Defense Update - News Analysis by David Eshel

Saturday, December 10, 2005

The Threat of Maritime Terrorism

On Friday, December 9, 2005 the Jerusalem Post reported that The Israel Navy has decided to cease sending its warships through the Suez Canal, out of concern they will be targeted by global Jihad terrorists. Isral is concerend about the threat of maritime terror for some time. Recent activities attempting to disrupt plans to attack Israeli maritime targets focused on diverting Israel bound passenger ships, visiting Turkish and Cypriot ports, and intensive naval activities in the eastern Mediterranean sea.

Unconfirmed reports indicate that Egyptian forces along the Suez Canal have been placed on high alert, Saturday December 10, pending suspected terrorist attacks on shipping originating from their Sinai base. The Suez Canal has long become a major focal point for maritime terrorism, since the establishment of the new al strongholds in the Central Sinai mountain redoubt of Jebel Hillal and covert activities in the Sharm-al-Sheikh and Tiran Straits area. Scuttling a captured cargo ship blocking the strategic canal is just one of the many contingencies possible. A less spectacular attack, by land-based RPG rockets could equally affect shipping and virtually stop all canal traffic, with serious consequences.

A recent U.S. intelligence warning to Mediterranean nations, including Israel, said significant attacks could take place in the Suez Canal and other "choke points" -- narrow channels where vulnerable ships, if damaged or sunk, would significantly disrupt commerce. As a precautionary measure, the US Navy has diverted at least 12 massive supply ships from the Suez Canal and sent them around the Cape of Good Hope instead.

Maritime terror Mastermind
There is indeed compelling evidence that ships are al-Qaeda's new weapons of choice. When Abd al Rahman al Nashiri was captured by US intelligence agents in November 2002, the scope of Al-Qaeda maritime activities was revealed for the first time in detail. Al Nashiri, Osama Bin Laden’s operations chief in the Persian Gulf and Yemen, masterminded the suicide attack on the guided missile destroyer USS Cole in October 2002, as well as an identical attempt nine months earlier, on the destroyer The USS Sullivans, which failed when the suicide boat overloaded with explosives was sunk. Nashiri, an explosive expert specializing in naval demolition sabotage, had developed a four-pronged strategy to attack Western shipping targets:

  • Ramming vulnerable vessels at sea
  • Blowing up medium-sized vessels at ports
  • Attacking vulnerable, large cargo ships such as supertankers from the air by using explosive-laden small aircraft
  • Underwater attacks by divers or suicide demolition teams, using limpet mines.

By capturing Nashiri, coalition forces also seized an al-Qaida maritime military manual. The manual dealt with how to attack ships, showing different classes of vessels, where to hit them and how much explosives are needed. Replacing al Nashiri was Saud Hamid al-Utaibi, marine terror practitioner, who has already caused many security experts to raise the threat level for maritime security. His personal experience includes an active role in blowing up the USS Cole and the attack of a French oil tanker MV Limburg off the Yemen coast. US naval intelligence repeatedly warned Mediterranean states of imminent maritime terrorist threats, including such involving chemical attacks. Utaibi’s highly professional expertise was proven again in December 2004, during a daring commando attack on the US consulate in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah. Al Qaeda websites revealed that maritime attacks could also involve the use of small underwater craft, such as mini-submarines or submerged diver delivery vessels (SDV). Some terrorist groups are known to have experimented with such methods. Intelligence reports point out that radicals from the Jemaah Islamiah (JI), a group linked to the al-Qaeda network, have been trained in sea-borne guerilla tactics, such as suicide scuba diving and ramming, developed by the Sri Lankan Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Lately, Al Qaeda has discovered the ancient game of piracy, a convenient vehicle for their maritime terrorism purpose. Until recently, Indonesia posed the most dangerous waters for international shipping, with 44 pirate attacks alone in its waters in the first half of 2002 and nine more in the nearby Strait of Molucca.

Terrorist Use of Hazardous Cargo
One of the worst fears from piracy on maritime shipping presents the transportation of MOX (mixed oxide) fuel rods. MOX is reprocessed from spent, concentrated uranium fuel rods. The spent rods are separated into plutonium, radioactive waste and the remaining unused uranium. Recombining the plutonium and uranium in Mox pellets creates a fuel, capable of being returned to a power plant's reactor. When British ships carrying such dangerous nuclear fuel to Japan first stirred controversy, it was feared they might accidentally sink, or at the very worst meet pirates. Now the fear has become hysterical, should al Qaeda naval commandos capture such a highly lucrative cargo. Western Naval intelligence and nuclear experts have warned that enough plutonium from Mox could serve in constructing a crude nuclear device or a ‘dirty’ bomb.

In fact, counter-terrorism experts claim, that there are munitions, like shaped charges which are capable in breaching the armored casks housing the material on board the ship itself, which on exploding could disperse sufficient radio-active material around the immediate neighborhood, such as, for example a major port, where the terrorists could dock.

Israeli environment officials have recently warned of ‘high-risk’ cargos entering Haifa port and ordered enhanced security measures to prevent an ecological disaster occurring though terrorism infiltration. In 2003 the 35 heavily armed pirates/terrorists that boarded a chemical tanker off the coast of Sumatra demanded that the ship's captain teach them how to "drive" such a large ship. This was frighteningly reminiscent of the 9/11 hijackers who attended flight school, but were only interested in learning how to fly an airliner, not land it. It does not require much fantasy to imagine what could happen, should terrorists blow up the tanker and create an ecological disaster in a large coastal town.


Maritime Terrorism and Piracy
Last summer the center of pirate activities has reached the Somali coast. Somali pirates attacked five ships in a sharp rise of banditry apparently directed from a mysterious "mother ship" prowling the busy Indian Ocean corridor. In one incident, pirates attacked with rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles firing at a U.S.-owned luxury liner. Gunmen in two small speedboats, tried to board the vessel repelled by the ship's defensive maneuvers and countermeasures. A more serious attempt to attack maritime shipping occurred on a Friday, last August as the Abdullah al-Azzam Brigades of the al Qaeda Organization in the Levant and Egypt, announced over the Internet that its “fighters” had fired three Katyusha rockets at “US vessels in Jordan and at Israel’s Eilat airfield… before returning safely to base.” The two US warships, USS Ashland and USS Kearsage, escaped unhit, but were likely to be carefully chosen targets, experts said. These vessels are among those that have been regularly docking and unloading military supplies in the Red Sea port of Aqaba since the U.S. led the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The Suez Canal has become a major focal point for maritime terrorism, since the establishment of the new al Qaeda base in their Central Sinai mountain redoubt of Jebel Hillal and covert activities in the Sharm-al-Sheikh Tiran Straits. Scuttling a captured cargo ship blocking the strategic canal is just one of the many contingencies for such an act.

In 2003 British intelligence sources reported that al-Qaeda network has purchased at least 15 ships in the last two years – creating, perhaps, the first terrorist naval force in modern history. The source claimed that Lloyds of London has helped Britain's MI6 and the U.S. CIA trace the sales made through a Greek shipping agent. The biggest concern was that the ships, flying flags of Yemen or Somalia, were registered to carry chemical cargo, which could become convenient platforms for terrorist maritime activities. A Rand Corporation study recently released warned that terrorists might indeed use containers to deliver weapons of mass destruction for terror groups such as al-Qaeda and offload these in port.

That such a threat is real can demonstrate an incident on September 16, 2001, when the United States closed the port of Boston, fearing terrorists would attack the gas terminal in the harbor. Since, to this day, all gas tankers bound for Boston have to be escorted by the Coast Guard from hundreds of miles outside port. An actual attack on the strategic port of Ashdod did take place in March this year, when Palestinian terrorists hiding in a container attempted to blow themselves up near tanks containing hazardous chemical material, luckily they exploded before reaching their target, but nevertheless killed several people.

Naval Counter-Terrorism Task Forces
Western naval authorities have already fielded some maritime counter terror measures to try and curb the growing threat. Two NATO task forces are operating in the Mediterranean, one under Spanish command guarding ships passing through the Straits of Gibraltar under Operation Active Effort, and another in the Eastern Mediterranean through - Operation Active Endeavour - monitoring and on some occasions boarding shipping moving up from the Suez Canal. The Eastern Mediterranean group, supported by the NATO Standing Naval Forces Atlantic and Mediterranean in rotation, has been conducting boarding of suspected ships under the new Maritime Intercept Operations (MIO). East of Suez, in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, and the surrounding countries these activities have prompted the United States to establish a joint task force, bolstered by other countries' forces in the area. Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) was established in November 2001, with its headquarters afloat aboard the U.S. Navy command ship Mount Whitney. In April 2002, the existence of a multinational naval force, Task Force 150, was revealed. This task force is working in this area, alongside CJTF-HOA to monitor, inspect, board, and stop suspect shipping. The Spanish frigate Navarra which operated as part of this force, intercepted the North Korean vessel Sosan carrying Scud missiles to Yemen on Dec. 9, 2002.

In order to protect strategic merchant shipping, the US navy also provides sensors of the sort used on warships, to detect nearby diving activity. Such sensors are installed on supertankers carrying sensitive cargoes. These detectors should be connected via satellite to centrally monitored systems to prevent them being overridden or ignored by corrupt local officials. Other countermeasures include a comprehensive array of cargo scanners, currently under development, to locate, track, and verify the identity and origin of cargo.

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