Thursday, March 4, 2010

Terror threat in Malacca, Singapore Straits

Authorities have said that a terrorist group may be planning attacks on ships in the Straits of Malacca and the Singapore Straits.

International Maritime Bureau piracy reporting centre head of Asian region Noel Chung said the organisation was alerted by a foreign agency to this threat and has passed on the alert to the relevant regional authorities in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.

He said that while threats of piracy were common in both straits, a terror threat against ships was new to the waters.

“This alert was not issued by us, so we cannot tell you what level or how serious the threat is,” he told The Star.

Chung advised ships plying both straits to be extra vigilant and conduct radar lookouts.

“Usually, ships keep a lookout after dark to thwart pirate attacks. We are advising them to keep a 24-hour watch,” he said.

International news agency AFP reported that an unidentified terrorist group is planning attacks against oil tankers in the Malacca Straits, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, quoting the Singapore Navy and a shipping association on Thursday.

The Singapore Shipping Association said it had received an advisory from the Singapore Navy Information Fusion Centre about “an indication that a terrorist group is planning attacks on oil tankers in the Malacca Straits.”

It said “this does not preclude possible attacks on other large vessels with dangerous cargo.”

“The terrorists’ intent is probably to achieve widespread publicity and showcase that it remains a viable group,” the Singapore Navy said in its advisory.

It reminded shipping operators that the militants could use smaller vessels such as dinghies and speedboats to attack oil tankers and urged them to take precautions.

Pirates and robbers have also used small fishing vessels to board ships during previous attacks in the Malacca Straits, it noted.

Security analysts have said that the Malacca Straits, bordered by Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, is a prime target because more than 30% of global trade and half the world’s oil shipments pass through the narrow waterway.

“If the Singapore Navy is providing this information, it should be taken very seriously,” said John Harrison, a maritime security expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

He said that on the threat level scale, an “indication” is lower than a “warning”, but precautions should still be taken.

A “warning” refers to a credible threat that an attack is likely to be carried out against a target over a specific time frame, while an “indication” is gathered from a series of suspicious activities in a certain area.

“Certainly, we do know that there has been a long-term concern about terrorism in the Malacca Straits but the threat level remains fairly low,” Harrison told AFP.

“That said, it was very prudent for the Singapore Navy to pass this warning along because it keeps the threat level where it is.”

While the Singapore Navy did not name any group, Harrison said the South-East Asia-based Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) militant group or al-Qaeda itself could not be ruled out.

“JI could certainly be one of the groups. We have not seen any public evidence indicating they have the capability to operate but that does not mean they are not developing them,” he said.

In its advisory, the Singapore Navy recommended that ships should “strengthen their onboard security measures and to adopt community reporting to increase awareness and strengthen the safety of all seafarers,” according to the shipping association.

Singapore, one of Asia’s most affluent cities and a regional base for thousands of multinational companies, is a prime target for attacks by militant groups, officials have said.

One of the plots foiled by Singapore authorities was a plan by Islamic militants to hijack an airliner in Bangkok and crash it into Changi airport in 2001 following the September 11 attacks that year in the United States.

Singapore has also arrested several militants involved in a plot to bomb the US embassy and other targets in the city-state.

Source: The Star

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