- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 19, 2004

Navigating the pirate-infested Malacca Straits in Southeast Asia has long been a perilous undertaking, but some experts believe the essential waterway could in the near future be threatened with a new danger: terrorism. While experts don’t believe that terrorist groups are capable of carrying out a worst-case-scenario attack in these waters, they may be prepared to launch a smaller-scale operation in the straits that could have an economic and psychological impact.

During a meeting with editors and reporters of The Washington Times, U.S. ambassadors stationed in Southeast Asia highlighted their concern about the vulnerability of the Malacca Straits, which borders Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. About 50 percent of the world’s oil supply goes through the waterway. It is just 1.5 miles wide at its narrowest and is carved with many inlets and coves, providing ideal launching pads for attacks by pirates and worse. About 60 percent of all pirate attacks since 1989 were made in Southeast Asian waters.

Concern over the security of the straits has sharpened recently for a number of reasons. Rampant piracy glaringly highlights security problems, and terrorist groups are known to be interested in a naval attack. Also, the potential for catastrophe on the waterway looms. Terrorists technically could convert a tanker that liquifies natural gas into a floating bomb, by detonating it at a port or ramming another vessel with it.

Top experts in the region believe it is very unlikely that groups in the area could pull off such an attack. Terrorists could, though, try to attack an oil tanker in the style of the 2002 attack on the French tanker Limburg off of Yemen, noted Zachary Abuza, a terrorism and Asian expert at Simmons College. The Limburg was damaged after a small boat filled with explosives pulled alongside it and detonated. The explosion blew a hole in the Limburg’s hull, killed one member of the crew and caused almost 100,000 barrels of crude oil to spill and burn. What the attack did not achieve, though, was a big explosion. Explosions are extremely difficult to create with an oil tanker, even in the event of a direct missile attack. Still, an attack on just one big oil tanker could affect the flow of oil, given the tight supply of available oil tankers, and could cause tanker charter rates and maritime insurance premiums to rise, which would affect oil prices.

“The problem is, with … such a long route, with so many inlets, how do you guard against” such an attack in the Malacca Straits? asked Mr. Abuza. “You could put in a few [U.S. Navy] frigates, and that would probably not prevent such attacks from happening.”

The waterway needs more small patrol-craft policing, said Mr. Abuza. Still, Indonesia and Malaysia are opposed to having U.S. vessels help secure the straits, although Singapore welcomes such a move. It may be possible for Singapore, though, which has a capable naval force and is not seen as having territorial ambitions, to broaden its role securing the straits. The United States, meanwhile, could play an indirect role by assisting Singapore. The Malacca Straits are crucial for these countries, Japan, China and the rest of the oil-consuming international community. The security and economic threats are clear. The United States needs to push — and lead — a coordinated approach to tighten security in the Malacca Straits.

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