ARMED with M-16 rifles and grenade launchers, uniformed pirates attacked a tugboat towing a barge in the Sulu sea off the southern Philippines last Sunday. The group of about 10 armed pirates boarded and ransacked the tug, destroying radio equipment.
They then fled in a speedboat with stolen gear and the captain, an engineer and a crane operator as hostages.
Their whereabouts are not known, and the Philippine and Malaysian authorities have not received any ransom demands.
Closer to Singapore, a tanker came under attack in the Malacca Strait on April 8. Pirates armed with guns and knives boarded and robbed the vessel. They fled after damaging some equipment.
A sharp rise in such incidents in South-east Asian waters is leading maritime security watchers to believe that militant groups may be rehearsing for a terrorist strike at sea.
The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) reports that the number of such incidents in the Malacca Strait alone shot up from 16 in 2002 to 28 in 2003.
Almost all were in Indonesian waters and the number of coordinated attacks, involving several boats, have also increased, it said.
‘It’s possible these could be rehearsals,’ Singapore-based terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna told The Straits Times.
‘The maritime domain is the least policed environment and terrorist groups here have shown an interest,’ he said.
London-based maritime observer James Copinger-Symes, who was in Singapore last month, was less circumspect.
The attacks are getting more violent, more frequent and more organised, he said.
Oil and chemical tankers are increasingly being targeted and these incidents suggest ‘terrorist targeting and build-up’, he said.
London-based Aegis Defence Services highlighted this in its study last year. In one incident last March, it said that about 10 pirates boarded the oil tanker Dewi Madrim off the coast of Sumatra.
Pirates took the helm and steered the vessel, altering speed for an hour before fleeing with the captain and first officer, in what seemed a training exercise to learn to steer a ship.
Maritime observers are concerned that vessels passing through the busy Malacca Strait could be targeted.
That groups have the capability to strike is known. Most recently, an arrested Abu Sayyaf member told the Philippine authorities that he had played a role in the bomb that exploded on a ferry in Manila Bay in late February.
The Abu Sayyaf is a kidnap gang based in the Mindanao islands.
Before that, Singapore foiled at least one maritime attack with the arrest of Jemaah Islamiah members in December 2001.
The arrest revealed that the JI’s plans to attack US warships with explosive-laden small boats manned by foreign suicide bombers were fairly well advanced – though not activated.
The Al-Qaeda threat is not remote, experts say. Investigations have shown that the attack on the USS Cole by Al-Qaeda in 2000 was possibly planned in Malaysia, they point out.
Inadequate regulation, corruption and the secretive nature of operations – with the names of real owners of vessels being often concealed – makes it easy for terrorist groups to infiltrate and mount attacks, maritime specialist Michael Richardson said.
There is considerable scope for terrorists to pose as crew, take over a ship and use it as a weapon of attack, he said in his recent 107-page study – Terrorism: The Maritime Dimension.
Yet many believe ‘flushing’ is not an option. At best a short-term, costly affair, it could instigate several hundred more jihadis, they point out.
According to Mr Dominic Armstrong, the head of research and intelligence at Aegis, a better option would be ‘hardening of targets’.
More naval patrols, more convoy services to escort vessels to shore, more pressure on owners to hold basic anti-piracy drills and more bilateral pacts for monitoring the seas are options, he said.
IMPORTANCE OF WATERWAYS Over a quarter of the world’s trade, half of its oil and much of its liquefied natural gas pass through the Malacca and Singapore Strait.
More than 80 per cent of the oil imported by Japan, South Korea and China comes from the Persian Gulf via this waterway.
As many as 50,000 large ships use the waterway each year.
The US Department of Energy has calculated that if the Malacca and Singapore Strait were closed, nearly half the world’s fleet would have to sail further, generating a substantial rise in the requirement for vessel capacity.
Source: Study by Michael Richardson, visiting senior research fellow, Institute ofSouth-east Asian studies