by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
International, 25 October, 2002
YEARS, almost to the day, since suicide bombers
attacked the USS Cole in Aden harbour, Yemen has witnessed a
second act of maritime terrorism.
On October 6, according to
investigators, a small boat packed with explosives rammed the
French oil tanker, Limburg, off Mukalla, setting it ablaze and
releasing more than 90,000 barrels of oil into the sea. One
Bulgarian crew member died but the others escaped.
In both cases the means of attack
was remarkably similar and in both cases the bombers rented a
house nearby in which to prepare their boat.
In the Cole attack, which killed
17 American sailors, two men sailed an explosives-laden dinghy
alongside the guided-missile destroyer, saluted, and blew
themselves up. It is not yet clear whether the Limburg bombers
killed themselves or detonated their boat by remote control.
There is now little doubt that
Usama bin Laden's network was heavily involved in the Cole
bombing. Suspects in that attack have been linked to the 1998 US
embassy bombing in Nairobi, to participants in the September 11
attacks in the United States, and to the foiled "millennium
plot" of January 2000. Bin Laden himself once recited a poem
in praise of the Cole bombers.
Although the Yemeni authorities
have arrested a number of people in connection with the Limburg
bombing, few clues as to the culprits have emerged so far but it's
clear where suspicions point. The attack, after all, occurred in
the home province on Bin Laden's ancestors.
On October 14, al-Jazeera
satellite channel broadcast a faxed statement, purportedly signed
by Usama bin Laden, congratulating "the Islamic
community" on the Limburg attack, as well as attacks on
American forces in Kuwait.
"By exploding the oil tanker
in Yemen," the statement said, "the holy warriors hit
the umbilical cord and lifeline of the crusader community,
reminding the enemy of the heavy cost of blood and the gravity of
losses they will pay as a price for their continued aggression on
our community and looting of our wealth."
The authenticity of the statement
is open to dispute, but its message is not. The Limburg attack is
the first to be aimed primarily against the western economy -
"the lifeline of the crusader community" as the
statement put it.
It came less than a month after
the US Navy issued a warning of possible attacks on shipping in
"According to unconfirmed
reports circulating within the regional shipping community, the
al-Qaeda terrorist group has planned attacks against oil tankers
transiting the Arabian Gulf and Horn of Africa areas," it
"While the US Navy has no
specific details on the timing or means of the planned attacks ...
the threat should be regarded seriously."
Apart from its immediate impact on
insurance rates, the Limburg attack has highlighted the difficulty
of protecting oil tankers which are, in effect, sitting ducks.
The attack also brings further
embarrassment to Yemen, which has been trying to shake off its
reputation as a haven for bin Laden supporters. Initially, the
government tried to find alternative explanations for the
explosion but last week accepted that it was indeed an act of
The environmental consequences for
Yemen are likely to be severe. Some 50 miles of coastline have
reportedly been polluted and, according to the Yemen Times,
Hadrami fishermen, who had been enjoying one of their best seasons
for many years, now fear their businesses could be ruined.
In response to the attack, Yemen
has brought in new security measures which include helicopter and
gunboat patrols at its ports. Fishing boats have been banned from
operating near port entrances and shipping lanes, and are now
forbidden to approach tankers in Yemeni waters.
Nevertheless, with hundreds of
miles of sparsely-populated coastline and scant resources to
patrol them, such measures can be little more than cosmetic. We
have probably not heard the last of seaborne attacks in Yemen.