Why Singapore?

Singapore is of strategic importance to the South China sea region because of its proximity and because it has important financial and deep harbor facilities.  Singaporte authorities have broken an al Qaeda plot targeting the U.S. Navy presence there as the direct result of intelligence gathered in Afghanistan. The plot included plans to attack U.S. Navy ships, sailors and the nightspots they frequent. The 17,000 Americans living in Singapore and other expatriates were also among the targets.

This is the first acknowledged instance of the operation in Afghanistan leading to the breakup of a terrorist plot in another country. U.S. officials say they believe that some of those arrested, as well as additional suspects, had access to large amounts of stored explosives; bomb-making information; photographs of key sites used by the United States; and fake travel documents. Authorities in Singapore said they arrested 15 suspected terrorists in December. On January 6, 13 of those suspects were ordered detained for two years under the country's Internal Security Act.

Authorities said all 13 belong to Jemaah Islamiya, a clandestine organization that has cells in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Eight of them had gone to al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan for training that included use of AK-47s and mortars and study of military tactics, they said, and the group's leader in Singapore, Ibrahim Maidin, underwent military training in Afghanistan in 1993. Maidin, 51, managed a condominium and taught religion classes, where he recruited J.I. members, who maintained tight operational security, using code words and code names in their communications, investigators said in a statement released Friday.

Details of the arrests had been closely held. Now that the Singapore government has begun releasing details, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other military officials are expected to acknowledge the matter officially. Sources indicate the situation remains sensitive: U.S. officials say the ring was broken up because of intelligence the U.S. military gained inside Afghanistan while searching al-Qaeda hideouts. Singapore says it had a handle on the problem from the beginning -- without U.S. assistance.

Authorities said three cells were involved in planning attacks: One was to target a shuttle bus service used by U.S. personnel in Singapore, and Singapore official said a videotape made by its leader, Mohamed Khalim bin Jaffar, was found in the rubble of an al-Qaeda leader's house in Afghanistan. For unknown reasons, the plan was not carried out.

Under a second plan, U.S. Navy vessels northeast of Singapore between Changi and Pulau Tekong may have been targeted for bombing. Khalim's possessions included a map that showed observation posts in Singapore and Johor and a "kill zone" in the channel between Changi and Pulau Tekong. Authorities said he had a list of more than 200 U.S. companies in Singapore, two tampered Singapore passports, 15 forged Malaysian and Philippines immigration stamps, night-vision binoculars and papers describing how to make bombs.

The second cell obtained photographs in April 2000 of Paya Lebar Air Base and the U.S. planes there as a potential target. The pictures were found among bin Jaffar's possessions. The group also carried out surveillance of the U.S. Embassy, the Australian High Commission, the Israeli Embassy and commercial buildings housing U.S. companies in conjunction with a group from outside Singapore, two members of which told the cell they had stockpiled four tons of ammonium nitrate in Malaysia and needed 17 more. Mohamed Elias, a 29-year-old manager, tried to make the purchase but was arrested by Singapore authorities before he could do so. Authorities said a third cell formed after last September's terror attacks in the United States.

Why Malaysia?

Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore are launching coordinated patrols to improve security in the Malacca Strait, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes. The waterway is already notorious for piracy and there is increasing concern it could become a target for terrorists.

The Malacca Strait is a narrow, 800-km long strip of water running between Indonesia and Malaysia and Singapore. It's a crucial transport route for more than 50,000 ships a year, carrying about one quarter of the world's overall trade. But, the Malacca Strait is also one of the world's most dangerous waterways, where modern-day pirates routinely lie in wait to attack passing ships.

The International Maritime Bureau logged more than two pirate attacks a month in the Malacca Strait last year. Security experts describe most of the attacks as "maritime muggings." They say the pirates use inflatable speed boats to attack relatively small ships, holding their crews at gunpoint and quickly stealing cash or valuables before racing away. But the pirates, most of whom are believed to be working out of small inlets in Indonesia, are becoming more sophisticated and beginning to target larger ships.

Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have now launched a program to improve security through coordinated maritime patrols, whereby boats from all three navies will patrol the area. Marty Natalegawa, spokesman for the Indonesian foreign ministry in Jakarta, explained the importance of the initiative. "This idea of having a year-long coordinated patrol is indicative of a regional response to an obvious challenge in the Straits of Malacca," he says. "In the sense that the littoral countries as required under the U.N. Convention of the Law of the Sea responding accordingly rather than inviting extra-regional powers to actually physically deploy their forces in our waters."

The initiative comes amid increasing concerns about a potentially bigger threat -- namely fears that terrorists could attack ships as they pass through the Malacca Strait.

Earlier this year, the United States suggested that U.S. forces might be deployed to patrol the narrow waterway. While Singapore appeared receptive to the idea, both Indonesia and Malaysia adamantly opposed it.  If it is the presence of the U.S. Navy that they object to, airborne patrol using the V-22 and the MRMF might be an acceptable alternative to these nations.

Washington is worried that al-Qaeda-linked terrorists might target ships passing through the Malacca Strait. Any such attack could severely disrupt shipments of oil from the Middle East to East Asia, and shipments of Asian manufactured goods to Europe and Africa. There are also fears that terrorists could use ships as a huge floating bomb to attack a port.

"You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don't know what was in the newspapers that
morning... a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be." 
Joseph Campbell   (1904-1987)