Japan Tanker: Al Qaeda Claims Responsibility; Insurers Monitor Events

By | August 4, 2010

A militant group linked to al Qaeda said on Wednesday that a suicide bomber was responsible for a mysterious explosion on a Japanese-owned oil tanker a week ago near the Strait of Hormuz.

But analysts are sceptical about the belated claim on the 333-metre tanker M. Star, damaged while travelling from the Gulf with a cargo of crude oil for Japan.

The cause of the incident, which left the hull caved in on one side, blew off a lifeboat and smashed windows and doors, is being examined by a military specialist hired last week by shipowner Mitsui O.S.K. Lines Ltd.

Here are some questions and answers on what may have caused the damage and whether there has been market impact:

AL QAEDA LINKED GROUP?

Independent verification was not immediately available for the latest claim by a group calling itself the Abdullah Azzam Brigades. The claim was posted with a photo of the alleged suicide bomber on a website used by Islamist militants.

“While nothing can be ruled out definitively pending a complete investigation, the claims made in the name of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades … seem rather opportunistic,” said J. Peter Pham, senior vice president with the National Committee on American Foreign Policy think tank.

“If the group, which has not had a successful attack against any target in several years, is indeed responsible, it has changed its modus operandi.”

A group using the same name claimed attacks in Israel last year as well as deadly bombings in the Egyptian resort of Sharm al-Sheikh in 2005 and rocket attacks that missed U.S. warships in Jordan the same year.

Analysts say the apparent al Qaeda affiliate, based in the Levant and Egypt, has a track record of taking responsibility for attacks also claimed by other organisations.

John Drake, risk consultant with security and risk mitigation firm AKE Ltd, said that until the full investigation was completed the cause of the damage would remain speculative.

“From the pictures we have seen, there are no evident scorch marks or hull penetration which would have been caused by an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) or by ordnance,” he added.

COLLIDED WITH SOMETHING ELSE?

A port official in Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, said last week a submarine collision could have caused the damage.

“It wasn’t an attack. When looking at the starboard quarter of the ship, the damage was far too uniform,” said John Dalby, chief executive of maritime security company MRM, which provides risk assessments to companies in the region.

“If it had been some kind of ordnance as the cause, it would have penetrated the hull and it didn’t. It’s either a submarine collision or a jetty that the tanker could have rammed into at a loading port.”

STRUCK A SEA MINE?

Maritime experts ruled out a sea mine because it would have caused damage underneath the tanker, and there would have been hull penetration.

COULD IT HAVE BEEN PIRATES?

Piracy was also discounted, since the type of damage the tanker sustained did not bear the hallmarks of an attack by seaborne gangs. The incident also occurred too far north from where pirates had been active in the past.

WHAT ABOUT AN INTERNAL EXPLOSION OR A FREAK WAVE?

Some shipping sources speculated that the damage may have been caused inside the tanker itself but others said the picture taken of the vessel indicated it was caused from outside.

Authorities in the UAE launched an inquiry into the incident after officials had initially said last week the damage was caused by a quake-related wave.

Shipping officials said a freak wave could not have caused the type of damage the vessel sustained. A picture of the tanker showed a large square dent in its starboard quarter on the one side of the hull. Wave damage would have been evident in more than one area.

Modern commercial vessels were built to be able to cope with North Atlantic weather conditions with force 12 gales. The 2008 built M. Star also has a double hull.

HAS THE ATTACK CLAIM AFFECTED INSURANCE RATES?

So far there has been no apparent impact on oil prices, while the insurance market is monitoring developments.

“Until the cause of the incident is known, there is very little we can say other than underwriters will assess the situation on the facts,” said Neil Roberts, a senior technical executive with the Lloyd’s Market Association (LMA).

“Freight rates are more a function of supply and demand and are therefore unlikely to be directly affected in the short term,” said Roberts of the LMA, which represents the interests of all underwriting businesses in the Lloyd’s insurance market.

Pham, who is also a strategic adviser to U.S. and European governments, said he did not expect either insurance or oil markets to be affected “until there is more evidence of a terrorist attack”.

“Even then, the reaction may be minimal unless there is reason to believe that further attacks are in the offing.”

The narrow Strait of Hormuz is gateway to the oil-producing Gulf and handles 40 percent of the world’s seaborne oil. Al Qaeda has threatened to attack shipping there in the past.

“If this proves to be an attack … or if this remains an unverified claim for responsibility, then either way INTERTANKO and its members remain disturbed by this most worrying development,” the shipping association said.

“Anything that affects the flow of free trade in this vital trade artery is against the interests of our members and of world trade in general,” said INTERTANKO, whose members own the majority of the world’s tanker fleet.

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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