Marad issues advisory to vessels in region
The United States Maritime administration confirmed last week that the attack on the Japanese Mitsui owned tanker in July was a terrorist attack. The MARAD statement that militants were behind the incident has resurfaced questions about security in the Strait of Hormuz. Intelligence agencies are also increasingly concerned about piracy incidents close to the eastern and western shores of the Arabian Sea.
MARAD has issued an advisory for ships transitting the Strait of Hormuz, Southern Arabian Gulf and the Western Gulf of Oman. Advisory 2010-10 on Nov 19 says that that the claim by the Abdullah Azzam Brigades (AAB) that the group had attacked the tanker M.Star is ‘valid’, that the AAB remains active and can “conduct further attacks on vessels in areas in the Strait of Hormuz, Southern Arabian Gulf, and Western Gulf of Oman. Furthermore, it recommends “all ships transiting the subject waters exercise increased vigilance and caution, particularly during night transits with increased monitoring of small vessel/boat activity”.
Silence from the West ever since the July incident had bred much speculation about the M.Star attack. Although agencies in the Gulf had clearly indicated that a suicide boat rammed the tanker in an attack that fortunately did not result in casualties or environmental catastrophe, the industry and much of the rest of the world has largely ignored the incident so far. Confusion about the AAB- a relatively little known shadowy Al Qaeda linked group that was hitherto seen to be operating mainly in Lebanon and the Egyptian Sinai – added to the speculation. Industry experts questioned the AAB’s ability to mount such an attack in the Arabian Gulf at the time.
The MARAD advisory will undoubtedly change this perception. "This is an important wake-up call," said James Burnell-Nugent, former Commander in Chief, Fleet, of the Royal Navy. We don't want to over-react, but we have 30-odd warships moving around in the Indian Ocean on piracy and one periodically moving through the Strait. It does seem a bit out of balance." UK’s mariner union Nautilus says their members were "profoundly disturbed" at the news. "We don't feel that the threat is being taken seriously either by the industry in general or by governments." Peter Hinchliffe of the International Chamber of Shipping said it was advising all ships to maintain vigilance and caution in the region. Other observers say that premiums will almost certainly rise for traffic in the region.
Critics allege that monitoring of small craft in the Strait, including many fast moving boats used by smugglers, is poor. More robust systems and policing would undoubtedly help in a strait that sees forty percent of the world’s seaborne oil move through it. "We are in for a greater shock unless coordination improves," says Sami alFaraj of the Kuwait Center for Security Studies.
One hopes that the brief advisory will serve as a wake-up call. There has been little reporting or industry concern publicly expressed on the many disturbing elements that have inevitably reared their heads in recent times. Incidents of piracy off the Indian coast, the hijacking of another ship a few hundred miles off Oman recently, confirmation that some Somali pirate groups are believed to be operating from areas held by the extremist Al Qaeda linked Al Shabaab in the country and the fact that Al Qaeda has attacked shipping in the past- and threatened more such attacks in the future-are each, on their own, worrisome. Put together, they are alarming.
Some analysts are suggesting that the US display some evidence to back their advisory, pointing out that the results of the official Japanese investigation are not yet known. John Dalby of security company MRM thinks that the M.Star attack was a collision that is being covered up. Others disagree. With the overactive Yemen based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in the immediate vicinity, they say, the world cannot afford to ignore the threat to one of the most important chokepoints to seaborne trade.
"Failed attempts can become unintentional trial runs for successful attacks as the perpetrators learn their lessons”, says terrorism expert Jeremy Binnie. "The USS Cole bombers (in Aden, Yemen) made an earlier attempt to bomb the USS Sullivans on 3 Jan 2000, but their boat sank. They learned their lessons and got it right on the next attempt. That's why it’s important to keep an eye out for these kind of things."
Of course, nobody is answering an important question just yet- from which country did the suicide boat come from?