Analysis: Militant raid on tanker shows Gulf security gap

LONDON (Reuters) - A U.S. statement that militants were behind a mystery blast on a Japanese tanker in the Strait of Hormuz in July has increased concerns about security in the vital oil shipping lane and drawn urgent calls for more details.

A brief U.S. advisory last week described as “valid” a claim of responsibility by the shadowy Abdullah Azzam Brigades for the failed July 28 raid on the Japanese vessel M.Star, which injured a seaman but caused no oil spill or disruption to shipping.

The November 19 advisory by the U.S. Department of Transportation Maritime Administration (MARAD) ended months of Western silence about the incident and countered speculation it was some kind of accidental collision.

“The group remains active and can conduct further attacks on vessels in areas in the Strait of Hormuz, southern Arabian Gulf and Western Gulf of Oman,” said MARAD.

The Brigades are active mainly in the Egyptian Sinai and Lebanon and believed to be composed mainly of Arabs who once fought with Iraq-based al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed in 2006.

Few analysts initially believed the Brigades were capable of such a brazen assault -- the first such militant attack in the Strait, although not in the wider Arabian peninsula region -- as they lack the clout of more established al Qaeda offshoots.

The group’s apparent lack of expertise was born out by the failure of the attack, which occurred just after midnight.

But the U.S. advisory has changed the mood, and drawn a suggestion that Western nations may have been overly focused on the piracy threat off Somalia in comparison to the Gulf.

“This is an important wake-up call,” said James Burnell-Nugent, former commander in chief, fleet, of Britain’s Royal Navy.


“We don’t want to over-react, but we have 30-odd warships moving around in the Indian Ocean on piracy and one periodically moving through the Strait. It does seem a bit out of balance.”

Andrew Linington, with seafarers’ union Nautilus International, said his members were “profoundly disturbed.”

“We don’t feel that the threat is being taken seriously either by the industry in general or by governments,” he said.

Security specialists said the advisory highlighted two main worries for security in the busy Strait, the gateway to the Gulf which handles 40 percent of the world’s seaborne oil and is guarded by U.S. and other warships.

One is a lack of coordination in regional monitoring of small craft, including fast boats used by drug smugglers that criss-cross between Iran and the western side of the waterway and fishing boats which sometimes stray into tanker lanes.

Western experts say that while monitoring has improved over the years, there are still gaps in communication between the maritime authorities in Iran and those in Gulf Arab states, apparently stemming from regional political tensions.

“We are in for a greater shock unless coordination improves,” said Sami alFaraj, who heads the Kuwait Center for Security Studies and advises Gulf Arab states on security.

“There is a gap in policing of the area, and the presence of drugs in the region allows terrorists with boats an opening.”

The other concern is that the Brigades’ boldness in attempting such a raid may encourage copycat attempts by al Qaeda’s most ambitious and technically adept offshoot, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based in nearby Yemen.

There are no known organizational links between the two groups, but they share a similar ideology and may one day conclude that they should join forces, analysts say.

“That would be hugely worrying,” said James Blake, an intelligence analyst at Janusian risk consultants in London.

“It would be in both groups’ interest to cooperate.”


For the moment, some skepticism lingers about the advisory, which analysts say is much too brief.

J. Peter Pham, with the National Committee on American Foreign Policy think tank, said that since MARAD was not an intelligence or counterterrorism agency “at least some evidence to back this expansive claim needs to be disclosed.”

John Dalby, chief executive of maritime security company MRM, which provides risk assessments to companies in the region, said he did not think it was a terrorist attack. The strongest likelihood was a collision “which is being covered up.”

However, there have been growing concerns for maritime security in the area, and al Qaeda has threatened to attack shipping there in the past.

Al Qaeda bombed the USS Cole warship in October 2000 when it was docked in Yemen, killing 17 U.S. sailors. Two years later an al Qaeda attack damaged a French tanker in the Gulf of Aden.

Peter Hinchliffe, secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping, an association that represents around 80 percent of the global shipping industry, said it was advising all ships to maintain vigilance and caution in the region.

Jeremy Binnie, a terrorism expert at IHS Janes, said the interesting thing about the advisory was that it signaled there was a real threat of it happening again.

“Failed attempts can become unintentional trial runs for successful attacks as the perpetrators learn their lessons.

“The USS Cole bombers made an earlier attempt to bomb the USS Sullivans on 3 Jan 2000, but their boat sank. They learned their lessons and got it right on the next attempt. That’s why its important to keep an eye out for these kind of things.”

Editing by Mark Trevelyan