Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Why hijack a plane when you can seize a supertanker?

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – When pirates armed with little more than AK-47s and rope ladders seized a supertanker last week, they showed how simple it is to storm a ship -- a vulnerability that al Qaeda could exploit to attack the global economy.

Security analysts say the ease with which Somali pirates have captured a huge range of vessels illustrates how much more at risk global shipping is to terrorist attack than the airline industry, which massively improved security after September 2001.

Al Qaeda has launched or planned several seaborne attacks in the past decade -- notably the suicide bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, which killed 17 American sailors, and a similar attack two years later on the French supertanker Limburg, which killed one crewman and spilled 90,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf of Aden.

"There had been an argument that terrorist groups don't have the nautical skills required to capture a ship. But the Somali experience shows you don't need a high degree of skills," said Ian Storey, a fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies and an expert on piracy. "It shows how easy it can be."

It's a lesson al Qaeda had already learned. After the Limburg bombing it issued a statement boasting that a major vessel had been crippled by a low-tech attack:

"If a boat which didn't even cost $1,000 managed to devastate an oil tanker ... imagine the extent of the danger that threatens the West's commercial lifeline, which is petroleum."
Peter Chalk, a terrorism-risk analyst at the Rand Corporation think tank, said in a report on piracy and terrorism in June that "there has been a modest yet highly discernable spike in high-profile terrorist incidents at sea over the past six years."

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