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#929, 29 December 2002
Terrorism or Freedom Struggle: The Free Aceh Movement
Vijay Sakhuja
Maritime Security Analyst

In December 2002, a joint Indonesian navy-military patrol seized a barge manned by seven Indonesian crewmen, some ten kilometers off the coast of East Aceh, northern Sumatra, Indonesia. The vessel was reportedly carrying explosives and detonators from Penang in Malaysia to Aceh.? A search yielded 46 detonators and 55 sticks of ‘power gel’, an explosive material that is usually combined with other explosives.? Earlier, the Indonesian navy's western fleet had destroyed two ships carrying smuggled arms for the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM) or Free Aceh Movement, a separatist rebel group in Indonesia.? The separatists had seized the vessels from Thai fishermen to smuggle arms to Aceh province. The action was taken after the rebels controlling the ships opened fire. The crew, who were held hostage by the rebels, had been freed.


In August 2001, a general cargo carrier MV Ocean Silver, while transiting through the Malacca Strait, a piracy prone area, was captured by the GAM rebels. The six crewmembers of the vessel were taken hostage. In an attempt to rescue the vessel and the crew, the Indonesian security forces engaged in a gun battle with the insurgents that resulted in one soldier and three rebels being killed. ?The hostages, however, could not be rescued. What was disturbing was the fact that the GAM issued a warning that all ships transiting through the straits between Sumatra Island and Malaysia must get prior permission from the insurgents for transit.


Post September 11, there is an international concern over maritime terrorism and sea piracy. The fact that secessionist groups use these means to further their cause complicates the situation. Fears have been expressed regarding possible use of hijacked cargo or passenger ships, packed with explosives, to attack cities. The US-led coalition forces have been on the lookout for ships that are owned by the al-Qaida network. Recent reports suggest that al-Qaida is among the international terrorist organizations responsible for an increase in piracy in the Malacca Strait against ships carrying radioactive materials. The pirates are essentially looking for substances for use in “dirty” bombs.?


However, Muzakir Manaf, the GAM leader, has denied that Free Aceh movement is involved in the network of either the Al-Qaeda or the Jemaah Islamiyah, a dominating terrorist group in Southeast Asia which was involved in the Bali bombing of October 2002.? Manaf has noted that GAM is essentially a resistance movement (strength of about 2,000-5,000) against Jakarta's rule and is motivated by nationalism than by Islamic fundamentalism. Its goals are limited to Aceh and do not involve a struggle against the West. But GAM has attacked US companies in Indonesia and committed what might be termed as terrorist acts. Since September 11, the Aceh struggle is clearly being seen as “terrorism” in Jakarta, with Megawati taking a hard-line stance on secessionism. A separate military command for Aceh was re-established in late 2001, following a massive deployment of army troops.


It is important to keep in mind that GAM is an insurgent movement that sits astride the sea-lane that serves as the umbilical cord to the Asia Pacific and is vital for the economic well being of the region.? Malacca is a busy Strait with over 600 vessels of all sizes from Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCC) to sailing yachts and fishing boats transiting through it. Each day, about 10.3 million barrels are carried through the Strait of Malacca. Virtually all ships destined for East Asia carrying LNG and LPG pass through Malacca and the concern for security is likely to grow in importance as East and South East Asia's energy imports grow. It is estimated that the number of tankers transiting through Malacca would increase from 45 per day in 2000 to 59 per day in 2010. Similarly, the LPG tankers tanker traffic is expected to increase from five per day in 2000 to seven per day in 2010 and LNG tankers are expected to rise from eight per day in 2000 to twelve per day.


The recent attack off Yemen on the French oil tanker Limburg is a chilling reminder of the vulnerability of maritime enterprises to terrorist attacks. Unfortunately, maritime shipping is the soft underbelly of states that remains exposed to attacks. Given the vulnerability of maritime shipping, particularly in the Malacca Strait, it is crucial that regional cooperative maritime security initiatives be augmented to make sea-lanes safe for commerce. As regards ports, United States has already sought assistance from several countries to improve security at ten “mega-ports” that account for nearly half of containers landing on US seaports. This also includes placing US custom inspectors to identify high-risk containers and screening them at the port of origin and US customs inspectors have already been stationed at Singapore and Hong Kong ports for this purpose.

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