Militant attacks on commercial shipping a real threat

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration (MARAD) issued a brief advisory on 19 November that states analysis linking an attack on the Japanese crude oil tanker MV M. Star on 28 July to the Abdullah Azzam Brigade is valid.  A report by William Maclean and Jonathan Saul, entitled “Analysis: Militant raid on tanker shows Gulf security gap,” carried by Reuters on 22 November provides further details.

The analysis confirms rumours that have been swirling about since the summer that the damage to M. Star could not have resulted from anything other than a deliberate attack by militants.  The group in question is named after Palestinian Abdullah Azzam, regarded by some as the mentor of al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, who was killed in 1989. Reluctance to credit militants with the attack is attributed to aversion to acknowledge yet another threat to a strategically important cargo and its transportation link.

While the Abdullah Azzam Brigade had previously only been active in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt, Jordan and Israel, Maclean and Saul suggest that this attack “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.”  The coordination and development of mutually supporting operations in the maritime security environment has already been identified in this discussion (see David Mugridge’s post entitled “A very real threat to today’s Seafarers.”), but the general assessment discounted such a development.  It is obviously now time to acknowledge the increasing complexity of the situation and the validity of Mugridge’s thesis.

The strategy of the militants is reputedly one based on the concept of exhaustion.  A Reuters “Factbox” report on 21 November entitled “[al-]Qaeda unveils “strategy of a thousand cuts,”” lays out the idea of many small attacks over a wide area resulting in gains that outweigh the low cost of conducting them.  However, it is unlikely that the maritime transportation system will be much affected by small-scale attacks that can produce only limited damage.  As is almost always the case in trade warfare, the main costs will be incurred by the measures of protection put in place, the profit penalties imposed by increased round-trip times, and the fees demanded by insurers who perceive higher risks.  In this case, the taxpayers of the contributing nations will experience the exhaustion.

The modern maritime transportation system is actually quite robust.  The ships are large, reasonably fast and better built than ever.  The only downside of this is that even one loss can amount to major cost and the potential for significant environmental damage.  The key is to take cost effective measures appropriate to the degree of risk.  Complete security is never attainable, although risk tolerance is low.  Finding the balance point will require adjustment, physical, budgetary and mental.