World seaports and trade are dangerously unprotected from potential terrorist attack, according to a veteran foreign correspondent based in Singapore. Speaking in an interview with Radio Free Asia, Michael Richardson — now a visiting senior research fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies — said that global trade has become increasingly concentrated in a network of twenty or thirty major ports around the world.
“This network is increasingly interdependent,” Richardson said. “In other words, if terrorists managed to take control of a ship and exploded it or used it as an effective weapon in one of these major ports anywhere in the world, there would be instantly ripple effects that would affect the operations of all those ports . . .”
During the half hour phone interview, Richardson warned that Al-Qaeda and affiliated groups have already demonstrated their ability to strike ships at sea. In two separate incidents in 2000 and 2002 off Yemen, al-Qaeda attacked the U.S. warship Cole and the French oil tanker Limburg. The Abu Sayaf group in the southern Philippines is thought, said Richardson, to have been responsible for the sinking in February of a large ferry in Manila Bay. Jemaah Islamiya, a terror group based in Indonesia, had at one time also developed plans to attack U.S. warships visiting Malaysia and Singapore, Richardson said.
The former correspondent in South East Asia for the International Herald Tribune emphasized that the Malacca and Singapore Straits — the shipping route for much of East Asia’s trade and oil — form particularly vulnerable “choke points.”
“These Straits,” said Richardson, “are relatively narrow and relatively shallow. They are also increasingly congested, and the worry is that if terrorists were to use a ship or ships laden with explosive, inflammable, or polluting substances and use that ship as a weapon by sinking it in a narrow portion of the Strait or setting it ablaze, then it would at least for some time close the Straits . . .”
Shipping in the Straits is already vulnerable to armed takeover by pirates, he said, and three coastal states — Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore — have agreed to conduct joint naval patrols to protect commercial shipping from attack.
Another security concern, said Richardson, is the use by ships of foreign flags. The practice, though made legal by the entry of a ship’s name on a foreign register, is often used by unsafe vessels or by vessels seeking to mask their ownership or identity.
“Of most concern to the U.S., and indeed to South Korea, was the clear evidence that North Korean freighters flying the Cambodian flag or on the Cambodian register were moving ballistic missiles to clients in the Middle East and Africa,” noted Richardson.
In one troubling example of the use of flags of convenience, said Richardson, a North Korean freighter flying the flag of Tuvalu — a small Pacific island nation — was boarded and seized last year by Australian authorities while trying to land a large cargo of heroin on Australia’s southeast coast.
A worrying aspect of the fight against terrorism in this part of the world is the lack of involvement by China. The U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative, a program to deter and intercept shipments of prohibited weapons and other dangerous cargoes, is backed by a “core group” of fifteen or sixteen member nations. One important country that is not part of this core group is China, warned Richardson.
“China says that it supports the objectives of the group but has reservations about the possible infringing of international law of the sea and freedom of navigation by the group’s activities,” Richardson said. “But I think, myself, that as concerns increase about the risk of weapons of mass destruction — nuclear weapons in particular — being spread around the world, that China will come on board.”
Richardson suggested though, that China may not yet have ended its own proliferation activities. Beijing still needs to prove, said Richardson, that its own channels of supply to North Korea and to Iran and other parts of the Middle East have been “shut down for good.”
A Time Bomb for Global Trade - Maritime-related Terrorism in an Age of Weapons of Mass Destruction by Michael Richardson, is published by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies - 30 Heng Mui Keng Terrace - Singapore 119614