An often overlooked theater in the Global War on Terror is the world’s oceans, a vital highway of the globalized world economy. Al Qaeda has shown an interest in attacking shipping in the past, including the failed attack on the USS The Sullivans and the successful attack on the USS Cole in 2000, and the successful attack on the French oil tanker Limburg in 2002. Attacks on shipping allows al Qaeda to disrupt the global economy, divert resources to protect the seas, and serves as vehicle for recruiting (the video from the USS Cole attack was used extensively in al Qaeda’s recruiting circles, with Osama bin Laden praising the suicide bombers). Al Qaeda is not merely interested in destroying shipping; they are also interested in using vessels to close maritime lanes and to conduct sea borne mass casualty attacks. Last year intelligence reported al Qaeda was planning such an attack:
The terrorists have been discussing plans to seize a vessel using local pirates. The hijacked ship would be wired with explosives and then directed at other vessels, sailed towards a port or used to threaten the narrow and congested sea routes around Indonesia.
Piracy is a global problem that has existed since man’s first venture into the ocean; however the modern pirates operate in the world’s most dangerous areas, which also happen to site along the world’s vital oil transit chokepoints. Five of the seven oil transit chokepoints are in areas of operation of Islamists: the Straits of Malacca (Indonesia/Thailand/Malaysia), Straits of Hormuz (Iran/Oman), Bab el-Mandab (Yemen/Horn of Africa), the Suez Canal and Sumed Pipeline, and the Bosporus/Turkish Straits. And recent intelligence indicates al Qaeda is establishing a base of operation in Panama to infiltrate America and attack the Panama Canal.
The co-opting of pirates by al Qaeda should come as no surprise, as often Islamist groups are engaged in illegal activities to finance their operations. Al Qaeda’s regional affiliate, Jemaah Islamiah, is often engaged in piracy, as are the Philippine affiliates Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Abu Sayyaf Group. The pirates and terrorists are often one in the same, or if not, are in close cooperation.
Austin Bay recounts a piracy attack off of the coast of Yemen, where two fast boats attempted to board and hijack freights, but were repelled by the crews. The ships were scouted prior to the attack. Eaglespeak has two recent accounts of piracy. One incident occurred off of the eastern coast of Somalia. The ship was boarded but the status is unknown weeks later. The other incident occurred off of the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, where pirates seized a tin transport and were able to dock it in a Malaysian port. This incident highlights the lack of security and the very real danger that exists in Southeast Asia. Had al Qaeda conducted such an attack with a fuel tanker, the impact would have been devastating.
The US has established a strong presence in the Horn of Africa, with a task force operating in Djibouti. The Straits of Hormuz and the Panama Canal are also under the watchful eye of the US Navy. The Straits of Malacca are a more difficult problem, as this area has the highest incidence of piracy. Al Qaeda’s presence in Southeast Asia is strong. The Straits of Malacca serve as the world’s most vital transit point for oil and commerce, and the local governments are reluctant to cooperate to secure the area:
Abu Sayyaf leaders working with Jemaah Islamiah, had introduced scuba diving training for guerillas to prepare for attacks at sea . Marine terrorism is a red button issue in South-East Asia with the Straits of Malacca of particular concern. Up to a third of world trade and half its oil supplies pass through the narrow channel each year. However, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia have rejected US offers of assistance to help secure the waterway.
Some refuse to recognize the need to commit international resources to patrol the Straits of Malacca, and instead view attempts by the United States to increase their presence in the reason – yet another opportunistic plot to expand The Empire:
The issues in the Straits of Malacca are no longer related to international law but increasingly to geopolitics. It is about maritime powers imposing their will on coastal states and their excuse to enforce jurisdiction in national waters I suspect talk of instability, terrorism and bomb-floating vessels are excuses by some maritime powers and institutions to claim a stake in the governance of the strategic waterway.
I also suspect that all the loose talk is intended to provide legitimate excuses for external powers to intervene with their navies to rewrite the rules of engagement in straits used for international navigation. The Malacca Straits is their pilot scheme.
This attitude is perhaps the most difficult obstacle to overcome in this war. Domestic and foreign leftist groups and governments have portrayed American security interests as 21st Century Colonialism, and world governments do little to dispel this notion. This is ironic; particularly in the case of maintaining safe passage in the world’s oceans, as American’s attempts to keep the sea lanes open also happen to coincide with the security interests of the major world economies. France, Germany, China, and a host of nations, including those of the Middle East who depend on oil exports to bolster their regimes, are dependent on the US Navy to maintain order on the open seas. Yet they promote the notion of American imperialism, which hinders the much needed cooperation between the United States and various world governments.