Business Times, The (Singapore)

August 12, 2004


Edition: Shipping Times

Index Terms:

Shipping Times - Shipping news

Maritime terrorists lurk in S-E Asia: expert

He says it's not a question of if or when, but where and how often

Author: Donald Urquhart

Article Text:

(SINGAPORE) A US-based security expert has sounded a dire warning on the seriousness of the threat of maritime terrorism to South-east Asian waters and in particular the Straits of Malacca, saying it's not a question of if or when, but where and how often.

Likening the situation to a housing estate that is on fire, security analyst and visiting Olmsted Foundation Scholar John Bradford said that while a number of houses on one street are fully ablaze, one in the middle has not yet caught fire but is being showered with hot embers. 'This region is aflame with maritime violence, much of it politically motivated,' Mr Bradford told delegates at a recent maritime security conference here.

'If we accept these waters as houses which are on fire, meaning areas where maritime terrorism, or at least large-scale maritime violence is unfortunately common, then we can see many of the region's major ports - including Singapore, Port Klang, Tunjung Priok, Tanjung Pelepas and Laem Chabang - and vital chokepoints, such as the Straits of Malacca, Singapore and Luzon, as houses being showered with embers.'

The areas which thus far been unaffected could catch fire at anytime, he warned. 'It is, therefore, critical for us to fireproof the houses still standing and join the neighbourhood fire brigade.'

'The fact is that maritime terrorism is a reality in South-east Asia. Regionally speaking, it's is not a question of when, but how often.'

Since 2000 there has been a worrying escalation of both equipment and tactics used in the Straits of Malacca, he said. 'Once unusual, kidnap-for-ransom operations, the employment of VHF radios to coordinate operations and the use of not just firearms, but assault rifles and grenade launchers have all become common,' he said.

Pointing to a long list of deadly maritime attacks, Mr Bradford said the Philippines and Indonesia are the houses currently ablaze.

Recent examples include the February 2004 bombing of the SuperFerry 14 which killed 116 people, although Manila continue to deny terrorist involvement.

He said two groups are of particular concern: the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) - founded by Afghan mujahideen veterans including a brother-in-law of Osama bin Laden - which has clearly demonstrated maritime capabilities, and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (Milf).

The Milf is 'highly maritime-capable' and makes regular use of sea going vessels to move people, supplies, weapons and funds throughout South-east Asia and beyond, he said.

Attacks by the Milf have been limited to Philippine targets and in recent years the group has backed away from terror tactics, sabotage and piracy as it seeks greater legitimacy at the bargaining table in ongoing peace talks with the Philippine government.

Indonesia is the other house on fire, according to Mr Bradford who cited the Maluku ethnic conflict of 1999-2002 in which boats were used to deliver horrific attacks on civilians, as well as the bombing of ferries.

More recently the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) is accused of carrying out attacks on international shipping in the Straits of Malacca off the war-torn Aceh province.

But saying 'evidence is shaky and does not clearly prove the GAM is the true culprit', Mr Bradford said piracy would be contrary to its current strategy of cultivating international support for autonomy from Jakarta.

The groups most worrying are Al Qaeda, the Jemiah Islamiah (JI) and the ASG, he said. 'Al Qaeda and JI have, both through word and deed, clearly demonstrated their desire to attack the international maritime sector.'

The ASG has also made a recent worrying shift away from criminal operations towards terror tactics.

'As the ASG continues to strengthen its ideological credibility, shift its focus towards softer targets and cooperate with pan-Islamic terrorist groups, it seems frighteningly likely that it, or one of its factions might lend their assistance to a major maritime attack,' Mr Bradford warned.

While acknowledging that the 'neighbourhood fire brigade' has begun assembling, citing the example of the trilateral coordinated patrols in the Straits of Malacca, he warned that the houses not yet on fire, 'need only catch a spark'.

Copyright, 2004, Singapore Press Holdings Limited

Record Number: 1046B0B50C7D716F