One of the presenters at the conference today was Mansoor Ijaz, who gave a very interesting talk on, among other things, the terrorist threat to maritime choke points. Some of this was drawn from a piece he published in Financial Times in October.
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”, for far longer – could seriously disrupt global trade. The economic calculus of moving cargo by sea would be rendered useless. Everything from energy prices to insurance rates and 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, provides 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, an 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.
At first sight, one purpose of gaining such one-way expertise might be to set charges for blowing up a supertanker. But supertanker hulls rest no more than 40 feet below sea level, hardly deep-sea diving depths. It is more likely that al-Qaeda is training for attacks against deep water rigs and platforms. Where? One target could be the offshore oil and gas drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, near New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi. Attacks on the pipes that link drilling platforms to the ocean floor at depths of more than 500 feet, where large clusters of machinery are set up to pump natural gas and oil to the surface, could cause serious disruption to domestic US energy supplies as well as grave environmental damage. In an extreme case, such an attack could severely restrict seagoing traffic through the mouth of the Mississippi.
Very interesting–and scary–stuff.