The Strait of Hormuz has never been the safest of navigable waters and on the night of 28 July the heavily laden VLCC M.STAR was apparently attacked by terrorists who used a waterborne Improvised Explosive Device (IED) to try and damage or sink the vessel. This new threat vector has sent shock waves through the tanker industry and has the navies of the United States and its allies scrambling to find a want to mitigate the new threat.
As a bit of background on the event, the M. STAR was eastbound approaching the Straits late in the evening when it was approached by two small boats that apparently originated in Oman. Based on information from the ship’s radar that was stored on the Voyage Data Recorder (VDR), the boats approached from astern, moved alongside to the bow and then fell back. One of the two boats apparently exploded and the second sped away on a heading toward Oman.
The ship sustained hull damage – a large dent in the starboard quarter – and some interior damage and the loss of a lifeboat as well. Luckily, there was only one minor injury and there was no pollution. The ship steamed to Fujairah where repairs were undertaken and an investigation ensued.
Initial causes for the casualty ranged from a rogue wave to an errant and abandoned mine to a collision with another vessel to the eventual cause – terrorism. Assets from the US Navy inspected the ship’s damage, as did the Coast Guard of the United Arab Republics (UAE), the Republic of the Marshall Islands (the vessel’s flag state) and investigators appointed by the ship’s owner – Mitsui O.S.K. Lines.
Eventually, it was determined that the damage was the result of an IED, probably trinitrotoluene (TNT or dynamite). As to those who delivered the explosive, it has been generally accepted that the attack was NOT state sponsored and, in fact, was carried out by an Al Qaeda faction that has been trying to gain acceptance and credibility in the terrorist world. But dubbed as the “gang that couldn’t shoot straight,” this seems to be another in a series of miscues.
The Brigades of Abdullah Azzam did claim that a suicide bomber blew himself up on the ship and the monitoring group SITE Intelligence reported on its website that the militant group claimed it had placed a suicide bomber on the tanker, identifying him as Ayyub Al Taishan. It said the attack was carried out in the name of Omar Abdul Rahman, the Egyptian “Blind Sheikh” imprisoned in the United States for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in New York. Analysis can neither confirm nor refute that anyone actually blew up with the explosives laden skiff. There is some belief that the two small craft came alongside the M. STAR and the helm of the bomb boat was tied down while the terrorist jumped to the other boat which sped away before the blast. This belief is bolstered by the fact that the bomb exploded far enough from the ship that the damage wasn’t devastating.
Analysts continue to evaluate the evidence and the implications. Several nations – the United States, the Marshall Islands and Japan – have warned their vessels to maintain heightened vigilance while transiting the straits and INTERTANKO has alerted the tanker community in general to the threat. The US Navy has kept mum on its tactical response but it is known that NavCent (US Naval Forces Central Command) is considering numerous options to counter the threat. The National Maritime Intelligence Center (NMIC) and the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) is also all over this and has been since the initial reports of the incident.
While this attack was not state sponsored, it does point to the vulnerability of this critical choke point in global maritime commerce. With Iran now boasting a new UAV drone of its own, the potential for state and/or terrorist sponsored attacks on vessels transiting the Straits of Hormuz cannot be overstated. That is the challenge facing the world’s navies and the commercial shipping industry and it’s a challenge that will apparently be with us for years to come.
– By Henry Morgan
The views expressed in the following commentary do not necessary reflect the views/opinions of the Maritime Security Council. The following is provided to offer varying perspectives on maritime security issues throughout the world.