French counterterrorism experts headed for Yemen Monday to investigate an explosion that set fire to a French oil tanker, amid fears that Al Qaeda operatives could have opened a new front in their war against the West.
The Limburg, a French-registered supertanker, was in flames and leaking oil, Yemeni officials said, after what the Yemeni government insisted was an accidental explosion on Sunday morning. All but one of the crew had been rescued.
The ship's owners, however, stuck to their claim that a small boat laden with explosives had deliberately rammed the 330-meter (1,000-foot) tanker as it approached an oil port in Yemen.
Yemeni journalists who were allowed near the vessel said there was a hole less than a yard wide, at water level on the side of the tanker, with the edges of steel protruding outward, suggesting that it was caused by a blast inside the vessel.
The explosion on the Limburg follows a US Navy warning last month that Al Qaeda was planning ambushes on oil tankers in the Gulf 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," said a little-noticed bulletin issued by the US Navy's Marine Liaison Office in Bahrain in early September.
It said the information, "provided ... by higher authorities," offered "no specific details on the timing or means of the planned attacks," but "substantiates previous indications of Al Qaeda intent to attack commercial shipping as a means of creating economic instability," and recommended that "the threat should be regarded seriously."
The Limburg's owners say the ship was deliberately targeted. "We consider this a deliberate act," said Jacques Moizan, director of Euronav, the French company that owns the ship. "The crew saw a high-speed vessel approaching on the starboard side ... an explosion followed with fire."
Such an attack would recall the suicide bombing of the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden two years ago, in which 17 US sailors died. Washington has blamed Osama bin Laden for the Cole assault.
The Yemeni authorities have worked hard since Sept. 11, 2001, to clear their country's reputation as a rearguard for Al Qaeda. They have arrested more than 100 suspected Islamic extremists, and allowed US Special Forces to operate in Yemen, where Mr. Bin Laden's family originated.
Around 100 US Special Operations troops are believed to be working there, based at a French facility in nearby Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa.
That connection with France might explain the presumed attack on a ship flying the French flag, suggests Guillaume Dasquié, editor of "Intelligence Online," a Web-based newsletter in Paris.
"I believe the French play a very important role in managing and organizing the US military base in Djibouti, and help plan actions in Yemen," he says.
Other observers doubt that the attack, if it proves to be an attack, was aimed specifically at French interests.
"The West in general is targeted by Islamic terrorists" says Adm. Pierre Lacoste, a former head of the French intelligence services. "When a target of opportunity presents itself, those involved in these attacks take advantage of it."
The incident shows how hard it is to guard commercial shipping from terrorist assault. The crews of merchant vessels carry no arms and are not trained to defend themselves. "The industry view is that the coastal state has the responsibility to police its waters and allow vessels to pass safely," says Tim Reardon, a security expert with the UK Chamber of Shipping, the British shipowners' association.
Small, poor countries such as Yemen find it difficult to guarantee such safety, but the presence of great-power navies does not appear to help much either.
The waters of the Gulf and neighboring areas are among the most heavily patrolled in the world: The US 5th Fleet is there in force, the British Navy has maintained a strong presence there for nearly 20 years, and the French Navy regularly sends ships including, recently, its sole aircraft carrier to the region.
This massive military presence, however, Mr. Reardon says, has done nothing to deter pirates from preying on merchant shipping in the region from the same sort of small, fast boats that the alleged assailants of the Limburg are said to have used.
Material from Reuters was used in this report.