More on the terror threat at sea, from The Daily Star (with thanks to Nicolei):
There are growing concerns that the global energy industry, particularly in the Middle East, could become the focus of terrorist attacks. Osama bin Laden has identified energy facilities as targets in his war against the West. In the second and concluding article on this issue, The Daily Star examines the dangers at sea.
BEIRUT: Admiral Thomas Fargo, the top US military commander in the Asia-Pacific region, said last month that the Americans were considering deploying Marines and Special Forces troops on high-speed vessels to protect the strategic Straits of Malacca, which links the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. The fastest route around the southernmost tip of continental Asia, it is a vital energy artery from the Middle East to Asia.
The narrow, 900-kilometer waterway is one of the world’s busiest shipping routes. More than 25 percent of the world’s trade and oil, and 80 percent of Japan’s oil imports, go through it. It is already plagued by pirates, but security chiefs fear it is also a potential magnet for terrorists. The maritime chokepoints in the Middle East – the Suez Canal and the Bab el-Mandeb Straits at either end of the Red Sea, the Strait of Hormuz (the only way in and out of the Gulf), and the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles in Turkey – are also high-risk zones.
The suicide bombing of the French supertanker Limburg in the Gulf of Aden by Al-Qaeda on Oct. 6, 2002 as it headed for Asia with a cargo of 400,000 barrels of Saudi crude was a wake-up call. A small boat loaded with explosives was rammed into the tanker by an Al-Qaeda team. It was the same tactic, first employed by Tamil Tiger rebels against the Sri Lankan Navy in the 1980s, that Al-Qaeda used to strike the US destroyer Cole in Aden Harbor on Oct. 12, 2000.
Although there have been no known attacks on tankers since the Limburg, a group of Islamic extremists in Morocco were planning attacks on ships traversing the Straits of Gibraltar, the western gateway to the Mediterranean, before they were arrested in 2002.
Geography dictates that the mammoth supertankers of today have to use such waterways, which are often narrow and studded with islands in which pirates and terrorists can hide. One of these lumbering behemoths, set afire and spewing crude, could block these vital maritime arteries and cause widespread economic disruption.
“Tankers are sitting ducks. They don’t have any security, any protection,” says Harry Banga of the Hong Kong-based Noble Group, a shipping company.
Dozens of tankers were sunk or damaged by Iranian Revolutionary Guards using speedboats armed with rocket-propelled grenades during the so-called “tanker war” of the 1980-88 conflict with Iraq, but the economic impact was minimal. The disruption in oil supplies was not sufficient to cause major problems. But a sustained assault on the energy industry on a global scale could have serious repercussions.
While attacking moving ships, even in confined waters, is much more difficult than striking static targets on land, the arrest of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri in November 2002, identified as Al-Qaeda’s operational commander in the Gulf region and an alleged specialist in maritime operations, pointed to plans to attack shipping targets. The US Navy’s maritime liaison office in the Gulf had warned several weeks earlier that Al-Qaeda was looking to hit shipping in the region.
US authorities said that Nashiri had been engaged in flight training in the tiny emirate of Umm al-Quwain, the first indication that Al-Qaeda may have been preparing for new aerial attacks, possibly against a tanker.
Born in Saudi Arabia to Yemeni parents, Nashiri played a key role in planning the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, in which 17 American sailors were killed, as well as an abortive attack against another US destroyer, the Sullivans, nine months earlier, and the bombing of the Limburg, in which one seaman was killed and the tanker set ablaze.
According to one Western counterterrorism official, Nashiri’s interrogation after his arrest produced a lot of information on Al-Qaeda’s operational planning for attacks on supertankers, “particularly their vulnerability to suicide attacks and the economic impact of such operations.”
He told The Daily Star: “They actually have a naval manual on this. It tells them the best places on the vessels to hit, how to employ limpet mines, fire rockets or rocket-propelled grenades from high-speed craft and turn liquefied natural gas (LNG) tankers into floating bombs. They are also shown how to use fast craft packed with explosives and the use of trawlers, or ships like that, that can be turned into bombs and detonated beside bigger ships or in ports where there are often petroleum or gas storage areas that could go up as well. They even talk of using underwater scooters for suicide attacks.”
Last year the London-based International Maritime Bureau (IMB), which monitors security on the world’s oceans, reported a suspiciously high number of tugboats were being hijacked in the Malacca Strait. The agency warned shipping authorities that these could be packed with explosives and rammed into tankers carrying gas or petroleum products, or into port facilities close to large cities.
The burgeoning trade in LNG, much of which goes through the Straits of Malacca, heightens both the threat of such maritime terrorism and the devastation it could produce.
The IMB’s Piracy Reporting Center also noted another disturbing change in the pattern of pirate attacks. In the past marauders tended to board ships to steal money or valuable cargo. Now they often try to steal specific types of ship to order, pointing to an emerging collaboration between criminal gangs and invisible paymasters who may well be transnational terrorists.
Largely Muslim Southeast Asia has become a hornet’s nest of expanding activity by Islamic extremists in the last couple of years. Some militant groups like the Tamil Tigers have successfully waged anti-shipping campaigns, developing dedicated maritime commandos with underwater capabilities, including demolition. Those kind of operations put coastal refineries and oil loading terminals at risk, and the Gulf states are seeking to develop underwater surveillance systems to protect their facilities.
Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, the Philippines, Malaysia and more recently Thailand are all plagued by Islamic violence – and all are considered high-risk piracy zones as well. That could be a deadly combination. Indeed, militants of the avowedly Islamic Abu Sayyaf group in the Philippines have a history of launching maritime attacks and claim to have blown up at least two ferries with considerable loss of life.
Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s biggest oil and gas producer, pumps around 1.1 million barrels of crude daily and exports 23 million tons of LNG a year. Malaysia, which has large oil fields in Borneo, is the second largest producer in the region. Singapore is Asia’s oil trading hub and has four refineries with a total capacity to process 1.26 million barrels of oil daily. Government figures show that the island state has around 25 million barrels of refined products in commercial storage at any given time – making it a fat target for terrorists.