Obstacles to Closer Counter-Terrorism Coordination in Malacca Straits

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 13

The Straits of Malacca

According to a variety of observers around the globe, the chances for a terrorist attack in the Straits of Malacca remain high. The fact that the Straits play such a key role in the global economy increases this probability. Not only do the Straits see passage of approximately 90% of East Asia’s oil supply coming from the Middle East, they also witness expanding numbers of containerships carrying manufactured goods from East Asia back to the Middle East, Europe and—via the so-called “all-water route”—across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States. In short, the narrows, running largely between peninsular Malaysia and the Indonesian island of Sumatra, represent one of the world’s most vital economic arteries and, for that reason alone, cannot be doubted as the target of terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda. Despite the risks, governments in the region have been slow to improve counter-terrorism coordination in the Straits.

The Risks

The importance of the Straits as a terrorist target was underlined by Malaysian Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Musa Hassan who said that the danger, if left unchecked, could lead to chaos and destruction in the busy waterway. At the sixth Tri-Annual International Maritime Bureau Meeting, held in Kuala Lumpur in June, Musa said that the three following forms of maritime terrorism were of particular concern: an attack on an individual ship; the hijacking of a ship carrying dangerous materials; and the use of a ship as a weapon to attack port or land facilities. Musa elaborated on one scenario in which a ship could be used as a weapon for a suicide mission, as in the manner of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. “If terrorists were to commandeer a ship transporting LPG (Liquefied Petroleum Gas) for a suicide mission in the Strait, such an act would devastate Southeast Asia’s economic environment and severely disrupt trade,” Musa explained. “Significant impediments to the flow of oil would be a direct threat to the national security of countries that are highly dependent on it, particularly Japan and South Korea. It would mean re-routing vessels, which would lead to the sky-rocketing of freight and insurance rates, which in turn will have a devastating global economic impact. Thus, it must be kept open and safe, and the prime responsibility for this is with the three littoral states of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia” (Bernama, June 12).

At the same conference, Rear Admiral Agus Suhartono, commander of the Indonesian Navy’s Western Fleet, said that security along the Straits of Malacca will be further strengthened when 10 new radar systems are fully installed along the eastern coast of Indonesia’s Sumatra Island by next year. “We are stepping up surveillance in the Straits of Malacca,” Rear Admiral Suhartono said. He said that the radar systems—to be installed from Sabang at the northern tip of Aceh Province to Bengkalis near the south—were donated by the United States and would boost security in the Straits. Yet, unlike Musa, Suhartono played down the threat of maritime terrorism in the waterway, saying that its likelihood was “very slim” and that authorities have not yet received intelligence suggesting an imminent terrorist attack (Kyodo News Service, June 12).

As a further attempt to address international concerns, Malaysian and Indonesian police plan to hold more frequent joint training in order to combat piracy and robbery in the Straits of Malacca. Malaysia’s Federal Marine Police Commander Datuk Jalaluddin Abdul Rahman recently said that the joint training would be held in Medan, Sumatra, in August and would involve district police chiefs along the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia and personnel from the marine police, air unit and General Operations Force. Jalaluddin said that so far the cooperation between Malaysian and Indonesian police comprised the exchange of information and joint patrols, especially in the southern part of the Straits, to curb piracy instead of terrorism. “We are going to establish a network involving not only the marine police of both countries but also the OCPDs (police district chiefs) from the coastal areas like Port Klang and Kuala Selangor with their counterparts in Sumatra,” he said. Jalaluddin explained that currently the marine police are focusing more on surveillance and preventive measures by apprehending boats suspected of being involved in piracy and robbery in the Straits. Still, he did not mention terrorism (Bernama, June 12).

Indonesia and Malaysia Avoid International Presence in the Straits

Although they differ in their recognition of the terrorist threat, Musa, Agus and Jalaluddin have one concern in common: none of them wants anything resembling an international presence in the region to combat a piracy or terrorist threat. Instead, while willing to receive technical help, such as the U.S. radar systems, they prefer solutions that exclude any international presence in or around the Straits (Kyodo News Service, June 3). Such solutions, however, are unrealistic. Even the highly vaunted U.S. Navy cannot single-handedly offer protection to all of the world’s waterways. This is the view of U.S. Navy Admiral Michael Mullen, nominated by President George W. Bush to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has called for the creation of global naval partnerships to deal with emerging threats around the world. Mullen said that with many of the U.S. Navy’s 276 ships occupied in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States cannot unilaterally secure international seaways and that the Navy faces a “very challenging time.” He has suggested a 1,000-ship naval alliance with U.S. allies that would be based in ports around the world and could quickly respond to crises, saying, “Nobody can do it alone” (Associated Press, June 13).

Other states near the region recognize the potential threat and have offered their assistance to the countries around the Straits and to Indonesia in particular. India, for example, agreed to enhance its military-to-military engagement with Indonesia, and the two countries concluded their first-ever Joint Defense Cooperation Committee (JDCC) meeting in Jakarta on June 14. Service-to-service talks, involving the navies and air forces as well as the armies of the two maritime neighbors, are now possible for the first time. The two sides identified procurement and “co-production” of defense equipment as promising areas for cooperation, on the basis of feasibility and the principle of maximizing comparative advantages. The Indian delegation chief and defense secretary, Shekhar Dutt, said that the talks marked the beginning of a dialogue in “an atmosphere of hope, trust and confidence.” On India’s possible role in the maintenance of security along the Straits, Dutt expressed his country’s readiness to help, depending on “whatever is identified by Indonesia for its capacity-building” (The Hindu, June 16). Indonesia’s requests remain to be seen.

Meanwhile, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) has launched a 24-hour global hotline for seafarers to supply maritime security information. The IMB said that it is expanding its piracy reporting service with a new hotline for ship’s crew and stevedores to report activity they believe may be linked to maritime terrorism or organized crime. “There is a general concern about organized crime and terrorism,” IMB director Potengal Mukudan told a press briefing following its tri-annual conference in Kuala Lumpur. “This provides a response to that as a way for people to report information.” Reports can be made either via e-mail or the IMB’s existing 24-hour telephone hotline of its Piracy Reporting Center in Kuala Lumpur. People working at what Mukundan described as the “sharp end of the maritime business” would be encouraged to report a range of illegal activity covering areas such as terrorism and drug smuggling (Lloyds List, June 14).

While such measures are understood as urgent to the outside world, authorities in the region seem more interested in profiting from the threat of pirates or terrorists in the Straits than in doing anything to stop them. That much is evident from the announcement on June 13 that a massive $7 billion oil pipeline project is to start to take shape in the northern part of Peninsular Malaysia. An unlisted Malaysian company, Trans-Peninsula Petroleum Sdn Bhd (TPP), is currently developing a mega 300 kilometer oil pipeline linking the west and east coasts of Peninsular Malaysia, crossing the states of Kedah, Perak and Kelantan. On May 28, TPP signed a Master Alliance Agreement with PT Tripatra Engineers and Consultants and Ranhill Engineers and Constructors to jointly develop the onshore oil pipeline and storage facilities.

Most importantly, according to its promoters, the TransPen project could alleviate congestion in the Straits of Malacca where the transit of crude oil is concerned. Traffic along the Straits is expected to worsen as demand for oil from East Asian economies, especially China, is anticipated to double to 20 million barrels per day by 2020. This would lead to further congestion in marine traffic, which could result in a higher probability of accidents such as collisions and oil spills. Such major mishaps could lead to a closure of the Strait, disrupt freight, cause pollution and prevent or delay the supply of oil to its destination. The TransPen project, when fully implemented, could potentially take away up to 25% of the oil carried through the Straits (Business Times [Malaysia], June 13).

Instead of acknowledging the terrorist threat and undertaking reasonable and responsible actions to negate that menace, certain actors in the region, especially Malaysia and Indonesia, prefer to avert their eyes. The construction of the proposed pipeline across northern Malaysia is a case in point: instead of using national resources to help eradicate potential danger from the Straits, billions of dollars are instead being spent to attract profits from oil tankers that are too much at risk to sail through the international waterway.