One night in late July, the Mitsui-owned MV M. Star, a Japanese oil tanker laden with crude and headed for Japan, experienced a “blast” against its hull as it approached the Strait of Hormuz. It was accompanied by a “flash of light,” several crew members reported. Omani and United Arab Emirates authorities quickly dismissed the Japanese assertion that the ship had been attacked. They claimed a freak wave induced by an earthquake was to blame, then that the ship had either collided with a submarine, Somali pirates had bungled a hijacking attempt or an old stray mine had hit the tanker.
Only after U.S. Navy divers got a look at the tanker’s hull was the Japanese claim corroborated. Her hull showed residue of homemade explosives. Investigators concluded that the tanker was the victim of a failed attacked by a suicide bomber piloting a waterborne improvised explosive device, or IED.
A previously unknown faction of al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula then took credit for the MV M. Star attack.
What was most interesting was how the Japanese claim was dismissed by Omani and United Arab Emirates officials, while most maritime security experts remained largely quiet in public. Even the experts did not want to believe that terrorists would and could target oil tanker traffic in the Strait of Hormuz.
Maritime security experts seem unable to anticipate these events. Before 2008, when Somali teenagers wearing flip-flops and toting AK-47s hijacked a super tanker, the MV Sirius Star, the experts had said it would never happen.
Today, pirates prey on maritime commerce 1,000 nautical miles from Somalia and attack ships closer to India than to Africa.
A terrorist attack against an East Asian oil tanker inside the Persian Gulf was truly a surprise. That Oman and the United Arab Emirates were so quick to dismiss the Japanese claim of an attack, however, is not surprising. When the oil tanker Limburg caught fire in October 2002, the Yemeni government engaged in similar denial tactics. The reasons were obvious. When it was confirmed that the Limburg was indeed the victim of a suicide bomber piloting a waterborne IED, Yemen lost millions of dollars in port fees as ships shunned it for months. Oman and the United Arab Emirates did what they could to avoid a replay of the MV M. Star incident.
Whether the MV M. Star was in fact attacked in an assault similar to the Limburg was perhaps the most important question being debated behind closed doors.
After Lloyds List reported that U.S. Navy divers concluded that the damage was caused by a waterborne IED attack, most experts remained silent. Furthermore, when a previously unknown al Qaida group took credit for the attack, experts were quoted in the press as dismissing the claim.
Eventually, the Emirates’ state-controlled press issued a report confirming that traces of homemade explosives had been found on the tanker and that local authorities were agreeing with the U.S. Navy that the damage was the result of a waterborne IED attack.
One wonders why a terrorist attack against a large crude carrier was so hard for the experts to acknowledge and discuss.
The Japanese were not reluctant to report the facts. Often shipmasters prefer not to file a report, if only to avoid the delays and costs of pulling into the next port and ultimately paying higher insurance rates. The Japanese were wise to have dropped anchor 14 nautical miles outside the Emirates’ port of Fujairah while awaiting the U.S. divers for an independent inspection. It’s not unthinkable that had the tanker pulled into the port without waiting, local authorities might have impounded her as a “crime scene” and then let the unwelcome evidence degrade. The United Arab Emirates government was none too happy with the claims.
Analysts are simply being overtaken by the speed of developments in the northwestern Indian Ocean. They are not able to see into the future. In early 2009, warnings that Somali pirates would pivot out of the Gulf of Aden and redirect attacks off the east coast of Africa were met with indifference.
In late 2009, there were warnings that pirates would deploy even farther afield in response to attempts to deter their attacks in the Somali Basin and around the Seychelles. The energy sea lanes supplying East Asia with Persian Gulf oil and gas were already being scouted by advance Somali pirate units. Attacks against tankers just off India began in earnest this year.
This is a complex issue, to be sure. Before 9/11, security analysts tended not to see a plausible terrorist plot in every piece of suspicious intelligence. As a result, some valid clues were ignored. After the attacks, it became a career-saving path to push any and all possible terrorist plots up to the next level. Americans overcompensated compared to Europeans. As a result, Americans earned a reputation for suspecting terrorist plots where others did not. So when the Japanese claimed their tanker was attacked, many foreign experts didn’t want to believe it, while U.S. experts suspected the worst.
At yet another level, the problem is even more daunting. For many professional analysts, serious difficulty persists in distinguishing piracy and terrorism. U.S. analysts are often quick to find that pirates and terrorists collaborate, or even that they are one in the same. On the other hand, foreign experts often argue that terrorists and pirates don’t collaborate. From this perspective, the debate about what happened to the Japanese VLCC (very large crude carrier) was an inkblot test for maritime security experts: They saw what they expected to see.
A more reasonable conclusion is that piracy and terrorism are distinct. The first is a criminal enterprise meant to maximize profits, the second is a paramilitary operation meant to pursue political objectives. But both share a common “gray infrastructure” — pirates as well as terrorists traffic in and smuggle arms, people, drugs and money. This shared infrastructure provides opportunities for the two to collaborate, as long as their respective primary missions are not compromised too much. The question then is how much is too much.
Somali pirates, for example, collaborate with al Shabaab (the Somali al Qaida affiliate) by smuggling into Somalia weapons and foreign Islamist fighters on the run from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Certain pirates will even hand over part of their ransom as protection money to Islamist groups so as to keep using ports they control, like Kismayo or now Harardheere.
On the other hand, even if Shabaab puts pressure on pirates to help it conduct attacks against tankers in the Gulf of Aden, many if not most pirates will not cooperate, because that would only drive away their “bread and butter.” Pirates need ships coming through the Gulf of Aden. If ships start catching fire and sinking regularly, the fact that ships can use the long way around the Cape of Good Hope will bring pirates a bleak bottom line. So attacks in the Gulf of Aden have been and will remain pretty much an al Shabaab or al Qaida production.
More importantly, regardless of what is ultimately and officially concluded about the attack on the MV M. Star, a close analysis of the bigger picture says that this attack was an early warning about what’s in store for global energy maritime commerce near and in the Strait of Hormuz. In that area, pirates and terrorists have an opportunity to collaborate.
The key to analyzing Hormuz is that there is no detour (at least not until major pipelines are built across the United Arab Emirates). Unlike the Gulf of Aden which can be avoided by going the long way around the Cape, or unlike even the Strait of Malacca which can be avoided by taking cuts through the Indonesian archipelago, the Strait of Hormuz is all that is left for those trying to get oil tankers in and out of the Persian Gulf. This will make pirates more willing to work with terrorists around Hormuz. Pirates are more likely to provide logistical support, maritime training and other assistance because tankers will still be coming and going, even if they are attacked regularly. Tankers have no alternate route.
Only if and when tankers take more precautions to avoid attack near Hormuz will pirates moonlighting by aiding terrorists begin to think twice. Some tankers are now transiting the Strait of Hormuz only in the daytime. Tankers are the preferred target of Somali pirates as they ride low and slow — and therefore are easiest to board — and because they fetch the highest ransoms on average. A fully laden VLCC can earn pirates easily twice what any other ship can. Terrorists also find they make excellent targets to attack and set afire.
If self-help measures fail, though, a corridor through the Strait of Hormuz protected by warships may be the only effective option. The world’s maritime powers, starting with the United States, need to get ahead of the curve and nip this ominous development in the bud, lest energy supplies to the West and the East get disrupted. The global economic recovery is at stake.Michael G. Frodl is a Washington attorney and emerging risks advisor to global underwriters. He heads a maritime risks consultancy, C-LEVEL. He is also co-founder of the Forum for Environmental Law, Science, Engineering and Finance (FELSEF). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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