The Threat of Maritime Terrorism in the Malacca Straits

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 3

The Joint War Committee (JWC) of Lloyd’s Market Association announced last week that the Malacca Straits would remain on its list of areas at risk from terrorism and other related perils. The announcement came despite a collective campaign by the three littoral states of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore to have the Malacca Straits removed from the list (Jakarta Post, January 22). The decision of the Joint War Committee is based on risk assessments of the region, which concluded that the Straits are a terrorist target. This will mean increased shipping costs for ships transiting the Straits. When similar war insurance premiums were applied to ships calling at Yemeni Ports following the terrorist attack on the French supertanker the MV Limburg in 2002, the impact on the Yemeni economy was severe.

The initial decision in June 2005 to put the Malacca Straits on the JWC list caused an outcry from the three littoral states. According to the Singapore Shipping Association, the classification is “unjustified and an exaggeration of the actual situation” and “the committee’s decision does not do justice to the efforts put in by the littoral states” (Jakarta Post, January 22). This view was supported by Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak who declared that “there existed an unfair perception of the security situation in the Straits” (New Straits Times, December 5, 2005). Indeed, over the last three decades maritime terrorist attacks have constituted only two percent of all terrorist attacks worldwide and, apart from a small number of hostage-taking incidents, none of these have taken place in the Malacca Straits. In addition, despite predictions by academics and the media alike that it was only a matter of time before the Straits were blocked by an attack or that ships in the Straits would be used as “floating bombs,” this has not been the case.

This article seeks to assess the extent of the threat of maritime terrorism in Southeast Asia and in particular in the Malacca Straits, a waterway of great strategic and economic importance.

The Threat of Maritime Terrorism

It is well known that Southeast Asia is home to a number of militant Islamic groups. These include the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), which is based in the Philippines, the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in Aceh, Indonesia, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), which primarily operates from Indonesia, and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) based in the Philippines. The al-Qaeda network is also believed to have established a presence in the region following the destruction of its bases in Afghanistan. All of these groups are known to use the maritime environment for logistical purposes, have developed maritime capability or have made preliminary steps toward acquiring capability in this area. In addition, either through statements or past activities, all of these groups have displayed a desire to target economic or maritime targets.

In 2001, it was revealed that JI had planned to attack U.S. naval warships visiting the region. More recently, evidence suggests that JI has been conducting training in the southern Philippines in order to develop an underwater destruction capability. ASG was responsible for what has been labeled the most lethal maritime terrorist incident since 2000 with its attack on the MV Superferry 14 in Manila in 2004, which killed over 100 people (Philippine Daily Inquirer, June 13, 2004). GAM admitted to carrying out an attack on a boat being chartered by Exxon Mobil in 2002 in Aceh and is suspected to have carried out a number of kidnap-for-ransom attacks on vessels in Indonesian waters during the last four years. MILF is responsible for attacks on Philippine shipping, mainly placing bombs on inter-island ferries being used to transport members of the armed forces and Christians to and from Mindanao.

Another issue that has caused alarm and has enforced the perception that the region and its waterways are at risk from terrorism is the massive increase in incidents of piracy during the last decade. Not only has the high frequency of pirate attacks drawn attention to the vulnerability of shipping in the region, but there has also been a worry that pirates and terrorists could join forces. In particular, terrorists could employ the pirate’s great wealth of maritime knowledge to carry out a devastating attack on a commercial port or a shipping operation (The Business Times Singapore, May 21, 2004).

The evidence certainly points to the fact that the threat from maritime terrorism in Southeast Asia is real. Given that the Malacca Straits has been described as one of the arteries of the regional if not global economy, and is transited on an annual basis by approximately 63,000 ships, an attack on shipping in this waterway would also seem to be a real possibility. Nevertheless, no such attack has yet materialized.

ASG and MILF traditionally operate within their locality of the Philippines and its surrounding archipelagic waters; it would be uncharacteristic of them to carry out an attack on shipping in the Malacca Straits. This is related to the fact that they are both separatist groups, with the aim of establishing an independent Islamic state in the Philippines. Therefore, their targets tend to be either located within the country, or closely associated with it. GAM is also a separatist group and while there may be some overlap in terms of its area of operations and the Malacca Straits, its targets have traditionally included the Indonesian military and security forces. In addition, GAM has just signed a peace agreement with the Indonesian government, which includes the disarmament and demobilization of its 3000 fighters (PNG Post-Courier, August 23, 2005).

Through this process of elimination, the group that would appear to be the only real threat to shipping in the Malacca Straits is JI. The group has shown an interest in attacking shipping in the Straits and vessels visiting Changi Naval Base in Singapore and is suspected of developing more expertise in this area. Its maritime capability, however, remains underdeveloped when compared to its land capability. Attacks against targets in the maritime domain would require specialized equipment and skills; depending on the target, they may also require knowledge of shipping patterns, boat operation and maintenance, and boarding techniques. This explains the predictions of a piracy-terrorism nexus, of which there is still no evidence. Various explanations have been proffered as to why there is still no sign of any cooperation between pirates and terrorists. One explanation is that the majority of those committing acts of piracy in the Malacca Straits are largely un-organized petty-criminals who use piracy as a way of supplementing their inadequate income. These small groups and individuals may not be willing to cooperate with terrorists who, through their high-profile activities, may trigger a complete crackdown on all maritime crime.

Carrying out an attack in the maritime domain also presents a number of difficulties that are not encountered on land. First, if the aftermath of an attack is to be captured by the media, which is often the wish of a terrorist group, then the attack needs to be carried out close to land. This then considerably compresses the theater of operations, as only coastal areas and ports would be suitable. Second, surveillance at sea of potential targets offers less cover and concealment than on land and entails the same environmental challenges as any maritime activity.


The threat of maritime terrorism in Southeast Asia and specifically in the Malacca Straits is real and should not be ignored. Yet, an accurate and comprehensive understanding of the threat is paramount. This is vital for the development and implementation of targeted and effective counter-measures. Due to the complexities of operating within the maritime domain and the unpredictable nature of the marine environment, attacking targets on land has remained the preferred choice of many of the region’s terrorist groups. Until there is a significant level of target hardening on land, this is likely to remain the case in the future.

In addition, following 9/11 much has been done to enhance maritime security in the region. Measures include the introduction of the “Eyes in the Sky” aerial patrols last year, the Trilateral Coordinated Patrols implemented in 2004, and the creation of the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code in the same year. The implementation of these initiatives has helped to reduce some of the vulnerabilities of the maritime industry. If this level of cooperative activity continues, the result should be an even further reduction of the threat from maritime terrorism.