The Corner

Terror At Sea

Mansoor Ijaz in the Financial Times today (subscription only):

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.

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