A cascade of serious security developments is affecting the “greater west Asia” region:
* the aftermath of the border incident between Israel and Lebanon leaves tensions there high (see “Israel’s security trap, 5 August 2010)
* the phased withdrawal of United States combat-troops from Iraq is accompanied by reports of an al-Qaida resurgence there (see Salah Hemeid, "Return of Al-Qaeda", Al-Ahram Weekly, 5-11 August 2010)
* a United Nations report confirms that as a result both of Nato/Isaf and of insurgent action, more Afghan civilians are dying (see "Afghan civilian casualties rise 31 per cent in first six months of 2010", United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, 10 August 2010)
* the indications that Israel is planning an armed confrontation with Iran are becoming more substantial (see “Israel vs Iran: fallout of a war”, 15 July 2010; and Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Point of No Return”, Atlantic Monthly, September 2010).
These events and dangers are extensively reported in the western and middle-eastern media. But another, relatively neglected incident in the region at the end of July 2010 may in the long run come to have as much or even greater significance.
A Japanese supertanker, the M. Star, was transiting the Strait of Hormuz at 12.30 am (local time) on 28 July. The M. Star had taken on 2.3 million barrels of oil at the Das Island terminal in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and was bound for the Chiba refinery in Tokyo bay (see Alex Calvo, "'M' Stands for Mystery", PanOrient News, 10 August 2010). An explosion occurred that injured one crew-member and badly dented a section of the hull, though the tanker was able to reach Fujairah (in the UAE, beyond the Strait of Hormuz); a week of repairs were necessary before the ship could continue its voyage.
The M. Star is a relatively new vessel in a category known as “very large crude carrier” (VLCC); like most ships of this type, it is double-hulled. That, possibly combined with the inexperience of the paramilitaries carrying out the attack, means that the ship survived with no leakage of oil.
A shadowy network apparently linked to al-Qaida, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, claimed responsibility for the M. Star attempt. The group is named after a Palestinian ideologist and militia leader killed in Afghanistan in November 1979 (possibly by fellow Islamists). The group has operated previously out of Sinai, which raises a question over its present capability and geographic reach.
It is conceivable that the Abdullah Azzam Brigades has forged links with cells in Yemen; but the attack on the M. Star occurred northeast of Yemen’s border with Oman, suggesting that (if its claim of responsibility is correct) it might now also be active in the United Arab Emirates or Oman. In either case, such a development would be an unpleasant surprise for Gulf security officials (see "Al-Qaida: the Yemen factor", 2 January 2010).
An Abqaiq echo
The assault on the M. Star has has been extensively reported in Japan, not least because Japan imports nearly 80% of its oil by means of tankers transiting the Strait of Hormuz. It has also received great attention in the specialist oil-industry press, reflecting the fact that almost 40% of all the world’s internationally traded oil is transported through the strait. This media concern is matched too by intense activity among energy-security professionals who for several years have sought to understand and limit paramilitary attacks in the wider region - the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, but also on the territory of the main western Gulf oil-producing states themselves.
The most prominent such incidents include these four:
* an explosion underneath the USS Cole in Aden harbour on 12 October 2000; seventeen American sailors were killed and thirty-nine injured
* the bombing of the Limburg, a French tanker, off the coast of Yemen on 6 October 2002; one crew-member died and twelve were injured, the hull was breached and a quarter of the ship’s cargo (90,000 barrels of oil) leaked into the Gulf of Aden.
* a paramilitary operation against a Saudi oil facility at Yanbu on 14 May 2004 - the first major attack aimed directly at a land-based oil-installation
* a truck-bomb assault on the massive oil-processing plant at Abqaiq, a few kilometres north of the eastern Saudi city of Dhahran on 24 February 2006.
What happened at Abqaiq is especially indicative. The attack was reported at the time by the plant’s owners Aramco as a complete failure, on the grounds that the bombers failed to penetrate the security-fence; though a column in this series at the time suggested that the raid highlighted the potential for paramilitary economic warfare (see “Abqaiq’s warning”, 2 March 2006).
In fact, information from internal sources eight months later made it clear that one of the truck-bombs did get right into the plant before exploding (see “Abqaiq’s message to Washington”, 9 November 2006). It became clear that there had been considerable, though not overwhelming, damage - though even this apparently isolated and minor incident pushed up the price of oil by more than $2 a barrel (see Khalid R al-Rodhan, "The Impact of the Abqaiq Attack on Saudi Energy Security", Susris, 28 February 2006).
The Abqaiq attack had two further and little-noted consequences. First, the authorities in Saudi Arabia hugely upgraded their internal-security forces devoted to the protection of the kingdom’s oil facilities. Second, of much greater import and even less reported, was that the Saudis and the United States agreed that the US fifth fleet would guard the oil-export terminal at Ras Tanura (the world’s largest). The fifth fleet’s headquarters are in Bahrain rather than in Saudi Arabia, but this direct connection comes closer to having US uniformed personnel in the "kingdom of the two holy places" than any development of recent years.
A triple revival
Now, after the attack on the M. Star, the activities of the United States navy in both the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz will almost certainly be expanded. But the full implications of the operation are far from being met by this likely military response (see "The asymmetry of economic war", 14 February 2008).
These can better be grasped by putting three developments that mark the current situation into a common frame:
* the re-emergence of al-Qaida affiliates in Iraq
* the increasing influence of the movement in Yemen (see Fred Halliday, "Yemen: travails of unity", 3 July 2009)
* the attack on the M. Star itself - which was most likely mounted from yet another state.
The emphasis of many counter-terror analysts on events in Afghanistan and Pakistan - including the revival of the Taliban and its broadening Pushtun and/or nationalist appeal, and the impact of drone-attacks in killing or disabling al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan - has tended to reinforce the argument that the core al-Qaida movement is in decline.
The flaw in this perspective is that it ignores the larger lesson of the evolution of al-Qaida over a decade: that the movement is less a tightly organised and rigidly hierarchical group cohering around a clear and unified strategy, and much more a loose cluster of like-minded networks in many different countries, linked by a shared worldview and by diverse financial, technical and human connections.
In this perspective, these three phenomena - in Iraq, Yemen, and now the Strait of Hormuz - suggest an increase in paramilitary activity that is both unexpected and unwelcome to western security forces. The supertanker incident may prove to be a warning-shot that only in retrospect will acquire the attention already devoted to the other two.