OGJ Oil Diplomacy Editor
LOS ANGELES, July 10 -- Egyptian authorities have announced the arrest of 26 men, most of them engineers and technicians suspected of links with the terrorist al-Qaeda organization, on charges of plotting attacks on oil pipelines and ships transiting the Suez Canal.
The Egyptian Interior Ministry said the suspects, 25 Egyptians and a Palestinian, who had prepared remote-controlled detonators and explosives, were in contact with the Islamic Army of Palestine and were awaiting instructions from an al-Qaeda operative based abroad.
Egyptian authorities, who confiscated explosives, electronics, and diving suits, alleged that the suspects had prepared the remote-controlled detonators and explosives out of armaments left in the Sinai Desert from Egypt's wars with Israel.
The US Energy Information Administration considers the Suez Canal and the nearby Suez-Mediterranean pipeline as one of the world’s seven most important chokepoints or transits for oil, whose closure “would add 6,000 miles of transit around the continent of Africa.”
Oil shipments from the Persian Gulf travel through the Canal primarily to European ports, but also to the US, EIA says, adding that more than 3,000 oil tankers pass through the Suez Canal every year, and represent about 25% of the canal’s total revenues.
“In 2006, an estimated 3.9 million b/d of oil flowed northbound through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean, while 0.6 million b/d travelled southbound into the Red Sea,” EIA reported.
According to EIA, the 200-mile Sumed Pipeline provides an alternative to the Suez Canal, and can transport 3.1 million b/d of oil.
“In 2006, nearly all of Saudi Arabia’s northbound shipments (approximately 2.3 million b/d of crude) were transported through the Sumed pipeline,” the EIA says. The pipeline is owned by Arab Petroleum Pipeline Co., a joint venture of EGPC, Saudi Aramco, Abu Dhabi’s ADNOC, and Kuwaiti companies.
The arrest of the suspected al-Qaeda members follows recent media reports that an Israeli submarine recently used the Suez Canal for the first time to reach military exercises in the Red Sea, a move intended as a warning to Iran, considered the region’s arch-foe.
Israel’s Yediot Aharonot daily newspaper said the INS Leviathan, a Dolphin-class submarine, entered the canal in daylight hours and was escorted southward by Egyptian navy vessels sometime in June. The vessel then returned through the Canal on July 5.
The newspaper said that with the move "Egypt and Israel wanted to show their coordination in the face of Iran pursuing its nuclear program."
Previously Israeli submarines rounded the whole of Africa to reach the Red Sea, the Yediot Aharonot report said. But such trips take weeks and limit Israel's ability to signal readiness to retaliate should it ever come under Iranian nuclear attack.
Also, with a reported 4,500 nautical mile range, taking the long way around Africa would require the Dolphin-class submarines to make at least two stops for refueling at a friendly port, or for fuel to be replenished at sea.
The arrest of the al-Qaeda suspects, which could have a depressing effect on shipping, also coincides with reports that Egypt's Suez Canal revenues dipped 26% to $348.2 million in June, compared to $471.4 million in the same month last year.
According to a Suez Canal Authority official, the number of vessels using the waterway was 1,401 in June, down 23% from the 1,819 vessels that passed through in June 2008.
The reduced traffic and income are attributed to the global slowdown in trade, seasonal factors, the rise in pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden and shipping companies trimming costs and avoiding Suez Canal tolls by going the long way round the Cape of Good Hope.
Contact Eric Watkins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Suspected terrorists arrested for plotting Egypt attacks