Al Qaeda And Maritime Terrorism, Part Ii

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 5

The potential problems posed by sea-borne terrorism are most severe in the 600-mile (1,000-km) long Straits of Malacca, transited by 50,000 ships a year, where a combination of traditional piracy and indigenous Muslim extremist movements combine to make maritime passage of the long, narrow waterway especially unsettling. Among the Islamic terrorist groups active in the area are the Free Aceh Movement [Gerakin Aceh Merdeka (GAM)], Jemmah Islamiyah (JI), Lashkar Jihad, Laskar Jundullah (LJ) and Rabitatul Mujahideen(RM). Maritime authorities have belatedly acknowledged the Straits’ hazards. On September 2, 2003, the International Maritime Bureau issued warnings to shippers that attacks against small oil tankers there were increasing and “follow a pattern set by Indonesian Aceh rebels.”

The IMB alerts were simply acknowledging reality, as several years ago the Straits of Malacca had been the site of a potential piratical disaster with ominous implications for the future. On January 16, 1999, the Chaumont, a 131,654 DWT-ton French-flagged tanker, was attacked by pirates while in the Phillip Channel in Indonesian waters near Singapore. The attackers threatened the watch officer with a machete and bound his hands. The fully loaded tanker sailed at full speed through one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes for seventy minutes without anyone at the helm while under the attackers control.

Maritime problems will not go away in the short term. Aside from the nuclear and tanker risks, Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) usage is projected to fulfill ten percent of U.S. energy needs by the end of the decade. With docking facilities costing more than US$1 billion, a terrorist attack would be crippling in the extreme. While the United States currently has only four LNG port facilities, a number of proposals have been submitted to build more. As a report on the vulnerability of Tractabel’s Everett Boston facility dryly noted, “The magnitude of the resulting liquid cargo pool fires are unprecedented in scale, both from LNG and oil tankers. There is no possibility of ameliorating the fires’ effects, much less extinguishing them.” The report further noted, “The fire that would ensue from a boat bomb attack on a tanker would be of unprecedented size and intensity.” (see: Authorities closed Boston to LNG imports immediately following 9-11, and LNG tankers bound for the Massachusetts port still require U.S. Coast Guard escort vessels while 200 miles at sea.

Even more unsettling, Lusby, Maryland’s Cove Point LNG facility is but three miles from the Constellation Energy Group’s Calvert Cliff nuclear electrical plant. Critics have speculated that a terrorist attack would unleash an LNG equivalent to a small nuclear explosion. Lusby is only fifty-four miles from Washington, DC.

The United States remains the epicenter of international maritime trade, with more than six million containers–forty percent of the world’s maritime cargo–entering the United States annually. Five days after the 2001 terrorist attacks, Boston harbor was closed as a prophylactic measure because authorities feared that terrorists might strike again. Shipping companies have scrambled since 9-11 to cooperate with Washington, with more than 1,700 involved in maritime trade voluntarily adhering to the U.S. Customs “trusted shipper program,” certifying that their security procedures are compatible with U.S. regulations. Unfortunately, Washington has yet to follow up on these commitments. A recent General Accounting Office (GAO) report noted that only half of the companies had submitted security profiles. Specific cargo manifests are now submitted at ports of origin and transmitted electronically to U.S. Customs offices in the United States twenty-four hours before a ship is loaded. U.S. Customs agents at twenty-four foreign ports now have the authority to issue a “Do Not Load Order” on suspicious cargoes.

Since 9-11, U.S. ports have been scrambling to devise new security procedures. In New York City, the Port Authority has introduced a number of stricter measures. Vessels entering the harbor now must alert authorities of their arrival ninety-six hours in advance, while inspections of cargo have increased. In San Francisco, Coast Guard Sea Marshals board incoming ships two days before they enter the harbor. Once Stateside, U.S. Customs scans “100 per cent” of suspicious cargoes with a truck-based X-ray VACIS machine that inspects containers with Cesium radiation to find unusual, bulky items. Hand held radiological devices are used to complete the sweeps.

Some international progress is being made as well. The UN’s International Maritime Organization (IMO) has passed legislation requiring most merchantmen to have security plans by July 2004. The new regulations will apply to 60,000 ships and 20,000 global port facilities. Skeptics point out that with 232,000,000 containers shipped annually, any regulations will barely address the problems of security. Even the Saudis have awakened to the terrorist threat; on September 24 Riyadh handed over to Yemeni authorities nine Yemenis, among them people involved in the Limburg bombing.

There is reason for cautious optimism. Besides national initiatives, international maritime cooperation at sea since 9-11 has seen multi-national naval task forces operating in not only the Mediterranean, but the Arabian Sea as well. Leaders of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) pledged on October 8 to strengthen ties to counter terrorism, maritime piracy and other transnational crimes through the creation of a “security community” in the region.

President Bush first proposed his Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) last May and expanded on the topic during his speech to the UN General Assembly on September 24. Bush remarked, “Through our Proliferation Security Initiative, eleven nations are preparing to search planes and ships, trains and trucks carrying suspect cargo, and to seize weapons or missile shipments that raise proliferation concerns. These nations have agreed on a set of interdiction principles, consistent with current legal authorities. And we are working to expand the Proliferation Security Initiative to other countries.” Later in October, the United States met with ten allies in London to discuss the American PSI. While the initial attendees were Britain, France, Germany, Australia, Japan, Portugal, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and Poland, U.S. officials say that fifty additional nations have expressed interest in the proposal.

Last month an interception exercise involving the U.S. and Australian navies was carried out. “Pacific Protector” was the first of ten more such operations planned for the near future. Critics say that the U.S. initiative will risk contravening international law. On October 5, the United States and India began a five day exercise, called Malabar-2003, with more than 2,000 naval personnel. According to Indian naval Commander Manobar Nambiar, the exercise was designed to enhance joint naval capabilities, and will include operations to board, search and seize a suspect ship. There are also private business efforts: Lloyds of London is reportedly working in conjunction with Britain’s MI6 and the CIA to track suspicious activities.

Striking the balance between maritime security and profitability will prove one of globalism’s most challenging tasks. Such efforts cannot be avoided if the civilized world is to avoid the fulfillment of Einstein’s chilling prophecy of sixty-four years ago (see Terrorism Monitor, October 24, 2003).