November 13, 2014

Escalating old threats

It would be easy to be dismissive of Al Qaeda’s threat to shipping- made late last month in its affiliated online magazine ‘Resurgence’- as nothing new, or something that is part of a one-upmanship game it has going on with its brother in terror, the Islamic State. It would be easy to say this new threat is just old wine in a new bottle. This would also be a huge error of judgement, because the threat has increased considerably in the last few years. And so has the danger.

The threat, published in an article “On Targeting the Achilles Heel of Western Economies,” asks that Al Qaeda mujahideen fighters attack ships- particularly oil tankers- in the chokepoints of the world. “Even if a single supertanker (or even an ordinary westbound cargo-vessel) were to be attacked in one of the chokepoints or hijacked and scuttled in one of these narrow sea lanes, the consequences would be phenomenal: a spike in oil prices, an increase in shipping rates, more expensive maritime insurance, and increased military spending to ensure the safety of these sea passages,” it says. 

“Simultaneous attacks on western shipping or western oil tankers (a sea-based version of the cargo plane bomb plot) in more than one chokepoint would bring international shipping to a halt and create a crisis in the energy market,” it adds.

Yawn, you say. We know all this. We know that Gibraltar and Bab-El-Mandab and the Malacca Straits and Hormuz and other chokepoints are particularly vulnerable. We know the history of the USS Cole and the 2002 Limburg bomb. So what is new?

What is new, in my view, is- firstly and overarching everything- the spread of piracy and its natural links with terrorism. We saw this in Somalia. We will see this in Southeast Asia too; maybe even off and in West Africa. And, later, elsewhere. That maritime chokepoints are often in the close vicinity of unstable States with extremist sympathisers (to put it mildly) will only add to the threat.

Then, the particular threat to the extremely narrow and vulnerable Straits of Gibraltar, which sees more than a hundred thousand ships transit every year, should not be underestimated at all. This is because of:

One, the continuing refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, which has reached the European shores of the English Channel. One can safely bet that terrorists would have already used the chaos to move people around; many refugees come from countries that have a history of breeding terrorists anyway, including but not limited to Afghanistan, Somalia and Syria.

Two, the fact that the small but strategically placed Tunisia in the Med is the biggest supplier of foreign fighters to the IS and other extremist groups in Syria and Iraq. A dangerously unstable Libya, that has done much to contribute to the refugee crisis, adds to the mess.

Three, escalated terrorist focus, shown by the fact that Al Qaeda tried to hijack a Pakistani Navy frigate in September this year, and that its audacity- or the need to keep up with the IS- may have reached new levels. The 117-page issue of Resurgence that repeated the maritime threats is remarkably detailed, particularly about the US oil flow system, and may indicate a new willingness to target maritime assets and disrupt energy supply.

Finally, four, which is this: the IS and Al Qaeda, in my opinion, will be more collaborative than competitive in future. This will multiply the threat exponentially.

Meanwhile, reports from the Middle East and elsewhere say that international navies are working together to keep maritime threats at bay in regional waters. Australia has sounded the alarm, and the British Royal Navy is supposed to be on alert after the Al Qaeda threat was made. I have no doubt the intelligence and military apparatus in other countries is gearing up as well, but that is not going to be enough.

The fact is that commercial ships cannot protect themselves against a terror attack. Successes against piracy have come because of armed guards and citadels, tactics that will be useless against a determined group of individuals who want to ram a high-speed explosives laden boat into your hull. The solution, as often, will lie ashore, and will rely heavily on intelligence backed up by action.

Commercial ships will just be innocent bystanders in this exercise, although I am sure some smart folk out there will quickly add some new paperwork and some new STCW courses for crews to suffer, should the threat escalate further or, heaven forbid, should a couple of ships be attacked and sunk.


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