Maritime wars

TWO 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 the region.

"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 said.

"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 terrorism.

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.