By an OGJ correspondent
NICOSIA, Mar.19 -- As war looms over the Middle East, military analysts said Wednesday that Iraq poses a minimal threat to shipping in the Persian Gulf, but attacks by the Al-Qaeda terrorist network, led by Osama bin Laden, are a more likely problem.
US and UK naval commanders fear Al-Qaeda operatives could make suicide strikes against ships in the gulf like those against the USS Cole, an Aegis class destroyer, in the port of Aden, Yemen, in October 2000 and the French supertanker Limburg off Yemen in October 2002. In both cases, militants approached ships near land in explosive-laden boats and detonated them.
Following its attack on the Limburg, Al-Qaeda made no secret of its plans to undermine the world's economy by mounting an attack on marine oil transport routes.
"We can imagine the magnitude of the dangers that threaten the Western economic lifeline," Al-Qaeda said in a statement then. The Middle East, said Al-Qaeda, sits on the West's "largest (oil) reserves, produces its largest quantities (of oil imports), and has (control of) all its channels and routes.
"The strike on the French oil tanker was not an incidental strike at a passing tanker but a strike on the international oil-carrying line in the full sense of the word."
Al-Qaeda even drew reference to the cost-effectiveness of its operation, saying that if a boat that did not cost $1,000 "succeeded in destroying an oil tanker of this size, then we can imagine the magnitude of the dangers that threaten the Western economic lifeline."
The importance of supertankers as part of the Western economic lifeline has long been recognized in the Arab world.
Writing in the May, 1963, issue of the Saudi Oil Ministry bulletin Akhbar al-Bitrul wa al-Ma'adin, the ministry's Economic Adviser Faruq al-Husaini urged oil exporting countries to keep a close watch on the current upward trend of tanker freight rates. Husaini noted a "definite link" between the level of tanker freight rates and the fob price of crude oil. When there is a shortage of tanker capacity and a consequent rise in freight rates, a tight oil supply situation is created which tends to push up oil prices, he said.
Conversely, a surplus of tanker capacity leads to lower freight rates and a reduction in CIF prices, which in turn tends to exert a downward pressure on fob prices.
The post-Suez spate of tanker construction, instigated by the big oil importing nations with a view to safeguarding their oil supplies, contributed to the decline in the fob price of crude oil during the preceding 5 years, he said, to the considerable detriment of the oil exporting countries.
Recent Al-Qaeda statements referring to the straits of Hormuz and Bab-el-Mendeb, likewise show a clear understanding of key "chokepoints" in the routing of Middle Eastern oil, whether toward the US, Europe or the Far East. In 2001, around 80% of oil exported from the Persian Gulf transited by tanker through the straits of Hormuz, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
By far the world's most important oil chokepoint, Hormuz accounts for transit of around two fifths of all world traded oil, and its closure would require use of longer alternate routes if availableat increased transportation costs.
Oil heading west by tanker from the Persian Gulf towards the Suez Canal or Sumed pipeline must pass through the Bab-al-Mendeb Strait, which connects the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea.
"Any closure of the Bab-el-Mendeb could keep tankers from reaching the Suez Canal-Sumed pipeline complex, diverting them around the southern tip of Africa," EIA said, adding that "this would add greatly to transit time and cost, and effectively tie up spare tanker capacity."
After transiting the Bab al-Mendeb, oil from the Persian Gulf must pass either through Egypt's Suez Canal or Sumed pipeline complex, which connect the Red Sea and Gulf of Suez with the Mediterranean Sea.
Around 3 million b/d of Persian Gulf oil exports transit the Suez Canal-Sumed complex, destined mainly for Europe and the US.
Any closure of the Suez Canal or Sumed pipeline would divert tankers around the southern tip of Africa via the Cape of Good Hope, adding greatly to transit time and effectively tying up tanker capacity.
Most oil heading eastwards from the Persian Gulf passes through the Malacca Strait, a sealane that carries 25% of the world's crude oil trade, or 10.3 million b/d, according to Malaysian officials.
Experts have long warned that the Malacca Strait, one of the world's busiest sea lanes, could make an ideal target for militants to hijack tankers filled with hundreds of thousands of tonnes of gas or oil.
"The issue of fighting piracy in the Malacca Strait has to take on a new importance given the much greater threat it could now pose. We need a closer security cooperation with Malaysia and Singapore," said Indonesian Communications Minister Agum Gumelar at the recent TransASEAN 2002 conference.
The urgency of fighting there has been underscored by the discovery in Afghanistan of Al-Qaeda video footage of Malaysia police patrol craft in action on the strait. Terrorism and Al-Qaeda expert Dr. Rohan Gunaratna said, "I identified the patrol craft as belonging to Malaysian police after thoroughly checking the markings and other initials on the vessels in the footages.
He believed the recordings were to study how Malaysian marine police carried out their routine exercises with a view to execute maritime attacks. According to Gunaratna, the attack on the Limburg was just the "tip of the iceberg."