Attacks on the Energy Industry: Important Differences Between Terrorism and Piracy

The global energy industry is under threat of attack by criminal and terrorist elements, but for different reasons. It is important to understand that piracy and maritime terrorism are separate “disciplines” that have no direct one-to-one correlation. Piracy is a crime committed for financial gain, while the objective of maritime terrorism is for immediate or strategic political goals. In the case of attacks on the energy industry therefore, the means used to gain control of energy vessels and platforms will be determined by the threat objective.

Pirates recognize that oil carriers are valuable targets of hijacking seizure for ransom, a business model that has proven increasingly lucrative. Pirates have already determined that the insurance carriers for crude oil carrier owners/operators are likely to negotiate and ultimately pay ransom to ensure the safety and recovery of the vessel crew, and protect against the loss of a valuable asset. The objective of pirates, therefore, is to leverage the willingness of the energy and risk management communities – along with the lack of international regulatory standards and ‘best practice’ guidelines for the prevention or and response to piratical incidents – into a recurring revenue stream.

It should be noted that energy and cargo vessels that diligently adhere to recommended practices for transiting maritime choke points or waters known for incidents of piracy, such as convoying through the contested area under the watchful eyes of a joint naval task force, are less likely to be attacked by pirates since there is a higher risk of interception and mission failure. Pirates are looking for the greatest return on their investment, and are willing to redirect their efforts on targets of opportunity that offer the highest probability of success. Pirates also have the additional revenue-generating option of selling the crude oil contained in hijacked vessels to unscrupulous brokers looking to make a quick profit on the spot market for crude, although we have no documented evidence of this occurring as yet.

Terrorists, however, are motivated by their political objectives. They are not influenced by money, and have proven their willingness to learn from previous mission failures and the patience to wait until they have expanded their capabilities to ensure a higher probability of mission success.

It should be remembered that al-Q’aida’s conducted an unsuccessful attack against the World Trade Center in 1993. Following that action, al-Q’aida conducted a study to determine why it failed, performed additional observation and analysis of their target, and modified their weapons and tactics to ensure a higher probability of success resulting in the 9/11 attacks. Given the expected psychological and financial impact of successful attacks against energy industry targets, such as oil tankers, offshore platforms, and pipelines, it is reasonable to assume that terrorists are willing to expend the time, energy and resources to achieve their strategic objective – especially since they have demonstrated their willingness to perish to achieve mission success.

Terrorists also have the advantage of being able to observe and adopt the successful tactics used by pirates to approach and seize control of an energy or chemical tanker. They have access to educated and talented people who share their beliefs, and who are willing to provide their knowledge of maritime vessel operations and expertise to help overcome some of the technical difficulties imposed by threat prevention and risk reduction measures implemented since the VBIED bombings of the USS Cole and the double-hulled LVCC Limburg.

It should not be assumed that a failure to sink a maritime energy carrier constitutes failure, since the terrorists’ objective is to impact the economies of U.S. and European governments they have targeted. An increase in the number of attacks directed against energy carriers, or attacks against these vessels while they are at anchor taking on crude via pipeline at an outer continental shelf (OCS) anchorage is likely to increase the level of uncertainty and risk for the companies conducting those operations, prompting an increase in their risk insurance premium and resulting in the increase of the cost of crude in the global marketplace, and of refined energy products at the pump. Add to that the long-term economic impact resulting from the extended deployment of multi-national maritime military assets, patrolling the contested waters to provide risk reduction and incident response for energy platforms and vessels in transit, and the terrorist will have – on some level – achieved their objective.

One aspect of the terrorist threat against the maritime community that has rarely surfaced for discussion is the potential for infiltration of “actors”, sympathetic to a terrorist cause, into the manpower pool for employment onboard commercial maritime energy, chemical, and cargo carriers. Hiring of vessel crewmen are often conducted by third-party agencies, who bear responsibility for conducting background check on potential hires to ensure they do not represent a criminal or terrorist theat. However, depending on the laws and resources of the countries in which these hiring agencies are based, many do not have access to the necessary level of background information needed for a proper assessment of the application. In fact, some countries prohibit the collection and use of the types of biometric information used to confirm the identity of workers for access onto vessels and into restricted or secure areas of maritime facilities or vessels.

As an example, a significant number of below-deck engineering seamen are Indonesian, the world’s largest Islamic country by population, and where many fundamentalist groups continue to operate. Organizations whose motives and objectives are guided by fundamentalist religious or political philosophies, such as Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and groups of veterans from Afghanistan and Mindanao training camps operating independently from JI, have access to manpower pools from which to recruit candidates for attacks against Western maritime interest and operations through sabotage.

Our perception of viable attack vectors against energy industry targets in the global maritime community must not be limited to our capabilities and expectations. In order to establish a degree of confidence in the integrity of the protective measures for our energy supply chain, we must be creative in our outlook of the potential threats, and be willing to invest in long-term solutions that give due consideration to our adversary’s patience, creativity, and commitment to achieving their objective. We must be willing to match their resourcefulness, diligence, and dedication measure for measure.

— By Ron Thomason
Vice President, Strategic Programs, Maritime Security Council

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