Could Terrorists Use the Strait of Disquietude to Wreak Havoc?
by Manuel L. Quezon III
The Malacca Strait, runs between Malaysia and Indonesia. It is about 600 nautical miles in length and less than 24 miles wide and carries more than a quarter (or up to a third, depending on the account you read) of the world’s trade and almost all of Japan and China’s energy imports (which, together with oil for other countries in the region, totals half of the world’s oil supplies) from the Arabian Gulf on about 50,000 ships a year. The biggest problem in the Strait is piracy, as recent headlines in the papers across Asia indicated.
The captain and some crewmembers of a Japanese tugboat are a case in point. On March 14, the tugboat called the Idaten, was on its way from Indonesia’s Batam island to Burma when around 30 pirates boarded it and kidnapped captain Nobuo Inoue, chief engineer Shunji Kuroda and Edgar Paliawan Sangdang, a crewman. It was the third instance of piracy in the Malacca Strait within two weeks. The Indonesian and Malaysian navies, along with Japan’s naval and air self-defense forces, heaved into action, with Malaysia being the most insistent on handling matters within its own territorial waters.
Last Sunday, the kidnapped captain and crew were finally released — in Thailand. Theirs was a complicated story of being blindfolded, moved island to island, then temporarily marooned on an “isolated” island (perhaps in Indonesia) before trekking through “a jungle area” before being set free. Speculation as to the identity of the hostage takers was as rife as speculation as to the circumstances surrounding their release. The Jakarta Post reported Mokhtar Othman, operations officer for Malaysia’s northern region marine police, as having said that Indonesian separatist rebels possibly carried out the attack on the tugboat as well as the kidnapping of three crewmen: “The pirates are from Indonesia. They may be GAM rebels. I will not rule it out.”
GAM stands for Gerakan Aceh Meredeka, or the Free Aceh Movement, which has been waging a revolt in the north of Sumatra island to establish an Islamic state in Aceh province since 1976. Mokhtar pointed out the pirates were well armed and even “had something like a rocket launcher”.
Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper seemed more inclined to think it was more about amateurs after money, saying that it was possible “negotiations between the pirates and Kondo Kaiji (owner of the tugboat) may have begun as early as March 16 as Kanji Kondo, the president, left the shipping company’s headquarters in Kita-Kyushu that day to fly to Malaysia. Sources familiar with pirate issues said that the going rate for a hostage is 10 million yen. In this case, the pirates demanded ‘tens of millions of yen,’ the sources said… A ransom figure was apparently agreed to quickly, but last-minute changes in where the captives would be released indicate that the pirates were fairly inexperienced.”
Whatever the case may be, the weekend that the captive sailors were freed, an Indonesian chemical cargo ship was pirated in the Malacca Strait. The International Relations and Security Network website said the “1,289-ton tanker was carrying a cargo of methane gas from Samarinda in East Kalimantan province to the Indonesian port of Belawan.
It was hijacked by at least 35 men armed with machine guns and rocket launchers on Saturday. The tanker was later released and reached the nearer Indonesian port of Dumai, along the Coast of Sumatra Island, on Sunday, but only after the pirates had taken the captain and chief engineer hostage…Saturday’s hijacking was believed to be carried out by GAM…rebels.”
What was troubling about this case of piracy was not just the nearly identical methods employed by the pirates, but unverified reports that the pirates were interested in figuring out how to navigate the vessel. The removal of the captain and chief engineer, in particular, only for them to be brought back to their ship, gave rise to speculation that they might have been interrogated about navigation in the interim. Add to this (equally unsubstantiated reports, mind you) emanating from the military of the Philippines that they had information Abu Sayaff rebels were undergoing scuba diving lessons in the southern Palawan islands, and a lurid scenario of hijacked tankers steaming into Singapore harbor, among other places, began to take shape.
Indeed fears of maritime terrorism, made possible by experienced, armed pirates either working under contract for terrorists, or terrorists gaining maritime experience, have, not-so-quietly percolated in the minds of naval authorities for some time. American media has, time and again, pointed to the ports system of the United States as being extremely vulnerable to terrorism, although fears seem to center on bombs being smuggled inside shipping containers.
The United States has tried to take the lead in the region by deploying US Marines and Special Forces on high-speed boats in the Malacca Straits to combat a plethora of problems ranging from terrorism, to piracy, gun running, and human trafficking under what it calls the Regional Maritime Security Initiative (RMSI).
Singapore’s navy is keen to help. But as the Japanese tugboat incident showed, however, regional navies aren’t too keen on American intervention, not to mention neighboring navies encroaching into their territorial waters.
It remains to be seen just how much an emphasis on territorial integrity can help, or hinder, the activities of pirates who don’t respect maritime boundaries or sea traffic.