Singapore Goes It Alone In Maritime Security Drill
By Ellen Nakashima and Alan Sipress
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 2, 2004; Page A12
SINGAPORE -- Clad in jet black from helmet to boots, Singapore coast guard commandos dashed up the gangplank. Responding to a simulated report of a terrorist bomb planted on the hulking cargo ship, they proceeded in a half-crouch along the starboard deck, peering through the sights of German-made assault rifles.
As sirens on the adjacent wharf wailed, dozens of other uniformed Singaporeans joined the practice on-ship hunt: blue-bereted special operations police, soldiers in green camouflage with a sniffer cocker spaniel and the bomb disposal squad from the navy's diving unit.
This was Singapore's first effort at a joint response by its security forces to a potential terrorist attack off the world's second-busiest port. But the exercise, staged one morning last month, also pointed up the limited ability of countries in the region to cooperate in countering the maritime threat.
Despite the urging of security experts that the island city-state and its neighbors work together more closely against terror threats in the waters of Southeast Asia, this was exclusively a Singaporean affair. Officials from the United Nations, the U.S. Coast Guard and China's maritime security agency attended, but only as observers.
Much of the concern focuses on the Strait of Malacca, a vital marine artery for more than one-quarter of the world's trade and half its oil, including most of the fuel bound for Japan, China and South Korea.
Adm. Thomas B. Fargo, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, proposed an initiative this spring to enhance intelligence-sharing with Asian governments and to coordinate the interdiction of terrorists at sea. "This collective effort will empower each participating nation with the timely information and capabilities it needs to act against maritime threats in its own territorial seas," Fargo said in a speech last month.
But the response has been uneven. Efforts to build a regional approach are hampered by national rivalries, equipment shortages and an acute sensitivity, particularly by Malaysia and Indonesia, about maintaining control of their territorial waters.
When Fargo told a U.S. House committee in March that he was considering putting U.S. Marines aboard high-speed vessels to capture terrorists in the Malacca Strait, officials from Malaysia and Indonesia, whose countries border the waterway, balked. Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar said terrorist threats were exaggerated and warned against unilateral U.S. action in Malaysian waters.
U.S. diplomats have continued to lobby for a more muscular approach, while trying to reassure Southeast Asian leaders that Fargo's initiative is not a ruse to deploy U.S. forces in the sea lanes. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly pressed the issue at a regional security forum in Indonesia last month, while Gen. Michael Hagee, commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, made his first trip to Singapore a week earlier for similar discussions.
Singapore, a close U.S. ally with a modern economy that is dependent on international trade, got on board early. Previously targeted by a militant underground group linked to al Qaeda, Singapore is one of the first maritime nations to comply with new U.N. rules to protect ports against terrorism, which include periodic exercises.
At 9:03 the morning of last month's drill, an alert sounded on the APL Japan, a Singaporean cargo ship with metal containers stacked four high on deck.
"Secure all areas! Stop cargo operations! Go now!" barked Chief Officer Cheong Kwee Thiam, gesturing to the crew. The men, in white jumpsuits, fanned out along the vessel, as long as three football fields.
At 9:30 a.m., Cheong's two-way radio carried a new alert. A bomb was hidden somewhere on board. As sirens screamed, the commandos streamed aboard. The police found the mock explosive in a cardboard juice carton in a bin in a cargo bay. The bomb squad was summoned, and an explosive ordnance disposal specialist squeezed the trigger on a device that shot a high-powered jet of water into the simulated bomb to disable it.
About 20 minutes later, the action shifted to portside as a small boat suddenly appeared from behind a neighboring wharf and raced toward the APL Japan. In the exercise, it was a possible suicide bomber intent on ramming the vessel.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company