25 February 2004

The New Piracy

The Singaporean maritime authorities, Dominic Armstrong of Aegis and Rear Admiral Eldridge all take the view that the rising tides of piracy and Muslim extremism will soon meet: that a terrorist will become a pirate, seize an oil tanker and steer it at full speed into a refinery or port. Tony Tan, Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister and Co-ordinating Minister for Security and Defence, is worried that Singapore is already a prime target for terrorists. 'If the terrorists are not able to attack targets on land, because we have hardened these, or in the air, because we now have air marshals and our airlines are taking precautions, the next alternative,' he says, 'is to attack targets at sea.' They could 'hijack a ship, ram it into a port and cause a great deal of damage'. Is this, I asked, just a possibility or a serious worry? 'We are not looking at it as a possibility. We are looking at it as an event which is likely to happen and we are taking precautions against it.' Tan was involved in the investigation that led to the December 2001 arrests of Singapore Islamists. 'These terrorists,' he says, 'while they may be fanatical, are not irrational.'

On 6 December 1917 the French munitions carrier Mont Blanc collided with the Merchant ship Imo in the port of Halifax, Nova Scotia. The explosion in the Mont Blanc's powder magazines destroyed Halifax harbour and more than three hundred acres of city buildings. Nineteen hundred people died, and another nine thousand sustained serious injuries. Singapore, with a much larger population in a more confined space, would sustain tens of thousands of casualties. Many of the Republic's 17,000 American residents and other foreigners would leave. Merchant ships would not be able to dock for months or years. The Singapore Straits would have to close, interrupting half the world's oil exports. Insurance rates would force shipping companies to take longer and more expensive routes far to the south of the Malacca Straits. Japan's oil supply, 80 per cent of which passes through the Malacca Straits, would be jeopardised, as would China's exports to Asia. If Western consumers refused to pay the greater cost of shipping clothes and trainers stitched in the East, Western corporations would pay less to seamstresses in Indonesia and Malaysia. More poverty would push people to robbery, on land and sea, or awaken them to the Islamist call to redress the balance of power with the secular West.

Military adventures further American business interests. Halliburton becomes an East India Company running portions of Iraq. Bechtel disburses contracts to be paid from Iraqi oil revenues. Third World economies and former state services become the preserves of Securicor, American Medical International and Monsanto. The subjugated watch their masters to see how it is done. The American way of life is dividing people into two 'communities' - those on the inside and those on the outside. Afghanistan, Iraq, Colombia, the city ghettos of the Western world and the frontier badlands of Russia are more restive than ever. So are the oceans. America constructs nuclear shields in space, fortifies its borders and patrols its coasts. The barbarians are at the gates, and shortly they will be at the harbour walls, but they are inside, too - washing the dishes, shoplifting and, occasionally, beating someone to death to pay for a fix. If Washington's war on terror does for Islamic extremism what its war on drugs did for the drug barons, we may all end up praying towards Mecca.

Southerly Buster is officially joining the Singaporean maritime agencies in imagining that this could happen. Locking up the airports while you leave the harbours open is about par for the course.

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