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The Persistence of Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore

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The piracy and armed robbery (PAR) situation in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore (SOMS) was reportedly under control from 2017 to 2018. The Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) Information Sharing Centre (ISC) recorded eight cases in 2018 compared to nine cases in 2017.[i] ReCAAP ISC attributed the improvement to the counter-piracy measures by the shipping industry and law enforcement agencies. Similarly, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), in its 2018 annual report, cited the same measures to explain the improvement in SOMS.

However, recent cases suggest that the PAR situation in SOMS, especially along the Singapore Strait, is not under control. ReCAAP in January 2020 reported that there is a significant increase in cases since October 2019.[ii] From January to May 2021, the 15 cases that occurred along the Singapore Strait accounted more than 50% of cases in Asia (28 cases).[iii] In July 2021, the IMB highlighted the Singapore Strait as an area of concern.[iv] The perpetrators remain at large, and there are concerns that the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic affects economies of coastal communities, hence creating conditions for PAR to thrive.[v]

Figure 1: Map of the Straits of Malacca and Singapore

Source: Maritime Port Authority of Singapore

Why is PAR a persistent problem in SOMS? This paper examines the issue by providing a historical appreciation of SOMS and interrogating why the notion of “control” is problematic. It implies causation between counter-piracy measures and the underlying structural causes of PAR. Instead, the problem waxes and wane as a function of counter-piracy measures on the one hand and pull and push factors of the PAR business on the other hand.


SOMS is a crucial waterway in Southeast Asia (SEA) that serves as a “global shipping superhighway” and accounts for “a third of the world’s marine commerce.”[vi] The 16th-century Portuguese voyager Tome Pines recorded the historical importance of SOMS to global trade during the early age of European colonialism in his book “The Suma Oriental.” He wrote that “whoever is lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice.” In modern times, former Chinese president Hu Jintao in 2003 recognised the strategic importance of SOMS – “Malacca Dilemma” – to the economic growth of China.[vii]

Figure 2: Map illustrates a higher level of maritime activities in SOM vis-à-vis SEA

Source: live map from

PAR in SOMS is a maritime security concern for Singapore, given its plans to boost its economy. Singapore’s Tuas Mega Port is scheduled to be ready in 2040. Furthermore, a bustling maritime zone could inadvertently make SOMS a target-rich environment.[viii] An increase in shipping activities could create more opportunities for PAR.[ix] PAR in SOMS is also a concern to the Iskandar Development Region in Southern Johor, Malaysia, where the Port of Tanjung Pelepas and Johor Port are central to the region’s expansion. For the Riau Islands, Indonesia, shipping is crucial to the province’s free trade zone (FTZ).

PAR is SOMS could have wider implications for the region. The possible nexus between sea piracy and maritime terrorism is one of the primary maritime security issues for Singapore and other littoral states in Southeast Asia. The former President of Singapore, Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam, mentioned this point during his speech in 2004 when he was the Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Security and Defence.[x]

Figure 3: Map illustrates the high level of maritime activities in the Singapore Strait and near the Riau Islands province in which Batam is a known pirate hotspot

Source: live map from


Historical records show that PAR has been a maritime security problem in SOMS since the 14th century when seaborne trade increased. Given the situation, the Ming Dynasty despatched the famous Admiral Zheng He to battle the pirates.[xi] The historical trend up to the mid-2000s in which coastal states had to implement a raft of counter-piracy measures such as the Malacca Straits Patrol (MSP) indicates that PAR in SOMS is endemic.

Most of the cases in SOMS from 2017 to 2018 occurred along the Singapore Strait, and this pattern continues into 2021.[xii] From January to April 2021, the 12 cases that happened along the Singapore Strait accounted for 50% of cases in Asia.[xiii] These cases correspond to the geographical trend over the past decade. Pirates have been shifting more activities from the Malacca Strait to the Singapore Strait and nearby South China Sea (SCS) instead of relinquishing a life of crime.[xiv]

PAR activities could shift to areas, which the pirates perceive as having lesser counter-piracy patrols. Whenever cases were low, it is possible that pirate activities were still ongoing but below a certain threshold of violence and economic loss. This strategy could help pirates circumvent counter-piracy measures. Anthropological factors such as the “generational shift among the pirates” and the state of the relationship between pirates and criminal syndicates may also partially explain the geographical shift in PAR activities.[xv]

In sum, PAR is “immensely adaptive to changing situations”, and any “control” that counter-piracy measures have is temporary in the long run.[xvi] Conventional security/naval measures in counter-piracy have more impact on the symptoms or tactical aspects than the underlying structural causes that make PAR endemic.


Statistics are often used to demonstrate whether the PAR situation is under control or not, but this method has its limitations. Cases may either be over-reported or under-reported.[xvii]

Cases may be under-reported among the shipping communities because the victims are concerned that investigations could disrupt the ship’s schedule and commercial reputation, raising insurance premiums. Victims may not be overly worried if the economic loss is low, and the business could absorb it. The crew are generally unharmed as the pirates used minimal violence to avoid the attention of maritime security agencies. Some victims may not report cases to avoid the attention of governments if their ships are involved in unlawful activities. The activities include forced labour, smuggling, illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

Victims from coastal communities who operate small fishing and trading boats may not report cases if they distrust local authorities. Some local authorities could be complicit in PAR activities or lack enforcement capabilities. Also, they fear retaliation as the pirates may come from nearby communities or the same islands such as Riau and have links to criminal groups on land. According to the IMB, statistics rarely capture cases involving fishing boats.[xviii] Therefore, while official statistics may paint the picture that the PAR situation is under control, the reality on the ground may be different.

Cases may also be over-reported due to possible insurance fraud or victims reporting more petty thefts and failed PAR attempts.[xix] These cases could have gone unreported in the past to avoid the hassle of making reports. Furthermore, some victims may be more likely to report cases when their awareness of reporting channels is higher following maritime security organisations’ publicity campaigns.

In sum, statistical analysis may not always reflect the actual magnitude of the situation and how it affects different sections of the diverse maritime world – shipping and coastal communities. The situation may be under control for the shipping communities. However, the threat level for coastal communities may continue to be on the high side.


Scrutinising patterns in PAR cases instead of statistics only could provide a better situational assessment in terms of economic loss, level of violence used, the profile of pirates, types of ships targeted, who are the owners of the ships, whether the targeted ships were underway or at anchorages, time of the incident, etc. PAR cases should also be analysed alongside other maritime crimes. The overall maritime crime situation may continue to be of concern even if the PAR situation appears to be statistically under control.

Fewer PAR cases may not mean an improvement if perpetrators shift from petty thefts (ReCAAP CAT4 incident) to incidents that involve more violence and economic loss (ReCAAP CAT3 incident). In such a scenario, the pirates are less opportunistic but more organised in target selection, material and other backend support. Instead of the situation under control, the PAR network (e.g. better pirate leaders and recruiters, support from corrupt officials, ready buyers for stolen cargo, etc.) is evolving, therefore, enabling pirates to shift to higher risk but higher reward activities. Counter-piracy measures such as the Malacca Straits Sea Patrol (MSSP) would be insufficient as they could only “control” PAR at sea but not the chain of illicit activities on land that makes the crime possible.[xx] Maritime security agencies should always bear in mind that “all maritime piracy begins and ends on land.”[xxi]

In SOMS, data analytics by ReCAAP suggest that the trend of PAR cases is consistent over the past decade in terms of economic loss and level of violence.[xxii] However, more cases are happening at the Singapore Strait. Several factors may explain this geographic shift. Firstly, the counter-piracy measures along the Malacca Strait may be forcing pirates to “change jobs” to other maritime crimes and shift their operations to the Singapore Strait. Secondly, pirates may be adjusting their strategies to capitalise on better criminal opportunities arising from the growing shipping traffic at the Singapore Strait. Thirdly, it is plausible that more Indonesians in the Riau Islands resort to crime as the province’s economy, particularly Batam, has declined over the past few years and resulted in empty shipyards and rising unemployment.[xxiii]

In this regard, a ReCAAP report stated that the arrests of pirates in 2018 included two masterminds in Batam, a known “pirate haven.”[xxiv] Research unveiled that some Indonesians in the Riau Islands who work as fishermen, boat operators or migrated to Batam from other parts of Indonesia might resort to PAR when in financial desperation.[xxv] Indeed, one measure of whether PAR is under control is to examine if PAR “is still viable for traditional maritime peoples” when “in times of economic hardship.”[xxvi]

Fewer PAR cases may also not mean a real improvement if circumstances make it less risky or more lucrative for pirates and potential pirates to participate in other maritime crimes such as smuggling, IUU fishing and illegal migration. For example, the eight recorded cases in SOMS in 2010 created the perception that PAR there was under control. However, research unveiled that other criminal activities in SOMS “continued unencumbered.”[xxvii]

The number of PAR cases in SOMS for 2016 to 2018 is lower compared to the period of 2011 to 2015. However, the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in 2018 reported that the Malacca Strait continues to be a regular human smuggling route for Indonesians travelling illegally to Malaysia.[xxviii] Furthermore, Indonesian and Malaysian authorities reported a shift in the “pattern of drug smuggling” in SEA, given a “high number of drug smuggling attempts” thwarted at the Malaccan Strait.[xxix] Local smugglers are believed to be involved in the short legs of the smuggling operations. As circumstances change, these smugglers may shift or revert to PAR to maintain their earnings with ease as PAR, and other maritime crimes require the same skillsets and tools.

In sum, fewer PAR cases may not be due to the situation being under control but suggests a plausible interaction with other illicit activities at sea.[xxx] PAR statistics are unable to show how pirates are adapting their strategies to “operate within the layers of international policing and surveillance strategies.”[xxxi]


The notion that counter-piracy measures could categorically “control” the PAR situation is problematic. It overlooks the fact that the underlying causes of the persistence of PAR have social, economic, environmental and political roots, which such measures have limited control over.[xxxii] The endemic nature of PAR in SOMS suggests that these underlying causes sustain the pirates’ strategies in the maritime world.

The pirates may be “business as usual” despite existing counter-piracy measures as they could adapt their strategies to stay ahead of challenges to their trade. Furthermore, maritime security agencies have to restrict counter-piracy measures due to sovereignty concerns of coastal states. For example, naval patrols remain coordinated instead of joint, leaving gaps at seas, particularly areas where maritime boundaries are unclear, which pirates could exploit to escape hot pursuit. Geopolitical issues create a trust deficit that prevents coastal states from progressing from strategic cooperation (e.g. “talk shops” and capacity building) to substantive operational cooperation among themselves and with other maritime states such as the United States and Japan.[xxxiii] Intelligence sharing may not be optimal as countries such as Indonesia fear that it could reveal “blind spots in intelligence gathering” and that ports in Singapore and Malaysia would benefit disproportionately from Indonesia’s monitoring of shipping lanes.[xxxiv]

Pirates, however, do not frame their activities according to territorial boundaries and the associated restrictions to operations. Instead, they frame their activities according to “targets, objectives and outcomes”, which influence their modus operandi.[xxxv] Research shows that there are three types of PAR from the perspective of pirates who operate in SOMS.

Firstly, “shopping” is a form of simple, opportunistic or hit-and-run case. Pirates would watch the waterways of SOMS from their villages and strike when they feel that the time, target (ship) and environmental conditions are right. Cases of “shopping” may evade detection, and pirate gangs may elude enforcement actions due to several reasons. Pirate gangs could have bribed the local authorities to “look the other way.” The pirates may gain the acquiescence of the coastal communities by portraying themselves as “Robin Hood” and channelling some of the criminal gains to local needs. These local needs include maintaining village mosques, helping locals with medical costs and even donations to political campaigns. Pirates may also dissuade their victims (e.g. ship’s crew) from reporting the cases to the local authorities. They would limit their use of force as long as the victims do not put up a fight. These reasons suggest that pirates do have some control of the PAR situation by sustaining the sentiments among coastal communities that PAR is “culturally thinkable.” Also, the pirates appear to maintain some tacit agreement with victims. The latter would not resist and report cases to the authorities as long as the former limits the use of force and economic loss.[xxxvi]

Secondly, “black business” is a form of professional theft that typically involves the illicit ship-to-ship transfer of fuel or products and the involvement of insiders. This theft is less risky as compared to “shopping” and more likely to evade counter-piracy measures. The lucrative nature of this crime stems from pirates having the resources and connections to bribe local authorities into reducing patrols in the areas that “black business’ activities happen. “Black business” is possible as pirates work with the “networks of corruption on land as well as at sea” and the transnational network of criminal syndicates. These syndicates facilitate the planning and preparation of PAR activities and disposal of stolen fuel and products.[xxxvii]

Pirates could gain the cooperation of insiders – such as crewmembers – in exchange for money because the “Open Register” in the flag state regime is lacking in terms of enforcing “welfare, training and payment of seafarers.”[xxxviii] Furthermore, the lack of training also begs the question of whether the International Ship and Port facility code (ISPS) has “degenerated into a box-ticking exercise” for some ships and particularly on the code’s requirement for “training drills and exercise on ship security.”[xxxix]

“Black business” is a good PAR model. Although the economic loss is higher than “shopping”, violence is unnecessary. The economic loss is within the “margins of error” in product quantities that companies would write off typically as part of the standard accounting process. These reasons mean that “black business” is essentially under-reported and create the impression that local authorities are categorically in control of the situation.[xl] There were arrests of pirates involved in “black business”, but they could also influence the situation by moderating their activities when prices of fuel and commodities are low.[xli]

Thirdly, “perompakan/bajak laut” is a form of PAR that is more violent and resembles the typical imagery of a pirate attack. It involves either the temporary hijacking of a ship to steal its fuel and cargo or the permanent hijacking of a ship to transform it into a phantom ship. The surge in “perompakan/bajak laut” cases in the early 2000s resulted in the implementation of various counter-piracy measures such as Operation MALSINDO.[xlii] Given the risks of interdiction, pirates who wish to continue with their criminal profession, either full time or to supplement their day jobs, have possibly shifted to less risky forms of PAR – “shopping” and “black business.” “Perompakan/bajak laut” could nevertheless increase if there is increasing competition among pirates for targets for “shopping” and “black business.”

However, it is in the interest of the pirate community to keep “perompakan/bajak laut” cases low. This form of PAR is extremely high risk and less sustainable than “shopping” and “black business.” According to some pirates operating in SOMS, PAR activities that are too aggressive and similar to the “Somali business model” are “bad for business.” They attract too much attention from local authorities of coastal states and security forces of maritime states.[xliii] Pirates may also try to evade attention when committing “perompakan/bajak laut” by targeting ships, which are involved in illicit activities and, in particular, “black business.” This scenario is possible if accomplices whom the pirates engage to provide “security overwatch” for “black business” are also involved in providing similar services for “perompakan/bajak laut.”[xliv] Essentially, pirates have their sources of intelligence from within the criminal fraternity.

While maritime security agencies use counter-piracy measures to control the PAR situation, pirates also seek to influence the situation.  They would want to ensure that the environment remains favourable for the piracy business in the long run. In terms of strategic thinking, pirates perceive counter-piracy measures as operational obstacles. They seek to overcome the obstacles by adjusting internal factors such as their “targets, objectives and outcomes” and adapting to external, pull and push factors such as economic conditions and commodity prices.

In sum, while statistics may suggest that PAR is under control, it may be “business as usual” for the pirates, as research has suggested. This scenario stems from the possibility that pirates continue to remain active in sea-related illicit activities – which counter-piracy measures may not address – to maintain some influence in the shipping and coastal communities.


Media reports often cite counter-piracy measures such as coordinated patrols as the reason for fewer PAR cases in SOMS. Statistics that show fewer PAR cases are usually the primary indicator for the effectiveness of these measures in controlling the situation. However, the reality is that PAR is a persistent problem in SOMS.

The reliance on statistics only can be problematic as it overlooks historical trends and qualitative aspects such as patterns in cases. Furthermore, the “control” of the PAR situation, like a coin, has two sides. On the one side, counter-piracy measures address the symptoms and tactical aspects rather than the underlying causes of PAR. On the other side, these enduring underlying causes sustain the pirates’ strategies in the maritime world. Economic hardships resulting from prolonged COVID-19 pandemic could aggravate these underlying structural causes.[xlv]

To conclude, the PAR situation in SOMS is complex. It entails the interplay between conventional security (symptoms and tactical aspects) and human security (underlying structural causes) factors. The persistence of PAR in SOMS is both a function of counter-piracy measures and the substitution of PAR with viable cultural and economic alternatives for coastal communities in the Riau Islands and along SOMS.

[i] Lim Min Zhang, “Less piracy, armed robbery in Asia waters but vigilance still key.” The Straits Times, January 17, 2019.

[ii] ReCAAP, “Monthly Report: Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia,” Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery, January 2020,, pp. 8 -11

[iii] ReCAAP, “Monthly Report: Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia,” Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery, May 2021,, pp. 9 – 12

[iv] Dale Wainwright, “Piracy at ’27-year low’ but risk remains, warns IMB,” TradeWinds, July 13, 2021,

[v] Ian Storey, “Will Covid-19 Trigger a Tsunami of Maritime Crime in Southeast Asia?” Fulcrum, August 06, 2020,

[vi] Adam McCauley, “The Most Dangerous Waters in the World.” TIME, September 22, 2014.

[vii] Malcolm Davis, “China’s ‘Malacca Dilemma’ and the future of the PLA.” Asia Dialogue, November 21, 2014.

[viii] Liss and Biggs (Eds.), Piracy in Southeast Asia: Trends, Hot Spots and Responses. New York, NY: Routledge, 2017, p. 123

[ix] Bruce A. Ellermen, Andrew Forbes and David Rosenberg, Piracy and Maritime Crime: Historical and Modern Case Studies. Newport: Naval War College, 2011, p. 81

[x] “Speech by Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam, Deputy Prime Minister and Co-ordinating Minister for Security and Defence at the 2004 IDSS Maritime Security Conference held on Thursday, 20 May 2004 at 9.00 am at Marina Mandarin Hotel,” MCI Singapore, May 20, 2004

[xi] Graham Gerard Ong-Webb, Piracy, Maritime Terrorism, and Securing the Malaccan Straits. Singapore: ISEAS Publishing, 2006, p. 225

[xii] ReCAAP, “ReCAAP ISC Weekly Report: 5-11 Mar 19.” ReCAAP Information Sharing Centre, March 11, 2019.

[xiii] ReCAAP, “Monthly Report: Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia,” Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery, April 2021, pp. 9 – 12,

[xiv] Liss and Biggs (Eds.), Piracy in Southeast Asia: Trends, Hot Spots and Responses. New York, NY: Routledge, 2017, p. 12

[xv] Stefan Eklof, Pirates in Paradise: A Modern History of Southeast Asia’s Maritime Marauders. Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2006, p. 51

[xvi] Derek Johnson and Mark Valencia (Eds.), Piracy in Southeast Asia: Status, Issues and Responses. Singapore: ISEAS Publications, 2005, p. 24

[xvii] Liss and Biggs (Eds.), Piracy in Southeast Asia: Trends, Hot Spots and Responses. New York, NY: Routledge, 2017, pp. 16 – 18

[xviii] Liss and Biggs (Eds.), Piracy in Southeast Asia: Trends, Hot Spots and Responses. New York, NY: Routledge, 2017, p. 2

[xix] Euan Graham, “Syphoning Confidence: Piracy and Fuel Theft in Southeast Asia.” RSIS Commentary, November 18, 2014.

[xx] Karsten Von Hoesslin, “The Economics of Piracy in Southeast Asia.” Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, May 2016, p. 21

[xxi] Bruce A Ellermen, Andrew Forbes and David Rosenberg, Piracy and Maritime Crime: Historical and Modern Case Studies. Newport: Naval War College, 2011, p. 81

[xxii] ReCAAP. (2018). “Annual Report 2018: Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships in Asia.” ReCAAP Information Sharing Centre, December 31, 2018., pp. 50 -55

[xxiii] Francis E. Hutchison and Siwage D. Negara, “Batam’s Emerging Digital Economy: Prospects and Challenges.” ISEAS Yusof Ishak, April 10, 2019., p. 3

[xxiv] Eric Frecon, “Beyond the Sea: Fighting Piracy in Southeast Asia.” RSIS Commentary, December 21, 2009.

[xxv] Eric Frecon, “Pirates with black magic attack shipping in Indonesian waters.” The Conversation, April 27, 2018.

[xxvi] Bruce A Ellermen, Andrew Forbes and David Rosenberg, Piracy and Maritime Crime: Historical and Modern Case Studies. Newport: Naval War College, 2011, p. 82

[xxvii] Liss and Biggs (Eds.), Piracy in Southeast Asia: Trends, Hot Spots and Responses. New York, NY: Routledge, 2017, p.122

[xxviii] UNODC, “Global Study on Smuggling of Migrants 2018.” United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, June 2018., p.127

[xxix] Apriadi Gunawan, “Malacca Strait remains prone to transnational crimes.” The Jakarta Post, December 05, 2018.

[xxx] Liss and Biggs (Eds.), Piracy in Southeast Asia: Trends, Hot Spots and Responses. New York, NY: Routledge, 2017, p.169

[xxxi] Liss and Biggs (Eds.), Piracy in Southeast Asia: Trends, Hot Spots and Responses. New York, NY: Routledge, 2017, p.122

[xxxii] Derek Johnson and Mark Valencia (Eds.), Piracy in Southeast Asia: Status, Issues and Responses. Singapore: ISEAS Publications, 2005, pp. 25 and 126

[xxxiii] Liss and Biggs (Eds.), Piracy in Southeast Asia: Trends, Hot Spots and Responses. New York, NY: Routledge, 2017, pp. 170 – 171

[xxxiv] Karsten Von Hoesslin, “The Economics of Piracy in Southeast Asia.” Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, May 2016, p. 20

[xxxv] Liss and Biggs (Eds.), Piracy in Southeast Asia: Trends, Hot Spots and Responses. New York, NY: Routledge, 2017, p. 124

[xxxvi] Liss and Biggs (Eds.), Piracy in Southeast Asia: Trends, Hot Spots and Responses. New York, NY: Routledge, 2017, pp. 124 – 126

[xxxvii] Karsten Von Hoesslin, “The Economics of Piracy in Southeast Asia.” Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, May 2016, pp. 11, 15 and 21

[xxxviii] Carolin Liss, “The Roots of Piracy in Southeast Asia”, Nautilus Institute, October 22, 2007., p. 5

[xxxix] Derek Johnson and Mark Valencia (Eds.), Piracy in Southeast Asia: Status, Issues and Responses. Singapore: ISEAS Publications, 2005, p. 37

[xl] Liss and Biggs (Eds.), Piracy in Southeast Asia: Trends, Hot Spots and Responses. New York, NY: Routledge, 2017, pp. 126, 127 and 169

[xli] Karsten Von Hoesslin, “The Economics of Piracy in Southeast Asia.” Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, May 2016, pp. 20 – 21

[xlii] Liss and Biggs (Eds.), Piracy in Southeast Asia: Trends, Hot Spots and Responses. New York, NY: Routledge, 2017, p. 128

[xliii] Liss and Biggs (Eds.), Piracy in Southeast Asia: Trends, Hot Spots and Responses. New York, NY: Routledge, 2017, p. 124

[xliv] Liss and Biggs (Eds.), Piracy in Southeast Asia: Trends, Hot Spots and Responses. New York, NY: Routledge, 2017, p. 129

[xlv] CNA, “Sea robbery incidents in Singapore Strait rise again in 2020,” Channel News Asia, January 15, 2021,

Muhammad Faizal bin Abdul Rahman is a Research Fellow (Cyber and Homeland Defence) at the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS), a unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. His research interests include homeland security, asymmetric threats, influence operations and terrorism.

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Voicing Against Disinformation

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In the digital era, information dissemination is not an arduous task. Information can reach many places even multiple times. However, not all information that is disseminated is true and accurate. Often information is inaccurately transmitted and this can be with or without intention. However, in the case of disinformation, there is always the guilty intention, it is the deliberate act of disseminating false information to deceive its recipients. Disinformation mostly happens in the online space which means it is a cross-border crime. Since it is extraterritorial, widely available and publicly accessible, the parties to disinformation are more than one. The impact of disinformation does not only affect one but society at large.

The rationale behind intentionally falsifying content is hard to ascertain, however, visible reasons are to gain monetary advancement, political reasons, acts of terrorism and extremism. With the rise of digitalization of the world disinformation is escalating on a great scale and yet to date it has become extremely hard to counter and mitigate disinformation. (Office Of Inspector General Department of Homeland Security, 2022) has stated that “the objectives of disinformation campaigns can be broad or targeted, [for example], campaigns may aim to erode public trust in our government and the Nation’s critical infrastructure sectors, negatively affect public discourse, or even sway elections. These campaigns can have foreign or domestic origins and may incorporate several different types of information”.

Disinformation can be state-sponsored or by the private sector. At present, information literacy is finely utilized by countries to wage war against one another. (Barnes and Sanger 2020) have stated that countries such as  Russia and China have taken [social media platforms] such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to create and amplify conspiratorial content designed to undermine trust in health officials and government administrators, which could ultimately worsen the impact of the virus in Western societies”. (King et al, 2017) have stated that according to research “the Chinese government has shown to deploy disinformation campaigns, sometimes to distract and disrupt (for example, concerning events in Hong Kong, Xinjiang or the South China Sea), as to push a particular agenda (for example, to win support for its ‘Belt and Road’ initiative)”.

Disinformation affects both military and soft security aspects. A piece of disinformation can be a critical determinant to decide a victory of a state against another. There are many instances where global competition happens between countries using information advantages. Disinformation also impacts the economy since disinformation can create a bogus demand for certain products and create a market. Disinformation also undermines the rights of people. Disinformation affects democracy. An example of disinformation is election manipulations where real victory is not pronounced. Furthermore, disinformation can take the face of impersonation of world leaders and prominent figures which affects the dignity of people.

The number of countries that have criminalized disinformation, especially in online space is very low and this not only poses a threat to one country but also affects the rights of other countries at stake. There is also the ability to do fact checks and fact verification however not all matters can reach the state level. The number of people who inquire about the credibility and validity of the content is less and holding people or an authority accountable for the content is hard as well.

World leaders advocate many strategies to counter disinformation such as cyber commands. According to (CNN,2022), “US military and intelligence officials are stepping up their efforts to defend the electoral process from foreign hacking and disinformation”. (Shackelford,2020) has stated that “In Indonesia, President Joko Widodo spearheaded the creation of the new National Cyber and Encryption Agency to combat disinformation in their elections”. Sri Lanka too has a cyber command center to fight disinformation. Certain countries utilize narratives, and counter-narratives to create or rebut propaganda. (Time,2023) has stated that “As part of an effort to target Telegram, Russia co-opted popular fact-checking formats. It created a host of multilingual channels, like one named “War on Fakes,” which “verified” or “fact-checked” allegations to support pro-Kremlin narratives and defend the Russian military’s actions.”

However, one of the main mechanisms that can be utilized against disinformation is reporting disinformation. This is similar to whistleblowing. Whistleblower is “an employee who alleges wrongdoing by their employer of the sort that violates public law or tends to injure a considerable number of people. The employer can be public or private. Applying the same measure, if any person in the society comes up with a piece of disinformation which is against the morality, tranquility of the society, law and order, creating disharmony, such person or the authority must have the mechanism to report a such issue. Traditionally reporting such content can be done via phone call. Yet, since the world is digitalized and mostly disinformation happen online, reporting the by social media itself is prudent. Social media platforms gives the option to “report” content which is against community standards. However, reporting disinformation goes a step beyond. Some disinformation will not be understood by lay people and only the experts in the field will recognize it. Therefore, it is the duty of such a person to notify it. Governments all over the world therefore has an undeniable role to provide a platform to report disinformation which will encourage whistleblowing. This actually serves the purpose of fostering information literacy in people to inquire and verify the content.

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The Failures of Russian Intelligence in the Ukraine War and the Perils of Confirmation Bias

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Emergency services are working around the clock to deal with the consequences of Russia`s strikes on Ukrainian infrastructure. October 18, 2022.Photo from the State Emergency Service of Ukraine

The Russian invasion of Ukraine defied many expectations, not least the Kremlin’s.  Prior to the ‘special military operation’ launched by President Vladimir Putin last February, the Russian government expected minimal organised military resistance from the Ukrainians.  A quick victory was assured, much like the 2014 annexation of Crimea but on a grander scale, with the decapitation of the Ukrainian government as a likely result.  Yet, more than one year later, Ukraine remains very much in the fight, in defiance of Russian expectations.  Evidently, the Russian military and political elite launched the invasion based on flawed assumptions.  The question now, is what role did Russia’s intelligence services play in forming these false assumptions and why did they go unchallenged?

Much of the blame may rest on Putin himself according to a paper published in The British Journal of Politics and International Relations in December last year.  Before the invasion, it was widely assumed that the Russian President’s ability to use strategic intelligence was virtually unrivalled on the world stage.  Unlike other world leaders, Putin possesses a professional background in intelligence, having been both an officer in the KGB and director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), between 1998 and 1999.  Russia’s swift and surprising annexation of Crimea and ability to disrupt targets with hybrid warfare was further evidence of Putin’s strategic acumen.  However, the events leading up to and during the war in Ukraine cast the Russian President in a different light, as a deeply flawed intelligence manager and consumer.

One issue highlighted by the paper’s authors is that intelligence agencies within authoritarian regimes are blindsided by ‘a frequent inability to accept dissenting judgements as being offered in good faith.’  This appears to have been true of the Russian intelligence agencies prior to the invasion of Ukraine.  Instead of offering their primary intelligence customer an intellectually honest assessment of the situation in Ukraine, the intelligence services appear to have disseminated intelligence that merely confirmed his biases.  As explained by a group of experts in May last year, ‘Putin believes Ukraine is or ought to be Russian and whatever passed for intelligence preparation for the invasion may have confirmed this in his mind… We can infer that Russian intelligence services supported Putin’s view of Ukraine as a state ready to be absorbed.’

Ultimately, the officers of Russia’s intelligence agencies, be it the FSB, Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), or Main Intelligence Directorate (GU), are dependent on Putin for their advancement, prosperity, and survival.  This encourages a culture whereby the intelligence services compete for his approval, which is far from useful in terms of generating dispassionate and unbiased intelligence products.  Years before the invasion, in 2017, Professor Brian D. Taylor argued that independent thinkers had largely left the Russian intelligence services, the implication being that they were now staffed by individuals who were content to conform with the dominant viewpoint.  This has led to the formation of an institutional culture compromised by groupthink.

A very public example of the Russian intelligence community’s hesitancy to speak truth to power came in February 2022, when Director of the SVR Sergey Naryshkin was humiliated by Putin during a televised meeting of the Security Council.  When questioned whether Russia should recognise the two self-proclaimed republics of Luhansk and Donetsk, Naryshkin suggested giving the West one final chance to return to the Minsk agreements.  This was evidently not what Putin wanted to hear and he pressed a now visibly nervous and stuttering Naryshkin until the latter agreed that it would be the right course of action for Russia to recognise the two breakaway republics.  Of course, this was a clear example of political theatre, but it does not bode well that Putin was willing to publicly humiliate one of his intelligence chiefs.  Whilst it is not known what goes on behind close doors, there has been increasing scrutiny of Putin’s behaviour which suggests that the Russian leader has put an unhealthy amount of distance between himself and his top officials.

This is not to say that Putin micromanages the intelligence services or that he predetermines every decision without any recourse to their advice.  Indeed, the intelligence services wield a tremendous amount of influence over high-level decision making.  The problem is more so that the intelligence services are institutionally incentivised to say what they think Putin wants to hear.  His views on Ukraine were well-publicised before the invasion, and no doubt senior intelligence officials would have been familiar with his frame of mind.  His dismissal of there being a legitimate sense of Ukrainian nationalism and a belief that Ukrainians would be willing to join Russia and reject Western moral decadence and degradation were hardly secrets.  For the intelligence services competing to win approval, there would have been few incentives to contradict this official narrative.  Russian intelligence preparation for the invasion therefore likely served to confirm the Russian President’s biases.

There is some evidence to the contrary.  According to US intelligence documents leaked in April, the FSB accused Russia’s Ministry of Defence of underreporting Russian casualties in Ukraine.  Allegedly, the FSB was critical of the Ministry of Defence for failing to record the losses suffered by the Russian National Guard, the Wagner Group, or fighters under the command of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.  The FSB’s casualty estimates were reportedly roughly double those given by Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu in December.  This does indicate a willingness to break bad news and contradict the official narrative.  However, in this particular case, the FSB stands to enhance its own standing with Putin by undermining the Russian Ministry of Defence, thus fitting the broader pattern of institutional rivalry.

Naturally, much remains unknown about the activities and procedures of the Russian intelligence services prior to and after the invasion of Ukraine.  What the available evidence does suggest however, is that Russia’s intelligence services are burdened by political considerations and biases which interfere with their ability to plan, direct, collect, process, analyse, and disseminate valid and useful intelligence.  The Russian President bears much of the blame for the creation of a professional culture which does nor prioritise the truth as the highest good.  Consequently, Russia initiated its invasion of Ukraine based on faulty assumptions and was unable to forecast the Ukrainian reaction with much accuracy.

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Iran Threat to National Security 2023

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The annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community for 2023, identified Iran as the third greatest national security threat to the United States, after China and Russia. As those two countries have been covered in other reports, this paper will focus on the Iran threat, evaluating it within the framework of a PMESII analysis. PMESII is an acronym used in military and intelligence services which analyses threat countries across six dimensions: Political, Military, Economic, Social, Infrastructure, and Information.

1. Political: This dimension examines political systems, governance structures, institutions, and decision-making within a country, as well as the effectiveness of these systems and institutions. It also considers the stability or instability of the government.

The Islamic Republic of Iran (Jomhuri-ye Eslami-ye Iran), formerly known as Persia, has a population of around 88 million, and is located in Western Asia, bordering on Iraq, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia, the Caspian Sea and Turkmenistan, Afghanistan,  and Pakistan, and by the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf. The country is a theocratic republic, with a Shia Islamic legal framework. 

Iran regularly holds elections, but the quality of democracy is limited because of the influence of the Guardian Council, an unelected body with the power to disqualify candidates on religious grounds. Iran has a president who is elected by the people, but the president is only the head of government, not the head of state. As head of government, the president oversees the operations and implementation of government. True executive power rests in the head of state, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Supreme Leader controls numerous unelected institutions, including the security forces and the judiciary, which are used to suppress dissent and to restrict civil liberties.

Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, the Supreme Leader has always been an Ayatollah. The founder of the Islamic Republic was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who maintained the title of Supreme Leader until his death in 1989. He was succeeded by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the current Supreme Leader.

The Supreme Leader presides over the Guardian Council, which interprets legislation and elections to determine if they are consistent with the principles of Islam and the Iranian Constitution. The Guardian Council has twelve members, six of whom are appointed by the Supreme Leader. The remaining six are nominated by the Judiciary and approved by the Parliament (Majlis).

In terms of political rights, Freedom House assigns Iran a score of 4 out of 40 and civil liberties 10 out of 60. Citizens have the right to form political parties, but those parties must be loyal to the current government. Change is unlikely to come within the existing governmental framework because of the influence of the unelected bodies. In 2021, for example, the former vice president Jahangiri, was disqualified from running for president because he was determined to be a reformist.

The government is largely dominated by men from the Shiite Muslim majority. Women hold some appointed positions, but generally not powerful ones.  In the parliament, five seats are reserved for recognized non-Muslim minority groups: Jews, Armenian Christians, Assyrian and Chaldean Christians, and Zoroastrians. However, members of these groups would generally not be appointed to high-level government posts.

Corruption is rife in Iran. Transparency International assigns Iran a score of 25/100 for corruption, whereby a lower score denotes higher levels of corruption. Iran ranks 147th out of 180 nations. Much of this corruption is attributable to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) which is above scrutiny in practice, and is protected from criticism by the media and civil society.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is a military/paramilitary organization with vast political and economic power. The IRGC was formed immediately after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, tasked with safeguarding the principles of the Islamic Republic and protecting the country’s sovereignty. Under the direct control of the Supreme Leader, the IRGC controls large sectors of the economy helping fund Tehran’s activities. The IRGC also provides military assistance to entities beyond Iran’s borders, as it has done for various groups in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Yemen.

The group’s mandate includes defending the nation against external threats and maintaining internal security. The IRGC is also assigned the duty of preserving the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary ideals and ensuring compliance with Islamic principles. Additionally, it has significant influence on Iran’s foreign policy, including supporting regional proxies and paramilitary groups, by providing training, weapons, and logistics. On the economic front, the IRGC is involved in a broad array of businesses, including construction, infrastructure development, energy, telecommunications, and others. It owns and operates numerous conglomerates and companies which augment the groups financing and influence.

2. Military: The military dimension of PMESII assess a country’s military strength. It is not comprehensive, however, as it mostly considers personnel and hardware. It does not consider alliances, overseas bases, or the quality of equipment or quality and experience of personnel. All of this will be covered in greater detail in a separate report.

The U.S. ranks first in global firepower. Iran ranks 17th. The U.S. population is 337 million, compared to Iran’s 88 million. The U.S. is the world’s number-two nuclear power. While it is widely suspected that Iran is working on a nuclear weapons program, to date, it seems they do not possess any nuclear weapons.

The number of active-duty troops is1.39 million for the U.S. and 575,000 for Iran. Additionally, Iran has about 90,000 paramilitary personnel. Comparing the defense budgets, the U.S. spends $762 billion and Iran $25 billion.

Aircraft – US 13,300 to Iran’s 541

fighter aircraft -1,914 to 196

Transports – 962 to 86

Helicopters – 5,584 to 126

Attack helicopters – 983 to 12

Tanks – 5,500 to 4,071

Armored vehicles – 303,553 to 69,685

Self-propelled artillery – 1,000 to 580

Towed artillery – 1,339 to 2050

Ships – 484 to Iran’s 101

Aircraft carriers – 11 to 0

Helicopter carriers – 9 to 0

Submarines – 68 to 19

Destroyers – 82 to 0

Frigates 0 to 7

3. Economic: Wars are costly to wage. Existing assets have to be deployed, possibly overseas, which is expensive. Factories need to begin churning out exhaustible resources, such as ammunition and artillery shells, as well as replacement vehicles, planes and ships. Uniforms and weapons for new recruits must also be produced en masse. Wars are generally funded by debt, with governments issuing war bonds. The ability to sell those bonds and the interest rate the government has to pay is determined by the nation’s creditworthiness, its economic condition before the war, and whether or not the country is under sanctions. The Ukraine War has underscored the power of sanctions and their ability to prevent dollars from flowing into a country deemed the aggressor. Iran would be incapable of levying meaningful sanctions against the U.S. The U.S., by contrast would be able to bring sanctions against Iran. China would most likely help Iran bypass sanctions, but in the end, the U.S. would be able to reduce the amount of money flowing into Iran, while Iran would not be able to do the same to the U.S.

The size of the potential pool of soldiers is important, as is the number of workers available to produce war materials. The U.S. labor force consists of 163 million workers, while Iran’s comprises only 28 million

Iran holds foreign currency reserves valued at $21.4 billion, while the U.S. holds about $37.5 billion. Roughly 60% of foreign currency reserves around the world are held in U.S. dollars. The U.S. does not hold as much foreign reserves as countries such as China and Japan, but this is because the U.S. government has access to more-or-less unlimited quantities of U.S. dollars.

Basic Indicators for Iran

GDP = $352.2

GDP Per capita = $5344.96

Inflation rate = 43.3%

Unemployment = 9.7%

Corruption and mismanagement, including price controls and subsidies, weigh heavily on the Iran’s economy. The reliance on oil as well as government domination of numerous industrial sectors further inhibit Iran’s development. There is also a significant brain drain as many of the most qualified people flee the country, in search of a better life abroad.

The Heritage Foundation assigns Iran an overall economic freedom score of 42.2 out of 100, making it the 169th freest country in the world. For business freedom Iran scored 38.9 out of 100, labor freedom of 50.7, monetary freedom of 40.6 and financial freedom of 10.

Investment in new businesses, as well as economic development in general, are directly correlated with the protection of property rights and enforcement of contracts. For property rights, Iran scored 25/100, judicial effectiveness 26/100, and for government integrity 20/100.

4. Social: The social dimension looks at societal and demographic elements, including social unrest, ethnic or religious tensions, and social cohesion which might weaken a country’s ability to fight a war.

Ethnicities: Persians 61% of the population, Kurds (10%), Lurs (6%), and Balochs (2%), Azerbaijanis (16%), Arabs (2%), Turkmens and Turkic tribes (2%), followed by a small number each of Armenians, Assyrians, and Georgians.

Religion: Islam is the official religion, accounting for roughly 99.4% of the population.  Shi’a Muslim (89%) and Sunni (10%). The remaining 1% is composed of Christian, Zoroastrian, Baha’i and Jewish. Christians are the largest minority religion with 250,000 to 370,000 followers, mostly of Armenian origin.

The government punishes Shi’a Muslims who they believe have failed to uphold Islamic values, while Sunnis, Christians, Jews, and other non-Muslims have all been victims of repression. Some religious minorities are effectively banned, such as Baha’i and unrecognized Christian groups. Baha’i members have been persecuted, jailed, and banned from attending university.  

The Iranian constitution allows freedom of assembly, as long as gatherings are not “detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam.” Given the state’s interpretation of detrimental, there is effectively no freedom of assembly in Iran. Protests and unauthorized gatherings are generally met with brutal force. In 2022, the government used lethal force to suppress protests against water shortages and poor living conditions in several provinces. Human rights leaders and labor rights advocates have been arrested or punished on an arbitrary basis. Activists can even be arrested without a warrant. The lawyers who defend them can also face jail time.

5. Infrastructure: an analysis of critical systems, such as transportation networks, energy systems, telecommunications, and industrial facilities can help to determine a county’s vulnerabilities, resilience, and potential risks.

The United States has 13,513 airports while Iran has 319. The U.S. has 35 ports, but Iran only 4. In oil production, the U.S. also leads with 18,000,000bbl, compared to Iran’s 3,450,000bbl.

Proven oil reserves – U.S. 50,000,000,000bbl, Iran 210,000,000,000bbl

Natural Gas Production – US 967,144,362,000bbl, Iran 237,561,415,000bbl

Coal Production – 495,130,000bbl, Iran 2,783,000bbl

6. Information: The information dimension analyzes the flow of information, as well as the communication systems, and media within a country. This analysis helps to understand how public opinion is formed and how propaganda and disinformation are disseminated.

In Iran, there is little media freedom either on or off line. Newspapers and other media are heavily censored, and the government directs journalists as to which stories to cover and which to avoid. Critics and opponents of the government are never given a platform. Many foreign websites, including news sites and social media, are blocked. Satellite dishes are illegal, and the police have actually raided homes, confiscating dishes. Persian language journalists working abroad have had their families threatened if the state did not approve of their reporting.

Reporters without Borders Ranks Iran as 177th least free country out of 180. Television is controlled by the state, and Persian language TV broadcasts from outside of the country are jammed. State television often airs confessions extracted from political prisoners by way of torture. Over the past two years, there has been a particular crackdown on journalists with an increased number of arrests and imprisonments. In one case a journalist was sentences to 90 lashes for allegedly making false news reports. The Islamic Republic has been known to target for kidnapping Iranian journalists operating abroad, as nearly happened to journalist Masih Alinejad in July 2021.

Academia is also not free and contains a great deal of indoctrination. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei warned that universities should not become centers for political activities. Students and professors have been jailed for speaking out against the regime or studying or teaching material which the state disapproved of.

Digital communication is monitored by state intelligence agencies. At the same time, the Iranian government utilizes online platforms and social media to disseminate propaganda and to influence the public. To this end, troll farms have been utilized, creating fake accounts and manipulating online discourse to support Tehran’s narratives. State sponsored cyber hacking is another way that Tehran controls the information space. And while the government has access to the most modern technology, the country suffers from a massive urban/rural divide, with much of the rural population unable to access the internet.

Online activism is illegal. And, the government is looking for ways to make accessing forbidden content even more difficult. In July of last year, the parliament began considering criminalizing the use and distribution of virtual private networks (VPNs) and requiring internet users to verify their legal identities. In January, 2023, it was announced that the unauthorized sale of VPNS would be banned. 

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