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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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.