DAILY NEWS – Terrorism experts fear that the world’s oil tankers, sea lanes and major ports are dangerously vulnerable to 9/11-scale attacks that would cripple world trade. They cite an alarming combination of factors, including terrorist-connected Southeast Asian rebels involved in piracy, the difficulty of tracking suspect vessels in the murky world of commercial shipping, and an Al Qaeda fleet that could be as large as 300 vessels.
Plots that have already been carried out include the October 2000 attack on the U.S. destroyer Cole in the port of Aden in Yemen, which killed 17 sailors, and the attack last October on the French supertanker Limburg.
Plans that experts fear could be in the works include sinking a massive tanker in one of the chokepoints in the world sea lanes or packing a ship with explosives and sailing into a vital harbor and detonating it.
“Unless the international community invests more resources to monitor and track terrorist ships today, we are likely to suffer another 9/11 inside a port like the New York Harbor in the coming months,” said Dr. Rohan Gunaratna, author of “Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror,” who has been studying maritime anti-terrorism efforts.
This summer, the world was reminded of the potential dangers when Greek authorities seized a suspicious ship headed for Sudan in the Mediterranean Sea. It was found to be loaded with 750 tons of ammonium nitrate and 140,000 detonators.
NATO, which has been conducting surveillance of merchant vessels in the Mediterranean since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is monitoring 50 ships suspected of having ties to terrorism.
Frighteningly, the vessel stopped by the Greeks was not on the NATO blacklist.
Al Qaeda line
“There’s been a lot of talk about the Al Qaeda fleet of merchant vessels,” said Tanner Campbell, vice president of the Washington-based Maritime Intelligence Group. “They have owned and operated vessels in the past directly and indirectly.”
Terror chief Osama Bin Laden is believed to have ties to anywhere from 15 to 300 vessels, ranging from a shadowy fleet of small fishing trawlers to freighters, experts say.
Locally, the Port Authority has increased security measures at its terminals since the Sept. 11 attacks. Ships coming into the harbor now must alert authorities of their arrival 96 hours in advance. The agency also has increased inspections of cargo from ships and trucks entering the sprawling port.
Since last summer, U.S. intelligence agencies have been picking up chatter from terrorists about ships, ports, bridges and divers.
Then, in November, authorities arrested Abdul Rahim Mohammed Hussein Abda Al-Nasheri, Al Qaeda’s chief of naval operations who planned the Cole bombing.
Nicknamed the Prince of the Sea, Al-Nasheri has allegedly confessed to planning more attacks on U.S. and British warships as they traveled through the Strait of Gibraltar.
Maritime security experts say an attack in a major shipping lane like the Strait of Gibraltar would cause a huge bottleneck of freighters and tankers that could have a catastrophic impact on the world economy.
NATO has become so concerned about maritime attacks in the Mediterranean that this past spring it began stopping and boarding suspicious ships, and escorting tankers through the strait.
Perhaps the most vulnerable sea lane is the Strait of Malacca, according to George Friedman, head of Stratfor, a business intelligence firm.
“If you were to close the Strait of Malacca, the disruption to international trade would be astronomical,” Friedman said.
The strait passes by Aceh, an oil-rich region at the tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, where rebels have been waging a bloody civil war.
The Free Aceh Movement – which has been linked to Jemaah Islamiyah, the Islamic group charged with the bombings of two Bali nightclubs last October – have increasingly turned to piracy.
On Sept. 2, the London-based International Maritime Bureau, which tracks crime at sea, issued warnings to shippers that attacks against small oil tankers were on the increase in the Straits of Malacca. The attacks “follow a pattern set by Indonesian Aceh rebels,” according to the bureau report.
Rebels board tanker
In mid-August, a band of 14 men with assault rifles dressed in fatigues and claiming to be Aceh rebels boarded a Malaysian tanker carrying 1,000 tons of fuel oil and took the ship’s master, chief engineer and a crewman hostage for a week, and released them only after receiving a $100,000 ransom, according to Agence France-Presse.
Perhaps more ominous, the Lloyd’s List shipping registry of London reported in February that a group of Indonesians who fought with the Taliban in Afghanistan and call themselves Group 272 are believed to be plotting to destroy an oil tanker in the Strait of Malacca.
Japan, which gets all of its oil via the Strait of Malacca, is preparing to send a fleet to bolster security there.
The Gulf of Aden, where both the Cole and Limburg were attacked, also remains a hot spot of terror and piracy, said the bureau’s deputy director.
With 120,000 merchant vessels in the world, many of them operating with questionable or phony documents, maritime anti-terrorism forces are facing an overwhelming task.
“We have a global maritime surveillance capability that was basically designed to keep track of a few hundred big Soviet warships,” said John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, a Washington research group. “Now you’ve got thousands of little no-name ships all over the world and you have no idea who they belong to and what they’re carrying.”