Act Now on Terror Threat to Key Oil Routes, Say Experts

By Patrick Goodenough | August 10, 2010 | 4:29 AM EDT

In this photo released by the Emirates News Agency (WAM), damage is seen on the side of the M. Star supertanker as it arrived at Fujairah port in the United Arab Emirates on Wednesday, July 28, 2010. (AP Photo/Emirates News Agency)

( – An attempt by terrorists to blow up a supertanker in one of the world’s most strategic waterways, though unsuccessful, is prompting fresh calls for decision-makers to take steps now both to lessen the chances of such an attack and to minimize the economic disruption if one occurs.
Maritime security experts say shipping companies should make their vessels less vulnerable to terrorists by adopting measures such as deploying visible armed protection.
Nine days after the Japanese-owned M. Star, laden with 270,200 tons of crude oil reported an unexplained explosion while traversing the Persian Gulf’s Strait of Hormuz, United Arab Emirates’ authorities confirmed on Friday that the incident was a terror attack.
Shortly after the July 28 incident, governments on both sides of the Strait – Iran, Oman and the UAE – played down the shipping company’s concerns, citing instead theories including damage from a large quake-induced wave, despite the fact no earthquake had been reported in the region.

A screenshot from a message posted on a jihadist Web site by the “Abdullah Azzam Brigades” shows a man the group said carried out a suicide bombing attack against a supertanker in the Strait of Hormuz on July 28, 2010. (Image: Al Faloja)

But on Aug. 3, al-Qaeda terrorists posted on a militant Web site a claim of responsibility for the blast, identifying the apparent suicide bomber whom it said had carried out the attack on “an important economic lifeline” to avenge the theft of Muslim resources.
The “Abdullah Azzam Brigades” derided the earthquake claims, saying they were an attempt to prevent oil price rises and to hide the fact security systems had failed.
UAE officials then said on Friday investigations had found traces of explosive on the dented hull of the 160,000-ton vessel, saying this indicated the likelihood of a small boat attack.
‘The crusaders’ umbilical cord’
The Strait of Hormuz is less than 30 miles wide at its narrowest point, but the actual shipping lanes, one for tanker traffic in each direction, are just two miles across.
Up to 40 percent of tanker-shipped oil worldwide, some 17 million barrels of oil a day, travels through the choke point.
Some 3,600 miles to the southeast, another key waterway -- the narrow Strait of Malacca between Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia – carries one-third of the world’s ship borne trade, including the bulk of oil shipments to China and Japan.
The prospect of either of these straits being shut to shipping has long worried economists, maritime security experts and governments.
A closure in the Malacca Strait would require considerably longer routes south of the Indonesian archipelago (which is why China is eyeing options including a 750-mile pipeline across Burma and, possibly, ambitious plans to build a canal across southern Thailand.)
The alternative route for Persian Gulf oil would be the East-West pipeline across Saudi Arabia to the Red Sea, but the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration notes that the pipeline has far less capacity than required, while the longer route would also push up costs.

The M. Star supertanker (AP Photo/Mitsui O.S.K. Lines)

Severely disrupted shipping in either strait could cause panic in oil markets and push up insurance premiums prohibitively.
While piracy has historically been the main concern in Malacca, the post-9/11 era has heightened terrorism fears, with experts warning that the resulting disruption could have an enormous impact on the global economy.
Al-Qaeda has made no secret of its intentions in this regard – and that it knows the potential consequences of such a strike.
After suicide bombers in a small boat attacked the French oil tanker Limburg off the coast of Yemen in 2002 – the blast killed a crewman and spilled 90,000 barrels of oil into the sea – the network released 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, reminding the enemy of the heavy cost of blood and the gravity of losses they will pay as a price for their continued aggression on our community and looting of our wealth,” it said.
In 2008 the Heritage Foundation carried out a comprehensive  exercise simulating terror attacks affecting oil shipments through Hormuz and Malacca.
It found the impact on the U.S. economy would include a spike in gasoline prices – almost doubling within days – decreasing industrial output and a rapid slowdown in the U.S. economy, entailing a loss of some 1.5 million jobs in the first year.
Although America imports less than 20 percent of its petroleum from the Middle East – most comes from Canada, Mexico and Venezuela – as the world’s number one petroleum consumer the U.S. would be severely affected, the Heritage study found.
“Oil prices around the world are set by the globalized markets. Any reduction in global supply will elevate prices for all consumers, including those in the Western Hemisphere.”
The study explored ways to mitigate the impact and restore confidence to markets and consumers. It highlighted the importance of relying on market forces – at a time when domestic constituencies will likely to press for greater centralized control of national assets.
“After the crisis begins, it will be too late to educate the general population about market principles,” the report said. “They must have this understanding beforehand. Public information on handling energy crises needs to be developed in advance and promptly implemented as the crises erupt.”
It would also be important for major producer and consumer nations to work together. Coordinated security activities would include mine-sweeping and escorting tankers through choke points.
“It is critical to prepare effective, multilateral responses to counter these potentially devastating attacks, which are part of al-Qaeda’s strategy to cause the collapse of the Western economy,” Heritage scholar Ariel Cohen said in a posting Monday.
“Given al-Qaeda’s determination to attack the West’s energy supply, the foundation for such cooperation must be laid now – rather than in the aftermath of a crippling terrorist strike.”
‘Harden the target’
A maritime security firm argues that ship owners should be doing more to make their vessels less likely targets for criminals, whether pirates or terrorists.
Michael Murray,  CEO of Virginia-based company Aqua Sentry Corp., said it was an observed fact that increasing the level of armed preparedness and hardening targets deters terrorist attacks.
“There is no difference in the terrorist view between a government-protected target and a privately-protected target – it is the fact of armed protection that deters terrorists,” he said.
“Given the choice between a well protected or ‘hard’ target and an unprotected or  ‘soft’ target, both terrorists and pirates will go for the unprotected ones.”
Murray said that as with piracy, there were parts of the world where the terrorist threat to ships is higher, and businesses and governments should seek expert advice on how to assess and mitigate the risks.
“The best way for a shipper, a ship owner or operator, or an insurer to protect their ships, cargo and personnel is to employ a range of visible protection, including armed professionals, to keep small vessels away from their hulls,” he said.
“This makes it impossible for either a barge laden with explosives or a small boat filled with armed pirates or terrorists to accomplish their goals.”
The lesson learned from the terrorist attack on the USS Cole – the bombing in Yemen’s Aden port in 2000 killed 17 sailors on the U.S. Navy destroyer – applied equally to supertankers, cargo vessels or cruise ships, he said: allowing small vessels alongside carries significant risks.
Murray said companies were for various reasons reluctant to consider employing armed personnel, apparently believing security should be left to navies.
“We believe that national navies should be reinforced by a protective presence on privately-owned ships for the same reason that banks and other firms that deal with money and money transfer use armed protective personnel who can react immediately during an event and before the local police can intervene,” he said.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow