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Based on documents gathered and analyzed during the May 2 raid on Bin Laden's compound, the U.S. Department of Homeland Defense decided to issue a warning and a non warning about the potential of attacks planned not just on ships but also on planes and trains. The Associated Press revealed the warning sent out on Thursday in a syndicated story.
"In 2010, there was continuing interest by members of al Qaeda in targeting oil tankers and commercial infrastructure at sea," Department of Homeland Security spokesman Matt Chandler said in a statement Friday. He added that "we are not aware of indications of any specific or imminent terrorist attack plotting against the oil and natural-gas sector overseas or in the United States," and said "it is unclear if any further planning has been conducted since mid-last year." There were a number of other general threats against the global economy that included oil shipment, refineries, none of which actually occurred. There have been spectacular fires like the aftermath of the February 2009 collision of the Kashmir off Dubai in 2009 (photo above)
Al Qaeda's most famous attack was against the USS Cole and is believed to be responsible for an attack in 2002 against a French owned tanker off Yemen. Bin laden's plan was assessed from general documents retrieved from his house in Abbotabad three weeks ago. His idea was to hijack tankers transiting the Gulf of Aden in the summer of last year and then create spectacular explosions to achieve the effect of terror.
The concept of blocking the 21 mile wide Straits of Hormuz is a well-worn strategic theory, as are the effects of terrorist attacks on the oil tankers that navigate the narrow channels of the Middle East. Other famous navigation Middle East choke points like the Suez Canal and the 18 mile wide Bab al Mandab have inspired numerous strategic papers and doomsday scenarios. If the other famous strategic points like the Panama Canal, straights of Malacca in SE Asia and the Bosporus in Turkey it could have kept the house bound bin Laden busy planning dastardly plots for years. Bin Laden's Yemeni ancestry, Saudi Arabian upbringing and extensive network in the region gave him insight into the idea of oil as a weapon. Al qaeda continues to exploit weaknesses and asymmetrical effect but has yet to execute effectively on its many threats against the maritime oil transport industry.
The only successful al Qaeda linked attack against an oil tanker was In October 2002 when suicide bombers used a small boat loaded with 1,200 kilos of TNT and C4 explosives to destroyed the VLCC Limburg off Mukalla, Yemen.The boat entered the Al-Dhabba oil terminal, detonated on impact and created a spill of 90,000 barrels and killed one crew member.
Read the Fine Print
A minor technicality is that the three small attack boat, harbor-based, maritime attacks were not carried out by al Qaeda but rather by the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army which received financial support directly from Bin Laden but not strategic or tactical support. This small detail is often missing from analysis of the potential for al Qaeda's ability to board, control and destroy massive oil tankers at sea. Could al Qaeda learn, adapt, hire or practice? Sure but there is no history of previous practice attempts at sea by jihadis and less motivation with softer targets like subways, office buildings and civilian targets being the favorite.
Although the area is known to transit about 40% of the world's oil supply from oil rich nations, the theory of hijacking oil tankers for the purpose of disruption does not directly translate into a pragmatic plan. Hijacking oil tankers with their towering freeboards, high visibility and strategic profile would not be that easy. The constant public discusion of the effects on the idea of Iran stopping the flow of crude from Saudia Arabia, Iraq, Iran and Kuwait provided plenty of research and potential assessments of the impact.
The reality is much different.
In 2007 the Golden Nori was hijacked and experts publicly debated the effects of detonating the ship's cargo of 40,000 tons of highly explosive benzene. When the crude laden aircraft carrier-sized,VLCC Sirius Star was hijacked in 2008 there were threats of terrorism and sage analysis but the goal of the pirates were simply economic. Cash in exchange for return of the ship and its 2 million barrels of crude oil. Since then a number of potentially volatile cargos have been captured (included the VLCC Irene SL) with little strategic threat other than the interrupted delivery of the cargo. Numerous toxic and/or explosive cargos are shipped among the 23,000 ships that transit the Gulf of Aden with none being used for terrorist purposes.
How easy would it be to carry out Bin Laden's plan?
Most ships are publicly identified by their AIS locater beacon and many can be monitored on public websites.
Secondly dangerous cargoes are clearly identified by the IMO using the IMDG code:
Class 1 – Explosives
Class 2 – Gases; compressed, liquefied or dissolved under pressure
Class 3 – Flammable liquids
Class 4 – Flammable solids; Substances liable to spontaneous combustion; Substances which, in contact with water, emit flammable gases
Class 5 – Oxidizing substances (agents) and organic peroxides
Class 6 – Toxic and infectious substances
Class 7 – Radioactive materials
Class 8 – Corrosives
Class 9 – Miscellaneous dangerous substances and articles Non-classified materials
The third element is the ability to board and control these ships, something that is done on a regular basis but by a small group of pirates in SE Asia, Western Africa and primarily the Horn of Africa.
The last and the missing part of the terror equation would be the ability to detonate and perhaps publicly broadcast the deliberate destruction these toxic cargos. This is the area that al Qaeda despite their long standing proximity to shipping lanes and 16 years of earnest attempts at mayhem has not been able to accomplish. It should be noted that the February 26, 1993 attack on the World Trade Center was finally perfected eight years later. The October 12, 2000 attack on the USS Cole was foreshadowed by the unsuccessful attempt to sink the USS The Sullivans in Aden, Yemen on 3 January 2000. The attempt failed due to too many explosives being loaded on the attack boat. The Cole attack actually led to a number of hypothetical maritime scenarios in which al Qaeda might attack America by hijacking ships and rumored to have at least fifteen cargo ships in their "fleet".
Seeking The Intersection of Piracy And Terrorism
There has been a growing attempt to link piracy with terrorism with little to no hard evidence to support the theory. Any credible proof of terrorists targeting maritime would allow the significant intelligence and military resources in the Horn of Africa region to focus on pirates as terrorists and vice versa. It was also significantly change the rules of engagement and rules of force currently used against pirates and associated safe harbors.
Currently piracy is a crime and a threat against life and property must be in process to trigger a response. Navies and special operations troops are allowed to protect their flagged ships and citizens if in direct harm. Currently piracy is not viewed as terrorism.