AN AMERICAN OFFICER familiar with U.S. Navy security concerns in southeast Asia first tipped me to the aircraft carrier scenario. "Singapore's a logical choice for a 'super Cole' operation, or something similar," he said. That was October 2001. We sat in a CENTCOM office, a world map tacked to the wall (U.S. Central Command is responsible for our security interests from the Horn of Africa into Central Asia). "The Straits of Malacca are a chokepoint. The U.S. has log[istics] support on Singapore, to an extent replacing what we lost when we moved out of Subic [Bay, Philippines]. It's a nice place, First World in the Third World. Even if it wasn't a U.S. ally, Islamists don't like the island. It's Chinese--that's what the radicals say. They don't like it. Not because it isn't Muslim, but because it's a wealthy Chinese island dumped between two predominantly Muslim nations, Malaysia and Indonesia."
The officer and I explored several "ship assault" scenarios, including a tanker scuttled in the straits (this was a year before al Qaeda attacked a French tanker off Yemen). Our Malacca incident had the plot of a novel, with Indonesian or Malaysian pirates assisting al Qaeda operatives. The broken tanker spills a million barrels of crude, creating an eco-disaster, Exxon goo lapping pristine south sea beaches. The attack has iconic qualities, underlining Western and Japanese reliance on Mideast oil, producing the sort of propaganda bonanza a terrorist zealot literally dies for.
Then I said, "Sink a super carrier? The armor? U.S. Navy damage control? And we're watching for these guys."
"Yeah," he replied. "But after September 11, the far out's too real. Rumsfeld says it's a new kind of war."
Readers of this site may remember that I've been discussing the possibility of shipping attacks by Al Qaeda for some time - see here and here. See also American Scribbles where he warned,
However, I must wonder if there isn't more to these incidents than just impending piracy. It would seem to me that given the limited success of the insurgency to mount hit and run suicide attacks against U.S. forces, couldn't this be a natural extention of that?
Could what we are witnessing with these bands of boats be an attempt by al-Qaeda to extend the reach of their strike capablility to attacking U.S. naval vessels?
Is this an expansion of the assault tactics used to damage the USS Cole?
Narrow sea lanes are logical choices for such attacks, as are ports. The Strait of Malacca is narrow and piracy has been common in the area. Here's a map of the area (arrows point to a couple of post Tsunami piracy efforts):
It's a very plausible scenerio. But it is also preventable. Update: Earlier post on escorts for the littorals here.
Update2: U.S. Navy, in addition to the Cole, has already suffered losses from suicide boaters...
Three speed boats manned by suicide bombers try to attack Iraq’s main oil loading terminal in the Persian Gulf, doing minimal damage to the terminal but leaving two U.S. sailors dead.
Update3: replaced link to 'kook" site to MSNBC in update above.
Update4: Commentor Leslie points to this NY Times piece on which John S. Burnett writes of modern piracy:
Now, one hopes, these countries will take note of what an increased military presence can accomplish, because the pause in piracy will not last forever, nor will the cease-fire the Free Aceh Movement made with the Indonesian government in the aftermath of the tsunami. Unless Indonesia and Malaysia accept American help in fighting them, the pirates will be back..
Update 5: Previous posting (10/28/04) on pirates and terrorism here. I highly recommend the Eric Koo article from Asia Times here, here and here.
Update 6: From a Singapore Angle travels some of the same ground, but has a little different "angle" on it - a lot more Singapore based information. Good read..