WEB SPECIAL - War on Terror Update


Anthony Tucker-Jones, considers the controversy surrounding the decision to impose intensive counter-terror patrols in the bandit-infested Malacca Straits.

Photo: A Singaporean patrol boat. Image: RAN.

The maritime war against terrorism in Southeast Asia recently took a new twist. Heralding a regional maritime security initiative an operation called the Trilateral Co-ordinated Patrols Malacca Straits, code named MALSINDO, was launched by the Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean Armed Forces on July 20 2004. Singapore's Chief of Defence Force, Lieutenant-General Ng Yat Chung pledged: "We are prepared to commit at any one time, five to seven ships all year 'round to contribute to this trilateral co-ordinated patrol."

In fact this initiative had largely been stung into action by America. Rising concern over security in the Malacca Straits after a spate of hijackings and kidnaps prompted Washington to suggest in March that it might intervene through its Regional Maritime Security Initiative (RMSI). The response from the littoral states, in particular Indonesia and Malaysia, was one of national outrage that the Americans should contemplate meddling. The regional press were also quick to criticise what was seen as unwelcome US interference in domestic affairs. But American concern for security in this region is nothing new. For several months after 9/11, under the US-India Project, Indian naval vessels provided 'escort' for American vessels carrying high value cargo along the Malacca Straits.

Washington is particularly concerned about potential Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) cargoes being shipped through the Straits. Indeed, the RMSI is part of the US Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) in the global war on terrorism. According to the Washington-based Maritime Intelligence Group, Al-Qaeda is believed to operate 15-25 vessels transporting weapons and personnel in the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian and Atlantic oceans. In Southeast Asia, Singapore, a participant in RMSI (along with Australia) proposed permitting US Marines to help patrol the vital Straits.

In contrast, Indonesia vehemently opposed involving maritime forces from outside the region. Indonesian Navy chief, Admiral Bernard Kent Sondakh, stated that the establishment of a US military presence would not be required in the effort to secure the Malacca Straits. Similarly, Malaysia repeatedly rejected the idea of US anti-terrorism patrols in the Straits and criticised neighbouring Singapore for suggesting that it was incapable of protecting the crucial waterway.

Admiral Thomas Fargo, commander of the Hawaii-based US Pacific Command, has discussed putting marines and Special Forces on high-speed vessels in the Straits to conduct interdiction operations. America's posturing over security in the Malacca Straits created such bad feeling that, in June, Admiral Fargo was obliged to reassure the Malaysian defence minister that naval intervention was not Washington's intention.

In response Kuala Lumpur stated it was ready to agree to Fargo's request for expanded intelligence co-operation and efforts to increase Malaysia's capacity to fight terrorism, even suggesting that this could involve joint exercises (though not patrolling).

America is not being prompted by paranoia, but by hard intelligence. The Australian government claims that Al-Qaeda could be planning to attack Southeast Asia's shipping lanes, including the Malacca Straits, using a dirty bomb. Al-Qaeda's interest in attacking shipping targets came to light during the interrogation of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashri, an alleged terrorist specialising in maritime operations. The group reportedly had conducted video surveillance of Malaysian police patrols along the Straits of Malacca, confirming their potential interest in the waterway. Southeast Asia is also home to the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the regional chapter of Al-Qaeda, accused of the deadly bomb attacks in Indonesia and the Philippines

On top of this, the International Maritime Bureau's (IMB's) monitoring shows that piracy is focused in the South Pacific near Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines.

The IMB notes: "Malacca Straits - avoid anchoring along the Indonesian coast of the Straits. Coast near Aceh is particularly risky for hi-jackings." Piracy has become such a problem in the Malacca Straits that, in April 2004, Malaysia even began to offer naval escorts for commercial vessels deemed to be at high risk. The move came after Kuala Lumpur rejected America's offer of assistance.

The IMB recorded 445 pirate attacks last year (the second-highest since it began compiling data in 1992) and, of those, about one third took place in Indonesian waters, including the Malacca Straits.

More worryingly, data shows a 14 year high of 20 attacks reported in the Malacca Straits with seven in the Singapore Straits, compared with none for the same period last year. In early July 2004 the IMB was reporting that the situation was quite bad, especially in the northern Straits. The previous month the Bureau wrote repeatedly to the Indonesian authorities seeking tougher patrols, after pirates armed with automatic machine guns and grenades attacked commercial ships in the northern region of the Malacca Straits off Indonesia's Aceh province. Two crewmen were injured by gunfire on June 11 when a North Korean-registered general cargo ship was fired upon while under way from Kandla, India, to Singapore. According to Indonesia's Commodore Purboyo (Belawan Naval Base Commander) the Free Aceh Movement was responsible. Japan had attempted to broker a settlement between the Indonesian Army and the rebels, but because Aceh lies on the Malacca Straits, Japan kept quiet after Indonesia renewed its efforts to crush them.

Free passage through the Malacca Straits is key to the well-being of international commerce.

For example, seaborne oil largely follows fixed maritime routes, which encompass geographic choke points or narrow channels, such as the Malacca Straits, linking the Indian Ocean (and oil coming from the Middle East) with the Pacific Ocean (and major consumer markets in Asia). According to the UN's International Maritime Organisation, at least 50,000 ships sail through the Malacca Straits every year. They transport about 30 per cent of the world's trade goods and 80 per cent of Japan's oil needs.

The last thing Japan wants is disruption in this part the world. The Malacca, Sunda and Lambok Straits are all potential maritime choke points for the Japanese economy. Tokyo has taken every step to safe-guard its oil, natural gas, coal and beef supplies. This year Japan and Indonesia reached agreement over counter-terrorism co-operation, suppressing terrorist funding, sharing intelligence and enhancing general security and immigration controls.

The Malaysians announced in June 2004 that they intend to establish their own version of the US Coast Guard to ensure security along the Malacca. It is planned that this new paramilitary agency will commence operations in March 2005. According to Malaysian sources the force will be equipped with vessels and aircraft capable of operations around the clock. Additionally, Indonesia's Admiral Sondakh held talks with the Malaysian authorities at the end of June, with the intention of setting up a joint special task force to safeguard the Straits, culminating in MALSINDO. Despite the successful implementation of MALSINDO, effective policing of the Malacca Straits is an enormous task. The Straits pose a unique set of security problems, most notably its size extending 600 miles (900km) from its widest point (about 350km between Northern Sumatra and Thailand) to its narrowest (less than 3km wide between southern Sumatra and Singapore).

Malaysia, on one side only has 18 Marine Police boats in service at any one time. Indonesia, on the other side, has about 20 coast guard boats and several navy ships in the area, but not all on duty at the same time. Add to this equation the Singaporean boats and it seems doubtful that terrorists or pirates will be greatly deterred.