Facing The Terrorist Threat In The Malacca Strait

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 9

Much of the world’s economy depends on the security of shipping that passes through a narrow body of water in Southeast Asia known as the Strait of Malacca. Situated between the coastline of Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore to the East and the Indonesian island of Sumatra to the West, the Strait of Malacca extends some 900 km from its widest point, about 350 km between northern Sumatra and Thailand, to its narrowest, less than 3 km between southern Sumatra and Singapore. At its shallowest, the Strait of Malacca has a reported depth of just 25 meters. Little wonder, then, that the early Chinese, recognizing its constricted nature, as well as its importance to trade, referred to the Strait of Malacca as “a gullet … through which the foreigners’ sea and land traffic in either direction must pass.” [1] No less important, as early as 413 AD, a Chinese traveller also complained that seas in the area were “infested with pirates”. [2]

Because of its small size and high volume of traffic, said to be around 50,000 vessels a year, the Strait of Malacca remains one of the most important shipping lanes in world, and that importance is expected to increase – especially in terms of oil transport. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), about 11 million barrels per day (b/d) currently passes through the Strait of Malacca, but that is set to climb as oil consumption in developing Asian nations rises by an estimated average of 3% per annum between now and 2025. China alone will account for one-third of that increase, which will see demand growth doubling to nearly 30 million b/d in 2025 from 14.5 million b/d in 2000. According to the EIA, much of the additional supply will be imported from the Middle East and Africa and “most of this volume would need to pass through the strategic Strait of Malacca.” [3]

The EIA uses a similar metaphor to that of the early Chinese in describing the Malacca Strait as the key maritime “choke point” in Asia, and it also is concerned about piracy in the region. Noting that the narrowest point of this shipping lane is the 1.5-mile wide Phillips Channel, the EIA says “This creates a natural bottleneck, with the potential for a collision, grounding or oil spill (in addition, piracy is a regular occurrence in the Singapore Strait).” [4] If the Strait were closed, nearly half of the world’s fleet would be required to sail nearly 1,000 km further, generating a substantial increase in the requirement for vessel capacity. In fact, the EIA claims, “All excess capacity might be absorbed, with the effects strongest for crude oil shipments and dry bulk such as coal. Closure of the Strait of Malacca would immediately raise freight rates worldwide.” Given these statistics, it is unsurprising then that the Malacca Strait is considered by many to be a prime target for terrorists bent on disrupting international commerce and strategic shipping lanes. Indeed, according to one specialist on terrorism, the al-Qaeda network actually had video footage of Malaysian police patrols along the Strait of Malacca, indicating their potential interest in attacking the waterway. [5]

The ability of al-Qaeda to launch such attacks is well documented. The November 2002 arrest of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, identified as the operational commander for the al-Qaeda terrorist network in the Gulf region and an alleged specialist in maritime operations, underlined the group’s ability to attack shipping targets. Nashiri allegedly played a key role in planning the attacks in Yemeni waters on the USS Cole in October 2000 and the oil tanker Limburg in October 2002. The interrogation of Nashiri, according to one counter-terrorism official, yielded substantial information on al-Qaeda’s specific operational planning for attacks on super-tankers, “particularly their vulnerability to suicide attacks and the economic impact of such operations.” The official told Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper that al-Qaeda terrorists “actually have a naval manual on this. It tells them the best places on the vessels to hit, how to employ limpet mines, fire rockets or rocket-propelled grenades from high-speed craft and turn liquefied natural gas (LNG) tankers into floating bombs. They are also shown how to use fast craft packed with explosives and the use of trawlers, or ships like that, which can be turned into bombs and detonated beside bigger ships or in ports where there are often petroleum or gas storage areas that could go up as well. They even talk of using underwater scooters for suicide attacks.” [6] No less worrisome are Australian government claims that terrorists could be planning to attack Southeast Asia’s busiest shipping lanes – including the Malacca Strait – with a dirty bomb.

Despite the warnings that continue to mount, no coordinated policy has yet been established that would enable the international community to take any action to prevent a terrorist attack in the Strait of Malacca. Indeed, even countries within the region have yet to work out a common policy for dealing with the threat. To be sure, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum members recently agreed to combat international terrorism in transport security, identification and sharing of counter-terror measures as well as technical, legislative, and legal adjustments to enhance coordination in the region. They even focused on the capability of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and other terrorist groups operating in Southeast Asia in mounting attacks on the region’s vital transportation routes and facilities. But William Pope, deputy coordinator for counter-terrorism of the U.S. Department of State, suggested that ASEAN needed to do much more to counter the threats posed by terrorist organizations. In particular, he said, Southeast Asian countries need a region-specific approach to curb potential terrorist attacks, but that ASEAN had yet to develop a “broad cooperative arrangement to combat the endemic piracy that is on the rise, much less terrorism.” [7]

The validity of Pope’s remarks emerged within weeks, when Singapore’s Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean said that security along the Malacca Straits was “not adequate” and that “No single state has the resources to deal effectively with this threat.” [8] Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid angrily brushed aside Teo’s comments, which were seen as hinting that Malaysia needed U.S. help to safeguard the narrow waterway. “We take strong objection to any suggestions that any third country should be involved in determining the safety or security of the Malacca Straits,” Syed Hamid told a news conference. “I think the prime responsibility is with the littoral states themselves,” he said. “I suggest to him (Teo) that if he has concerns, the best way is to talk to Malaysia, but don’t invite a third country to safeguard something that will endanger Malaysia’s sovereignty.”

Syed Hamid’s reference to sovereignty echoed remarks just a few weeks earlier when Indonesia objected to statements attributed to U.S. Admiral Thomas Fargo, that U.S. forces might be deployed to maintain the security of the Strait of Malacca. Indonesia’s Navy Chief of Staff, Admiral Bernard Kent Sondakh strongly rejected plans by America to deploy its fleet, saying “the Malacca Strait is within the sovereign territory of the Unitary Republic of Indonesia.” [9] In fact, Sondakh even rejected a report by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) on the extent of piracy and terrorist activity in the area, which had been seen as a justification for the United States to deploy its fleet in the Strait. According to the admiral, there were only four cases a year of piracy in this region, and not the one hundred or more as reported by the IMB. [10] Just days later, another Indonesian admiral made a similar objection to any U.S. military presence in the Strait, saying “We certainly don’t want to have our sovereignty disturbed.” [11] Even Chinese officials expresses similar concerns about sovereignty: “Among China, Japan and India there shouldn’t be the kind of thinking of “pulling another over to one’s side so as to contain the other” or joining hands with a superpower in regions outside Asia to contain or even encircle one of the three countries.” [12]

Thus, even as the United States and other nations develop a variety of technical capabilities aimed at thwarting the abilities of terrorist organizations, the real issue facing the members of the international community is whether they will find it possible to set aside differences such as sovereignty in the interests of a common cause – in this case, mutual protection. Singapore’s Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew has perhaps summed up the need for such cooperation more clearly than anyone else in the region with his observation that “When America and Europe are divided, when Japan is hesitant, the extremists are emboldened and think they can win against a divided group.” In a word, he said, “They intend to divide and conquer.” In so far as a common policy has yet to be worked out for the protection of the Strait of Malacca by the nations around it, as well as those whose ships pass through it, the challenge will be to create the political foundation for operational cooperation based on a common perception of shared threat. Only in unity do we have the best defence.


1. F. Hirth and W.W. Rockhill (eds), Chau Ju-Kua on the Chinese and Arab Trade, (St Petersberg, 1914, reprinted Amsterdam, 1966), p. 60.

2. Jan Rogozinsky, The Wordsworth Dictionary of Pirates, Wordsworth Editions: Ware, 1997. p. 2.

3. See Country Analysis Briefs: “South China Sea” at www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/cabs/schina.html.

4. See EIA World Oil Transit Chokepoints: www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/cabs/choke.html.

5. See “Al-Qaeda Spying on Malaysian Marine Police in Malacca Straits: Expert”, in New Straits Times, 19 Oct 02.

6. Ed Blanche, “Chokepoints such as the Straits of Malacca, the Suez Canal and the Bab el-Mandeb Straits are high-risk zones for terrorist strikes,” The Daily Star, Beirut, 22 Apr 04.

7. “ASEAN Regional Forum Vows To Combat Terrorism in Transport Security” Xinhua, 31 Mar 04. Just four years earlier, Asia’s first anti-piracy conference ended with no common policy when China objected to joining maritime patrols aimed at curbing piracy. See Miwa Suzuki, “China Refuses To Launch Join Anti-Piracy Patrols”, AFP, 28 Apr 00.

8. Hazlin Hassan, “Malaysia Rejects U.S. Patrols in Malacca Straits, Raps Singapore”, AFP, 27 Apr 04.

9. “Indonesian Navy Rejects U.S. plans for U.S. presence in Malucca Straits”, Jakarta Suara Pembaruan, 14 Apr 04.

10. It is worth noting, however, that the Indonesian authorities had no hesitation in declaring a maritime exclusion zone off Sumatra to prevent attacks by Islamist separatists in Aceh. “ExxonMobil Corp. has been exempted from a decree by Indonesian authorities banning all foreign ships from the 12 mile territorial waters of Aceh, an oil and natural gas-rich province in north Sumatra adjacent to the strategically important Strait of Malacca. ‘To protect security and the legal procedures, Acehnese waters are temporarily closed to all maritime traffic and shipping sailing under foreign flags,’ said Maj. Gen Endang Suwarya, Indonesia’s martial law administrator in Aceh. ‘Firm action will be taken against any vessels violating this decree,’ Suwarya said.” For more, see Eric Watkins, “ExxonMobil exempted from Indonesian foreign ship decree”, Oil & Gas Journal, 04 Jun 03.

11. “U.S. Intention To Help Maintain Security In Malacca Strait Economically Motivated”, Jakarta Antara, 17 Apr 04.

12. “China-Japan-India axis strategy: an all-round economic and political cooperation”, People’s Daily Online 30 Apr 04.