August 19, 2010

Exploding the umbilical cord

After the Limburg attack, part of a statement attributed to Osama Bin Laden:“By exploding the oil tanker in Yemen, the holy warriors hit the umbilical cord and lifeline of the crusader community...”

Authorities in the UAE have confirmed that the explosion on the VLCC MStar in the Straits of Hormuz- a choke point through which around a quarter of the world’s oil passes- was caused by an external attack; traces of explosives were found on the ship’s hull. An Al Qaeda linked group, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, has claimed responsibility for what they said was a suicide boat bomb attack. However, some analysts have expressed doubts about this version of events.

It does not matter whether Al Qaeda attacked the MStar or not. Chances are high, as I have repeatedly said in this column to the point of frustration, that such an attack was a matter of time anyway. There will be another.

If I were feeling charitable, I would say that the maritime industry is incapable of protecting its crews or ships and that the self-serving navies of the world are well meaning but bumbling and incompetent. I would say that there is only so much shipowners- or, indeed, States- can do to stop terrorism or piracy on the high seas. I would say that suicide attacks on ships (the Limburg in 2002) by Al Qaeda have occurred before. I would mouth platitudes about the MStar incident being a wakeup call and go back to sleep.

On the other hand, in a more typical uncharitable moment, I might accuse all the jokers involved- the regulators at the IMO and some Western nations included- of an informal criminal conspiracy instead. I believe that there is so much money involved in the business of maritime security today- piracy ransoms are only around a third of the total moolah to be made in the business- that it is counterproductive for many to actually try to solve the problem. Moreover, almost the only victims, hanging political correctness for a bit, are sailors from the Third World.

Sure, there are some in the industry that would like to see piracy disappear, but too many ignored rising attacks off the Somali coast for years when sailors like me plying in those waters could see the threat escalating by the week. (So could the navies of the Western world, who were very much there and patrolling even then). Nevertheless, for many in maritime businesses today, piracy is the goose that lays the golden egg. Additionally, for many nations it is an opportunity to exercise their navies in the pursuit of influence in the region, a gateway to oil. Piracy is an additional expense for shipowners and a headache for managers, sure, but at least the former can buy insurance. So who actually pays for piracy?

Well, the seafarer, for one, sometimes (and perhaps increasingly, since pirate attacks are getting more violent) with blood. In addition, in the end, the consumer, who has the additional costs passed on to him one way or another. Most others actually profit from hijacked ships. Small wonder the problem is not fixed, although navies make laughable statements about pirate attacks decreasing, as they have been making for a couple of months now. Gentlemen, all that is happening is that the high waves of the monsoons are deterring pirates and hiding your ineptitude for a while.

I can almost guarantee that the scenario that played out with piracy will replay itself if maritime terrorism escalates- the prerogative for which lies with the terrorists, by the way, not anybody else. They will decide when and where and how (and how often) to blow up our ships. The rest of the world will react, as usual, after the event. Most of the reaction will be discussion. Much of the rest of the reaction will be opportunistic and parasitic, as another gravy train leaves another station.

Although the MStar attack has been dwarfed, in the Indian media, by the story of the MSC Chitra disaster in Mumbai, the terrorist attack to me is a much more significant event. If I club at least some pirate gangs with the Al Qaeda linked Al Shabaab in Somalia (as I always have, with good reason), the marine battleground now includes a few million square miles of the Indian Ocean, the Southern Red Sea including another chokepoint, the Bab El Mandab straits- and now, with the MStar attack in the Straits of Hormuz, the entrance to the Gulf. At risk are a quarter of the world’s oil supply and a huge proportion of Indian trade, not to speak of global merchant vessel access to the Suez Canal. The fact that this is a contiguous body of water adds an additional alarming dimension to the issue. For starters, there is no way that present crew complements can stay on full alert for days on end, for example, on passage from Suez to the Gulf (or from the Cape to the Gulf) even without port calls en route, without being severely fatigued to the point of delirium. There is also the fact that a VLCC is severely restricted in her ability to manoeuvre in narrow and shallow waterways with heavy traffic and traffic zones anyway; we often can’t zig and zag avoiding suicide boats without courting disaster of a different kind.

The MStar attack may not be surprising (see my earlier columns here, including ‘The Conspiracy of Silence in March this year) but it nonetheless has the potential to deal a body blow to trade in general and energy security in particular. Shipping has no effective answer to such attacks: we all know that by now. Hiding in the steering gear during a pirate attack waiting for a friendly naval helicopter to rescue you will not work when a boat primed to blow is heading for you at fifteen or twenty knots- even if you see it, which you and your standard marine radar probably won’t, especially at night.

The MStar, carrying two million barrels of crude oil, was lucky that the explosion was not effective enough to tear a hole in her tanks; I am sure that the terrorist bomb makers will tweak their science and their payloads before the next attack.

So, are we seafarers sitting ducks when faced with suicide attacks? I for one am sure that we are. What is also worrying is that there are no easy or cheap answers, but I know this much: we had better start looking at the harder and more expensive ones. We cannot afford to respond to maritime terrorism as we responded to piracy- opportunistically, ineffectually, incompetently, half-heartedly and, eventually, impotently. Because this time around they are out to kill us, sink our ships and unleash environmental catastrophe on our oceans. We will need a robust- even an armed- response. We cannot fight these threats with platitudes any longer.