March 25, 2010

The Conspiracy of Silence.

Foreword: If there is one thing that strikes me as I compare the two maps above (the second one depicts the existence of Al Qaeda linked cells), it is that almost all the choke points for shipping are next door to countries that have a proven- and considerable- Al Qaeda franchise, including in North Africa, the Malacca Straits and Yemen. Amongst these, the Gibraltar and Malacca Straits and the entire Red Sea and Mediterranean region- from Gibraltar to Bab el Mandab and beyond- must be the easiest places in the world for any terrorist group to blow up passing, anchored or berthed ships.

A crude oil tanker is not all that simple to blow up. A bulk carrier carrying fertiliser is easier.

On the morning of April 16, 1947, a fire broke out on board the French SS Grandcamp at the Port of Texas. The blaze caused the detonation of about 2300 tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertiliser, created a 5 metre high tidal wave that swept through the town (and a hundred miles around), killing almost 600 people and destroying half a thousand homes- and blowing two smallish planes out of the sky when their wings sheared off. Windows were shattered in Houston 60 miles away, the Grandcamp’s anchors, (and about six thousand tonnes of her steel) were blown up into the sky; one two tonne anchor landed a mile and a half away. The Monsanto Chemical Company plant near this ground zero was totalled, refineries and chemical tanks caught fire and the shock wave was felt 250 miles away in Louisiana. The total number of victims was almost eight and a half thousand; identifiable body parts of some of the dead were never found. Witnesses compared the carnage to Nagasaki, where the Bomb had been dropped just a couple of years earlier.

Just 2300 tonnes of ammonium nitrate. Handy size bulk carriers today routinely carry six to ten times that amount; larger ships may carry much more. Imagine what a bunch of terrorists could do with one of those. The technology needed to detonate the nitrate is simple; every truck bomber uses a mix of ammonium nitrate and some fuel, besides other easily available goodies. One can make it at home, actually, from material bought from the neighbourhood market, if one has those kinds of wet dreams. Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, did just that at a total cost of only 5000 USD all inclusive.

Actually, the friendly neighbourhood terrorist doesn’t even have to take this much trouble any longer. The Triton report recently quotes sources in the British intelligence agency MI6 as saying that North Korea is supplying limpet mines with underwater capability to Al Qaeda. Particularly at risk are the five hundred or so ships that have been laid up in and around Singapore, a joint MI6/SAS investigation says.

The pieces of the puzzle now fall into place: the recent warning by Japan- relayed through Singapore, for some reason- of planned terrorist strikes on ships in the Malacca Straits have got every analyst out of the woodwork, crunching numbers and calculating the cost of disruption to a narrow strip of water that hosts more than fifty thousand ship’s annually. As is customary with these gentlemen, cost is always (and only) measured in terms of money. These folk are alarmed at our economic vulnerability to maritime terrorism, what with (as they say) the ‘just in time’ logistical chains of today (one analyst says, suspiciously gleefully and as an example, that the cost of semiconductors almost doubled after a natural calamity struck Taiwan not so long ago), not to speak of the fact that a huge majority of Chinese and Japanese oil and cargo pass through the straits. What these gentlemen do not mention, perhaps because their calculators are amoral, is the sheer human and ecological impact of such carnage, should it occur. Multiply Grandcamp by ten or twenty, at least, and I am still not talking nuclear.

As for the rest of the industry and the international community, there is a conspiracy of silence. Silence while security and insurance firms rake in much, much more moolah from terrorism than the Somalis make in ransoms. Silence in fear of insurance premia skyrocketing. Silence while everybody ignores the fact that ships are probably the easiest of targets of anything that size in the world, and more so when they are laid up with skeleton crews and minimal security. Silence at the possibility of terrorists buying ships and converting them into floating mega bombs (In 2003, Al Qaeda allegedly had a dozen cargo ships. They have aircraft too today, by the way, that fly drugs from South America to West Africa to finance global mayhem. In any case, almost every reader here knows how easy it is to buy a ship and hide ownership; hundreds of shipowners have been doing this for decades). Silence at the proven links between Pakistani based jihadi setups, Al Qaeda linked organisations in Africa and Somali pirates. Silence even after a high ranking captured Al Qaeda operative Abd al Rahmen al Nashiri told Western agencies about the organisation’s plans to target ships way back in 2002. Silence even while knowing that the USS Cole and the tanker Lindberg were devastated by Al Qaeda suicide boats, and that suicide IED rigged water craft have killed US and British soldiers in Iraq more recently. And today, continuing silence at Al Qaeda links with North Korea.

Death is silence too. And ignoring a problem pretending that it doesn’t exist or will go away is stupidity.

Besides looking the other way, we downplay or underreport facts even when we surface them at all. For example, there is a veil of mystery surrounding the alleged pirate attack on the Greek bulk carrier ‘Melina I’ just 200 miles off Lakshadweep two weeks ago. The Indian navy claimed that it sent in marine commandos and an attack helicopter after receiving a distress call. “The hijacking attempt was successfully thwarted and we escorted the ship for awhile and she is now safe," Commander Roy Francis of the Indian navy then said. Media reports later seemed to wonder if this was really a pirate attack. The story was suspiciously quashed, it seemed to me, just as similar reports of an attack on an Indian merchant ship “Maharaj Agrasen” less than 400 miles off Ratnagiri last Christmas eve were. Earlier reports in the mainstream Indian media had the Agrasen being attacked with RPGs and machine guns and the Captain trying to ram the pirate boats. What really happened in both these cases? Are maritime terrorists on our coast? Why is there no hue and cry? Don’t we need to know?

There will be many countermeasures that will require to be taken to combat maritime terrorism. The disbanding of the present useless ISPS regime (the IMO needs to do this today before breakfast) and a realisation that an alternate working mechanism has to be speedily put into place to protect lives, the environment and commerce (in that order, please) from the ravages of an event that can be easily cataclysmic- and equally easy to orchestrate- are two starting points. But before we do all that we must get our heads out and see the light.

Ships are extremely easy to buy or hijack and easy to convert, one way or another, into floating mega bombs: that is the simple and unvarnished truth. The fact that nothing has happened so far means zilch, since a basic tenet of terrorism is the gradual escalation of violence; perhaps we just haven’t reached that level of escalation, in the minds of terrorists, where ships need to be regularly blown up- with staggering casualties, devastated port cities and environmental and economic disasters-just yet. I will wager, however, that anarchic groups around the world have maritime terrorism on their to-do list, if they didn’t have it already. Somali piracy and related terrorism has taught them how easy it can be.

Meanwhile, it would help if the industry and its managers would look beyond balance sheets, for once. One should stop wasting time counting the money in one’s wallet when one’s bottom is in danger of conflagration.