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Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore raised security alerts today following a foreign tip that terrorists are plotting to attack vessels plying the Malacca Strait, though millions of barrels of oil continue to pass through daily.
"All alert levels have been raised, not just for ships, but also for the security measures that we have undertaken for Singapore," Singapore's home affairs minister said today in Parliament.
In one of the world’s busiest waterways, a disruption in the strait – the narrow body of water between Malaysia and Indonesia (see map) – would have a massive ripple effect on regional and world economies. Roughly one-third of oil shipments transported by boat pass through the strait, making it one of the two most important oil shipping lanes in the world, according to 2006-07 data from the US Department of Energy.
The advisory sent out by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) on Wednesday has reportedly led to increased maritime and air patrols but has not affected shipping traffic. Singapore's Navy has put more ships into the strait and boosted the Coast Guard presence to prevent an attack on the island itself. Police boats have been “tasked to look out for, and inspect, small boats that come close to large vessels that are berthed at anchorages here,” reports Singapore’s Straits Times.
Malaysia’s Coast Guard said it has increased security in the narrow waterway, and Indonesian Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro told Reuters the country has also stepped up patrols. “Oil tankers can pass, but we will increase our readiness," the minister said.
The original tip-off came from Japan, Reuters quoted a Thai official as saying, which informed the IMB that ships could be hijacked. A bureau official reconfirmed that this was a terror threat, not a piracy threat. (Read about Japan’s increased efforts against piracy here.)
Security analysts have said the Malacca Strait, also bordered by Singapore, is a prime target because more than 30 percent of global trade and half the world’s oil shipments pass through the narrow waterway.
John Harrison, a terrorism expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, told the Associated Press that Al Qaeda and the Southeast Asian militant group Jemaah Islamiyah would be the most likely to carry out such an attack.
Harrison said Singapore's warning likely reflects a credible threat.
"Both the Singapore navy and Home Affairs Ministry are not bodies that are known to hype any threats," Harrison said. "If they are putting this information out, it means they are very concerned that something may be developing."
"The shipping industry should and is taking this very seriously," he added.
Indonesian police have blamed Jemaah Islamiyah for suicide bombings of the J.W. Marriott and Ritz Carlton hotels in Jakarta in July 2009 that killed seven people and the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people.
Piracy along the 550-mile strait was a major problem until about a year ago, but the danger has tapered off in recent years thanks to increased patrols. Terrorism is seen as a new problem, and the city-state of Singapore recently set up a center to handle threats in the strait; six countries have liaison offices in the city-state.
So far the warning has not affected shipping insurance rates, and shippers were continuing to use the route, says Reuters.
"Are people going to avoid the straits? I would be stunned if they did," said energy consultant John Vautrain of Purvin and Gertz in Singapore. "If you have to take additional security measures, you take them. That is less difficult than bypassing Malacca."