Thursday, March 04, 2010

Security raised in Malacca Strait after terror warning

A Police Coast Guard vessel patrols the shipping lanes near freight ships off the coast of Singapore. - Reuters pic

Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia said today they are stepping up security in the Strait of Malacca, a key shipping lane for world trade, following warnings of possible attacks on oil tankers in the area.

The Singapore Navy has received indications a terror group is planning attacks on oil tankers in the Strait of Malacca, the Singapore Shipping Association said in an advisory.

The Singapore Navy recommended ships using the strait between Indonesia and Malaysia strengthen security measures. Malaysia’s coast guard has already stepped up security in the narrow waterway that tankers use to carry oil from the Middle East to Japan and China.

Indonesia said it is stepping up security there as well, Defence Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro told Reuters. “We will increase the security and step up patrols in that area. Oil tankers can pass, but we will increase our readiness,” he said.

An attack that closed the Strait of Malacca or the Singapore port even temporarily could have a disproportionate impact on global trade, since Singapore is the world’s top container shipping port and biggest ship refuelling hub.

“Maritime attacks offer terrorists an alternate means of causing mass economic destabilisation,” terrorism risk analyst Peter Chalk said in a Rand report on piracy and maritime terrorism.

“Disrupting the mechanics of the global ‘just enough, just in time’ cargo freight trading system could potentially trigger vast and cascading fiscal effects, especially if the operations of a major commercial port were curtailed,” Chalk said.

The Singapore Shipping Association said its warning did not preclude possible attacks on other large vessels besides tankers. A Thai naval attaché in Singapore said the original warning came from Japan, which informed the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) that ships in the Strait could be hijacked. The IMB then warned regional navies of a possible piracy attack, he said.

“Later, they changed the term to “terrorist attack” as there was fear that they could use heavy weapons to attack these ships,” the Thai attache, Captain Sutheepong Kaewtab, said.

IMB spokesman Noel Choong said it had received the information from a foreign government agency.

“It is a terror threat,” Kuala Lumpur-based Choong said when asked whether it was a terror threat or piracy.

The Malacca Strait has long been infested with pirates.

The threat of an attack by either a terror group or pirates could raise insurance costs for shipowners. A shipping broker in Singapore said he had not heard of the warning and said there had been no effect on rates for booking tankers.

Middle East crude accounts for 90 per cent of Japan’s imports, while up to 80 per cent of China’s oil imports and 30 per cent of its iron ore imports pass through the Strait of Malacca.

Any attack could also have a big impact on shipments of some major commodities from Sumatra. The island is a key producer for palm oil, rubber and coffee.

But a spokeswoman for Japan’s Mitsui OSK Lines Ltd, the country’s second-biggest shipping firm, said the warning would not cause it to change operations. “I don’t think we would change the route. Basically the area is dangerous, so we have been taking precautions.”

Shipping presents a soft target, particularly after global airline security was massively tightened following al Qaeda’s use of hijacked planes as flying suicide bombs in its attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in September 2001.

The main vulnerability is the ease with which large slow-moving oil tankers and cargo ships can be targeted by fast explosives-laden dinghies or speedboats in suicide attacks.

Al Qaeda has launched or planned several seaborne attacks in the past decade — notably the suicide bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, which killed 17 American sailors, and a similar attack two years later on the French supertanker Limburg, which killed one crewman and spilled 90,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf of Aden. The ease with which Somali pirates have been able to board and hijack large vessels — including an oil supertanker in 2008 — has also raised concerns of another kind of terrorist attack in which a ship is commandeered and turned into a “floating bomb” that could shut down a major shipping lane or destroy a port.

But analysts say fears that terrorists could detonate ships carrying crude oil or liquefied natural gas (LNG) are overdone. Crude is not very flammable and LNG carriers are robustly constructed and include significant safety features. They might be easy to board, but not to quickly convert into a weapon.

“The threat should be taken seriously as it comes from the Singapore Navy and has been shared with the shipping community,” said Rohan Gunaratna, a Singapore-based expert on radical groups who has written a book on al Qaeda. — Reuters

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