According to United Nations estimates, up to 80 per cent of the
approximately 6bn metric tons of cargo traded each year is moved by ship. Of
that, almost 75 per cent passes at some point through one of the five main
choke points in the seafaring economy – the Panama Canal, the Suez Canal,
the Straits of Gibraltar, the Straits of Hormuz and the Straits of Malacca.
A terrorist attack against one or more of these transit areas that
disabled it for weeks or months – or, in the case of a radiological “dirty
bomb” attack, for far longer – could seriously disrupt global trade. The
current economic calculus of moving cargo by sea would be rendered useless.
Everything from energy prices to insurance rates to shipping freight costs
would be affected. The ripple effects, particularly for industrialised
nations, are incalculable.
This is what al-Qaeda, with its revamped leadership structure, is
counting on. While the US Homeland Security Department argues about how many
screening machines to install at airports, terrorists are planning how to
convert supertankers carrying liquefied petroleum gas or other chemicals
into floating bombs – or perhaps even dirty bombs with help from a rogue
nation with nuclear knowhow.
Data compiled by Aegis Defence Services, a UK security consultancy,
provide worrying evidence of this. In March, for example, pirates boarded a
chemical tanker, the Dewi Madrim near Sabah in the south Pacific for several
hours. Their intention was not to ransom the crew or offload its cargo, as
south-east Asia’s pirates usually do, but simply to learn how to steer it at
varying speeds. And in the past few months, 10 tugboats have been reported
missing, each of which could be used for close-in manoeuvring of a disabled
tanker, hijacked just before entering a big port (at Singapore, say), and
just before being set ablaze.
Other dangers to maritime interests are also becoming apparent. In June,
for example, a offshore maintenance engineer with deep-sea diving skills,
who had been kidnapped in 2000, was released by Abu Sayyaf. He reported that
his captors had wanted to learn how to dive, but were not interested in
learning how to resurface.