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Owners of Oil Tankers Jittery

The large vessels are seen as easy targets for terrorists. Mandatory security measures for commercial ships and ports are sought.

November 25, 2002|Warren Vieth | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Operators of giant oil tankers, convinced they have become sitting ducks for global terrorists, are avoiding risky ports, requesting new security precautions and seeking more armed protection as they sail the waters of the Middle East.

Responding to an October tanker bombing and threats of more to come, some ship owners want port authorities to declare approach channels for tankers off-limits to all other craft. If an unauthorized boat entered the "no-go" zone and headed straight for a tanker, they say, naval patrols and coastal police should have the authority to open fire.

Next month, member governments of the International Maritime Organization, a United Nations agency, are expected to approve the first mandatory security measures for commercial ships and ports. The rules were drawn up in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but participants say last month's tanker attack off Yemen has created new urgency. The FBI has warned that terrorists may be planning maritime attacks.

"The views have certainly changed," said Capt. Jayant Abhyankar, deputy director of the International Maritime Bureau in London and a former cargo shipmaster. "The message has come home to the industry: Ships can be targeted by terrorists."

The tanker industry's jitters reflect broader concerns that terrorist groups have decided to target the infrastructure of petroleum -- from the wellhead to the refinery -- in an effort to disrupt the economic lifeblood of the United States and other industrialized nations.

The United States has taken initial steps to address the threat, passing legislation directing the Coast Guard to tighten port security and creating anti-terror patrol units at Long Beach, Los Angeles and other ports. But authorities say more needs to be done. In other countries, the work has hardly begun.

"To hit a tanker with a boat full of explosives is not much more difficult than getting into your car and driving into a fuel truck on the interstate," said Ben Venzke, chief executive of IntelCenter, a security consulting firm in Alexandria, Va. "The vulnerability of tankers and other petroleum facilities has always been there. It's just that Al Qaeda is now choosing to exploit that vulnerability."

On Oct. 6, a small boat loaded with explosives rammed into the French oil tanker Limburg as it headed into a Yemeni port. The blast ripped through the 2-year-old tanker's double hull, killing a Bulgarian crewman and spilling 90,000 barrels of burning crude oil into the Gulf of Aden.

Authorities believe the bombing was the work of Al Qaeda, and a statement issued last month by the terror network's political bureau applauded the results.

"If a boat that didn't cost $1,000 ... managed to devastate an oil tanker of that magnitude, so imagine the extent of the danger that threatens the West's commercial lifeline which is petrol," said the Oct. 13 communique. "The operation of attacking the French oil tanker is not merely an attack against a tanker, it is an attack against international oil transport lines and all its various connotations."

That kind of thinking concerns Lars Carlsson, president of Concordia-Maritime in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Carlsson operates a fleet of six supertankers, four of which transport crude oil from the Middle East to the United States, and he's been in the cross hairs before. During the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, Iraqi planes struck one of his ships with an Exocet missile and dropped a bomb through the deck of another, where it detonated inside a tank full of crude. Both attacks caused fires and damage, but there was no loss of life and the ships were repairable.

The broad economic consequences of a single attack may be relatively inconsequential, Carlsson said. But if tanker-bombing caught on, it could cause a chain of events that ultimately could restrict the supply of oil and undermine the world economy.

"If we had Limburg No. 5, 6 and 7 exploding, then we would see something," Carlsson said. "Small bands of guys with a few guns and an ideology, boarding ships and exploding them, could become heroes to a lot of people in the Muslim world. That would be the worst possible scenario."

As terror targets go, tankers are relatively easy prey. They're big -- nearly four football fields in length. They're slow -- cruising speed is 15 knots, or about 17 mph. And they're everywhere -- about 3,000 big tankers ply the world's shipping lanes.

"The style of attacks they're carrying out now are very difficult to defend against," said Josh Mandel, Middle East analyst with Control Risks Group, a London-based consultancy. "You've got a small dinghy coming toward you at reasonably high speed. These tankers are massive and not maneuverable. There's not much you can do."

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