The Magazine

Dire Straits

The war on terror's Singapore front.

Mar 3, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 24 • By AUSTIN BAY
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Singapore

THE BUMBOAT FERRY from Changi Point to Pulau Ubin may be as close as modern Singapore gets to Joseph Conrad's tropic island of trade and empire. Instead of coconut copra the boat's smell is diesel, but the engine chugs at a steam-driven rhythm and the deckhouse is open to the humid air and high noon of the equatorial sun.

Just 60 miles above the Equator--astride the main sea lane between the Indian and Pacific Oceans--Singapore's location is still its raison d'etre. Prime property for 19th-century commerce remains key economic and geostrategic real estate in the 21st. In the 19th century tin and tea and British troops were high-priority shipments. Today supertankers nose through the Strait of Malacca, connecting Middle Eastern oil fields to Asia's economic tigers. Merchant freighters move in both directions, as do warships.

All of which makes the ferry ride more than a tourist jaunt. Pulau Ubin and a handful of other jungle-green islets sit in the Johor Strait, the heavily trafficked northern waterway separating Singapore from Malaysia. East of Pulau Ubin, one shipping channel swings south from Johor, cutting well to starboard of the bumboat's route. That channel leads to Singapore's Changi Naval Base, where U.S. Navy aircraft carriers berth occasionally and capital ships stop as they shuttle to and from patrol stations.

Know the terrain, the technology, and the terrorists, and you don't need a Hollywood imagination to peg the channel as a perfect site for an ambush. Given ships in transit and the size of the kill zone, it would require speed, so a dinghy, like the one al Qaeda used on the docked USS Cole in Aden, won't cut it. Iran has used pesky Boghammers to harass ships in the Persian Gulf--one of those Swedish speedboats might work, as would a drug runner's Cigarette. The fast boat, packed with explosives and a suicide pilot, could slip from an inlet on the Malaysian side, gun its engine, whirl around an islet, perhaps Pulau Tekong, seeking the slate gray side of a carrier. It won't be a straight shot, though. There'll be tugs, armed escorts--

From the stern of the ferry, in the noonday sun, I visualize the moment.

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."

A new kind of war? Maybe, but for Mr. Chang it's not so new. His real name isn't Chang--not even close. Getting cops and counterterror intelligence officers to talk exacts a price, and that price is strict anonymity. I can say Chang has worked with a sophisticated group of intelligence officers and cops, drawing on assets from Malaysia, the United States, and Singapore's Internal Security Department (ISD). Their common foe is Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), al Qaeda's branch operation in Southeast Asia, headed by radical Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Bashir.

Chang taps the map I've drawn, a black wriggle indicating strait and channel. "JI members discussed this attack, but they discuss much. They talk. But planned it to the point of carrying it out?" He shrugs.

I mention having heard that JI has reconned the approaches to Changi. That would suggest JI's naval operation has moved from talk to active consideration.

"Then you go find open sources who can confirm chatter," Chang says. "What I am trying to say to you, from my experience, is that American vessels and foreign embassies are not necessarily their only targets, Colonel."

Colonel. A careful investigator, he'd been to my website and elsewhere. I tell him I'm just a reservist.

"Yes," Chang smiles. "Yes, Mr. Bay." He amuses himself.

"But you agree a U.S. Navy ship is a prime target. Big headlines?"

"There are other attractive targets," he says, "from their [JI's] perspective. Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Indonesia--this region's been with this longer than you. We've been targets longer than you. I don't say this to insult. . . . America has joined our war."

Three weeks after this conversation, the Singapore Home Affairs Ministry released a white paper confirming JI's plans for a sea attack. According to the report, markings on a topographical map ISD acquired "identified a strategic kill zone where the channel was narrowest and where the naval ships would have no room to avoid a collision with a suicide vessel."

But evidence gathered by Singapore's ISD over the past five years also makes Chang's point: Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia lie first and foremost in JI's geo-strategic kill zone. JI has large plans for the whole of Southeast Asia, plans dating from well before 9/11. Drawing on cadres schooled in past radical political movements that used Islam as both a wedge issue and a rallying cause, JI seeks to establish a grand "Islamic state" stretching from southern Thailand through Malaysia, the Philippine and Indonesian archipelagoes, and Australia. Indeed, JI produced a "green map" where the reach of sharia, as interpreted by JI leadership, extends into the Australian continent and New Guinea. Fanciful? Megalomaniacal? After 9/11 only the willfully blind can dismiss the motivating power of such an imperial eschatology.

Chang shows me a copy of JI's dreamland, pulling the map from his brown notebook and placing it on the counter. It's our second meeting. Chang orders a latte as I study the map. Borneo, Java, Thailand's Krak peninsula, the whole of the Philippines, western and northern Australia shaded in this photocopy.

"They believe it," he says.

And belief, in that crowd, becomes bombs. Or, rather, it becomes dreams of bombing campaigns. JI hatched plans to attack Singapore's international airport. JI jihadis reconnoitered the cargo center on Singapore's Jurong Island. Shipping containers may be the most frightening potential delivery device for a terrorist's nuclear bomb. A Taiwanese businessman told me about his company's concerns with the safety of shipping containers moving through the Strait. Singapore worries him less than Malaysia because "Singapore police do a serious job of cargo inspection." Still, seized notes and confessions from arrested JI operatives about an attack on the Jurong complex put a scare in trade-dependent Singapore. Which is the strategic ploy.

"JI chooses [terror operations] in Singapore for the demonstrative effect," says K. Kesavapany, director of Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. We are in his chauffeured car, driving down Napier Road, a toney, tree-shaded boulevard where the U.S., British, and Australian embassies line up like well-fenced bunkers. All three, as well as the Israeli embassy, had made JI's target list. "We in Singapore have our guard up, so if al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah could get it done here, a terror strike, they can get it done anywhere in the region. That is the message." We pass a bus stop across from the U.S. embassy, the spot where a JI recon team videotaped the approaches to the American compound.

"We're an island World Trade Center," Kesavapany adds, as his driver turns the corner to drop me off at my hotel.

Over afternoon tea I get a scholar's take on JI's plans for Malaysia. Again, no direct attribution. Why? He's a Muslim and, to paraphrase Mr. Kesavapany, he comes from a country where JI can get it done.

"Jemaah Islamiyah in Malaysia. They are clever, yes. They have an education program. But their secret is no secret. It's money. Arab money. Saudi Arab money."

"Can you prove that?"

"Where else but oil does it come from?" he says. "I know what I am told. With that money they promote the Arabization of our Islam in Southeast Asia. Object and you face personal violence."

Arabization is a highly nuanced term, one used repeatedly among Malaysian and Indonesian Muslims I talk to. The general drift is that it represents a movement toward an aggressive anti-Western, anti-secular, and racially tinged Islam in Southeast Asia, the racial tinge being anti-Chinese.

The short version of JI's "education program" is that terrorist cash muscles out public and moderate Muslim educators in Malaysian villages. Undermining the schools "preys on a [strategic] weakness in Malaysia," the scholar says. "Their object is to undermine moderate Muslims."

I ask for his definition of a moderate Muslim.

"A Muslim who accepts the nation-state system," he replies.

THE OCTOBER 12, 2002, bombing of a nightclub on the Indonesian island of Bali was a "choice target," Colter tells me. No, Colter isn't his real name, but it should be. His blue eyes are as hard as gun barrels. He is an "American asset." That's the lingo, which is supposed to say a load without saying much. "Bali's a Hindu island with Australian tourists. Australia is an active U.S. ally. That blast was an economic shot at Indonesia. New York Times Sunday travel section readers know where Bali is."

The Bali bombing killed almost 200 people and injured another 300. It also demonstrated that al Qaeda was still probing Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia.

"What kind of counterterror cooperation exists with Indonesia since Bali?" I ask Chang, when I see him again.

"Since Bali the Indonesian police have been able to act more readily. Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore--the police cooperate closely."

"But until the Bali mess, the Indonesian government was publicly denying the threat of radical Islamists in Indonesia?" I prod.

Chang doesn't reply.

Subways are another choice target. Singapore beefed up its counterterror unit after the 1995 Aum Shin Rikyo sarin nerve gas attack in Tokyo. A December 2000 terror attack on the Manila metro sent shock waves through the region. Indonesian Islamic militants were implicated in that attack. Filipino and other intelligence services had already developed dossiers linking JI to the Philippines' Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Jihadis trained with the MILF in the southern Philippines until the Philippine military began overrunning the camps in 2000 and 2001.

But for the clinching evidence putting JI in al Qaeda's bosom, check out the reconnaissance video of Singapore's Yishun metro station, which can be downloaded from the Singapore Ministry of Home Affairs website (www2.mha.gov.sg/mha/detailed.jsp?artid=215&type=4&root=0&parent=0&cat=0&mode=arc). Yishun is a subway stop near Sembawang, where U.S. naval facilities are located. The narrator of the video analyzes the arrival of the connecting bus outside the station and discusses the comings and goings of U.S. military personnel. One sequence focuses on a street drain as the voice, in cold sing-song, muses that it could be "useful."

The tape sounds like a bad outtake from "Mission Impossible." But it isn't. The Yishun tape was acquired by "American assets" in Afghanistan.

"Singapore's ISD was already onto the JI cell when U.S. forces picked up the video in an Afghan location," Colter tells me.

"But someone in D.C. took credit for the tape as leading to December 2001's mass round-up of jihadis?" I ask.

"ISD has a legitimate gripe," Colter replies.

Arrests and convictions of terrorists are a measure of success, and by that measure Singapore has an extraordinary track record for busting terror cells. The biggest roundups were in December 2001 (15 arrests) and in September 2002 (21 arrests). I know all about Lee Kwan Yew, the imperious boss of the city-state. I know about the canings (a punishment dating from British colonial days); I know the press gets clamped occasionally. I know the government arranges dates for men and women with college degrees because it worries about eugenics and about population decline. Singapore desperately needs an effective political opposition. That being said, it's a party town and no police state. The arrests of terrorists speak to the threat level, not to police intrusiveness.

Home Affairs Ministry spokesman Mrs. Ong-Chew Peck Wan tells me, "After September 11, we stepped up our security measures, including tightening border and immigration controls, protecting our key installations, particularly those strategic to us. As well as very sensitive targets, for example, the embassies."

The December 2001 arrests thwarted embassy bombings. An Indonesian, Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi, was subsequently arrested in the Philippines in connection with planned attacks. Al-Ghozi was identified as one of two al Qaeda terror experts who advised the Singapore cell.

IN THE ENTRANCE HALLWAY of the U.S. embassy stands a bell given to the city of Singapore by Paul Revere's daughter. The bell was cast by the Revere works in Boston in the 1840s.

Getting into the embassy to see it, however, is a trick in these post-9/11 days. Outside Gurkhas patrol, inside Marines and plainclothesmen aided by electronics examine every stitch.

Frank Lavin, U.S. ambassador to Singapore, is an energetic and erudite man. "This is a war with many fronts and requires intense cooperation," he says. "Southeast Asia is a major theater of this war, no doubt about that. Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim nation. Jemaah Islamiyah's transnational character demonstrates the need to cooperate. Singapore's done a superb job, as good as the U.S. But we know there could still be an incident."

I mention a video I've seen, one shot from the bus stop across the street, the U.S. embassy cased as a target.

"Diplomats are in the front line of this war," is his clipped response.

As I leave the embassy, a guard with a smile to put a cheshire cat to shame watches, his submachine gun professionally slung.

"What unit are you in?" I ask.

"Gurkha Contingent." Translation: He's a mercenary working special security duties for Singapore.

"The bus stop across the street. I saw a video shot by terrorists from that spot."

"Not now," he replies. No cockiness, lots of confidence.

"That's an MP-5," I say, pointing to his weapon.

"Yes . . . do you know it?"

"When I was in the American Army I had an M-3 .45 caliber sub in my tank. Not as fancy as that MP-5."

"When were you in the Army?"

"Well, I'm still in the reserves."

"Really?" With a quick click he pops me a salute.

I start to tell him I'm here as a writer. But I don't. I salute him, then head down the sidewalk to the street, a stretch of concrete that's as much a front line in this strange world war as Wall Street, or the Pentagon, or a minefield in southern Iraq.

Austin Bay is an author and syndicated columnist. His novel "The Wrong Side of Brightness" will be published this spring by Putnam/Berkley Books.