killed around 12 people on August 5, 2003.

The Philippines continues to be a haven for terrorist activity, with evidence of terrorist training camps on the Philippine island of Mindanao and growing cooperation between J.I. and the two Philippine Muslim insurgency groups -- the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (M.I.L.F.) and the Abu Sayyaf Group (A.S.G.).

Both M.I.L.F. and A.S.G. have carried out previous maritime terrorist attacks. One such attack by M.I.L.F. took place on a busy seaport in Davao City, in the Philippines, in April 2003. Around seventeen people were killed in the attack. The group also carried out attacks on Philippine shipping, mainly placing bombs on domestic inter-island ferries being used to transport members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and Christians to and from Mindanao. On February 27, 2004, A.S.G. carried out a suicide bombing on the M/V Superferry 14 shortly after it left Manila Bay, killing more than 100 people. This attack resulted in the greatest number of deaths since the Bali bombing,

It is clear from the militant groups operating in the region that there is an interest in attacking maritime targets. Whether or not they have the capability to conduct a spectacular attack on shipping in the Straits remains to be seen.

A Terrorism-Piracy Nexus?

One of the specific criticisms leveled at the Aegis report was its failure to distinguish clearly between piracy and terrorism. While piracy in the Straits of Malacca has been taking place on a regular basis for the last decade, there is little or no evidence to suggest that pirates are forming links with international or regional terrorist groups, such as al-Qaeda or J.I., in order to carry out a devastating attack on a maritime target. The only suspected link between piracy and terrorism in the Malacca Straits is the employment of pirate tactics by the separatist group known as the Free Aceh Movement (G.A.M.).

Since the 1970s, G.A.M. has been fighting a separatist war against the Indonesian government with the aim of creating an independent Islamic kingdom in the province of Aceh. The group is said to finance its terrorist activities partly through sea piracy and smuggling. These are not, strictly speaking, acts of maritime terrorism. It has been well documented that terrorist groups have resorted to criminal activities in order to generate funds for their political campaigns. However, these criminal acts are not in themselves acts of terrorism. Therefore, the threat of maritime piracy must not be labeled as a terrorism risk. [See: "Examining the Threats to Indonesia's National Interests"]


While it is important to distinguish between the pirate attacks taking place in the Straits and acts of terrorism, what these pirate attacks demonstrate is that the vessels transiting the Straits are highly vulnerable to a breach in their security. Pirates regularly hijack tankers in order to steal the cargo or kidnap crewmembers. If terrorists were able to take over a tanker carrying highly hazardous chemical cargo, the implications could be disastrous. The unpredictability of terrorism makes it hard to carry out accurate risk assessments. However, as can be seen from the evidence presented above, the threat from maritime terrorism is a clear possibility in the Straits of Malacca.


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