Pirates of the Straitsby Donald Kirk
The war on terrorism in Southeast Asia conjures images of kidnappings, pursuits through dense jungles, attacks on heavily defended hideouts and bombings, shootouts and assassinations in crowded urban settings. Down here, in this bustling port on the world's single most heavily traveled trading route, people talk of another form of terrorism, that of hit-and-run naval warfare by guerrillas skilled in operating anything from innocent looking fishing boats to speedy hydrofoils to large oil tankers.
The possibilities for terrorism at sea are all too evident from the relative ease with which veteran pirates periodically board and pillage ships as they traverse the 550-mile-long Straits of Malacca before threading the eye of the needle between the crowded Singapore harbor, dominated by huge gantry cranes and oil refineries, and Indonesian islands.
Loading and unloading cargo, taking on fuel or putting in for repairs, more than 50,000 vessels a year churn their way through the Straits carrying one third of the goods transported among nations. The greatest commodity - and the most explosive - is the fuel borne by tankers moving in steady procession from the oil fields of the Middle East to power the great economies of Northeast Asia, Japan, China and Korea.
Not that piracy happens every day. There were 37 acts of piracy last year, a minuscule percentage of the total number of ships that made it through the gauntlet. Singapore's deputy prime minister for defense, Tony Tan, calls Singapore "an iconic target," suggesting the tightly governed city-state, kept in order by a strong police force, stringent security rules and suppression of serious dissent, may rank high among terrorist priorities. One terrifying way for terrorists to break through the security rule could be to capture a vessel, bring it near the oil tanks, and blow it up in the maritime equivalent of a car bomb.
Pirates are masters at scaling the side of the vessels - making off with the booty and disappearing into the mist.
Ideally, U.S. Navy and Coast Guard boats should be patrolling the Straits, providing the technical expertise and weaponry needed to wipe out the threat. Upward of 100 U.S. Navy ships a year put in at Singapore to take on fuel and supplies and provide the crew with rest and recreation in a shopping mecca whose constraints on political freedom do not extend to bars and brothels.
The governments of the region, however, have long since perished the thought of regular patrols by an outside superpower as an intrusion on their sovereignty. In the absence of real guarantees of safety, some major ship owners are hiring security firms with fast boats of their own to escort their vessels through the Straits.
These teams have at least half a dozen men making up to $1,000 apiece a day plus the fee for one or two escort crafts. For most ship owners, the solution lies in staying close to the shoreline in constant touch with the authorities.
The results are decidedly mixed. The day after officials called publicly for "closer coordination" among regional authorities, pirates crept up the side of an old cargo ship off the Malaysian west coast, herded the crew into a cabin and made off with the equivalent of $5,000 in local currency. Luckily, the crew in this case put up no resistance and none was injured in contrast to numerous such episodes in which pirates have routinely maimed and killed those foolish enough to try to fight.
As Cross told his hosts, however, the stakes are much higher than acts of piracy that might come straight from a basic Hollywood or Hong Kong action film. The real question is when the terrorists - members of the regional terror front affiliated with al-Qaeda - will on to borrow some of the pirates' tactics, or just hiring out the pirates, to carry out their own much more devastating agenda.
That fear adds urgency to the need for guaranteeing security through a waterway that hugs the shorelines of some of the world's more porous, terrorist-infested nations.
Either the nations on the Straits must show their competence to guarantee security or the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard will have to take over the job for the benefit of all the nations that count on smooth sailing through the Straits for survival.
Donald Kirk is the Seoul correspondent for the International Herald Tribune and The New York Times.