At 1900 LT, October 31: Three robbers armed with machine guns and knives boarded a tanker at the Basra oil terminal’s Alfa anchorage in southern Iraq. They tied up two crew members at the forecastle and went to the cabins. There they took three crewmen hostage and turned their attention to the master’s cabinet firing shots on the stairs. The robbers ransacked the master’s cabin and made off with the ship’s safe.
None of the British naval commandos guarding the oil terminals saw or heard a thing.
Two days earlier: Terrorists blew up two of New Delhi’s markets and a bus, killing 65 people and injuring hundreds more. The Indian security authorities are still groping in the dark, unable to name the mass killers or figure out how they managed to reach the Indian capital. But DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources who spoke to senior Indian officers directly involved in the investigation say that they have established two facts for certain: the Pakistani terrorist group linked to a Qaeda, Lashkar e-Taiba, was responsible for the triple bombing, and the explosives used were smuggled into India by sea.
They have no notion of where it was delivered or how and when it was transferred to New Delhi.
In the first week of November: The ICC-Commercial Crimes Services published a list of countries and regions where ships are at hazard:
Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, the Malacca Straits – vessels are advised to avoid anchoring along the Indonesian coast of the straits. The coast near Aceh is particularly risky for hijackings.
The Singapore Straits, Africa and the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden/southern Red Sea and Somali waters.
West Africa – Abidjan, Conakry, Dakar, Douala, Freetown, Lagos, Tema and Warri.
South and Central American and the Caribbean waters. Brazil – Rio Grande, Haiti – Port au Prince, Dominican Republic – Rio Haina, Jamaica – Kingston, Peru – Callao.
From Basra to Delhi on the high seas
The boarding of the tanker at Basra, the marine provenance of the New Delhi bombs and the incredibly long list of dangerous waters across the world where ships sail at grave risk came together this week to form a new terror equation in the minds of the foremost world counter-terror authorities. It suddenly occurred to those officials in Washington, London, and Southeast Asian capitals that al Qaeda’s next strike may not come from land or air – but by sea.
This possibility ties in with data streaming to the agencies combating terror from early October. It indicates that Al Qaeda’s operational planners have come to a decision to switch tactics from seizing airliners and crashing them over big cities, on the 9/11 model, to snatching large ships and sinking them at the mouths of major harbors and narrow straits at chokepoints for the world’s shipping routes.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s al Qaeda watchers, their rationale for this decision was threefold:
- The hijacking of airplanes and suicide bombings like the London July 7 rail and bus attacks demands long, elaborate and costly planning – often running into years. The hijack of a ship is comparatively simpler and does not call for a complicated infrastructure.
- The strikes against urban targets in big cities will continue, but al Qaeda’s masterminds are disappointed by their diminishing shock effect. The West is becoming inured to the terrorist threat as a fact of urban life in today’s world. People no longer heed warnings to avoid traveling to regions under terror threat, convinced the same peril may await them at home. The jihadists therefore cast about for a novel medium of terror capable of inflicting a staggering amount of damage and of reviving the horror and amazement elicited by the Sept. 11 attacks in America.
- They believe such an effect would be attained by sinking a large hijacked vessel in a major international harbor like Hong Kong, Singapore or Shanghai. Blocking an international maritime chokepoint such as the Malacca straits in this way would strangle world shipping worldwide and take months to clear.
- Another such spectacular strike would be achieved by seizing a supertanker and tipping its cargo along the coast of a targeted country. An ecological disaster would ensue of a magnitude to force the evacuation of coastal cities. The clean-up project would run to billions of dollars with deadly effect on the world’s markets.
Terrorists as pirates and vice versa
Al Qaeda has two organizations ready to hand for the execution of its marine terror scheme. One, the pirate bands preying on the world’s seas and shores. Two, al Qaeda’s own fleet of dozens of dope-smuggling vessels.
One could be packed with dozens of marine commandos trained to attack ships pirate-style. Sailing one of the al Qaeda vessels, they would hunt down a large container ship or supertanker of 250,000 tons or more and overwhelm it on the high seas far from the busy sea lanes.
The commandeered vessel would not be missed for a while.
According to the Piracy Reporting Center, more than 300 boats are subjected to actual or attempted attacks every year, of which 40 percent end in the assailants boarding the vessels. Most of these incidents never reach world attention. And so al Qaeda would benefit from the element of surprise for an attack of startling dimensions, such as, for instance, blocking the port of Colombo, Sri Lanka, which would bring that country’s national economy to total collapse.
In recent weeks, American, Indian, Russian, Japanese, Chinese, Indonesian and Singaporean authorities have begun putting together teams to develop counter-measures and ways of getting southeast Asian governments to join forces in order to disrupt al Qaeda’s marine threat.