Reports that a Japanese oil tanker was attacked in the Persian Gulf last month by a dinghy loaded with explosives have raised fears of a new terrorist campaign targeting global oil interests.
The M. Star, a 330-meter-long supertanker, was shaken by what appeared to be an explosion shortly after midnight on July 28 as it passed through the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow channel of water separating Iran and Oman.
Today, a report in WAM, a state-run news agency in the United Arab Emirates, said experts investigating the cause of the damage in the UAE port of Fujairah had found traces of explosives on the tanker’s starboard hull.
It wasn't a rogue wave
“An examination carried out by specialized teams has confirmed that the tanker has been the subject of a terrorist attack,” WAM said, quoting an unidentified UAE coast guard official.
“UAE explosives experts who collected and examined samples found a dent on the starboard side above the water line and remains of homemade explosives on the hull,” the source said. “Probably the tanker had encountered a terrorist attack from a boat laden with explosives.”
The report lends weight to claims made Aug. 4 by a militant group calling itself the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, which claimed one of its members carried out a suicide bombing of the ship in an attempt to disrupt oil supplies.
One militant Islamist website displayed a photograph of the alleged bomber pointing at an image of the M. Star on a laptop computer.
The group, which has links to Al Qaeda, described the bomber as a “martyr” and said it delayed claiming responsibility in order to give its members time to return to base.
Japan is hesitant to point fingers
Mitsui OSK Lines, which owns the tanker, said it had not confirmed the UAE report. A foreign ministry spokesman in Tokyo told the Monitor that the government would wait until the investigation’s findings were made official before deciding its response.
“There are lots of stories swirling around about a possible cause, so we are being prudent and awaiting the outcome of the official investigation,” the spokesman said.
Terrorists targeting Japan?
If proven true, it would be first the time Al Qaeda or any of its affiliates have targeted Japanese interests.
The organization occasionally threatened to attack Japan after the country sent troops on a humanitarian mission to southern Iraq in 2004. Earlier this year, Japan ended an eight-year naval refueling mission in the Indian Ocean in support of the US-led war in Afghanistan.
There will likely be general alarm, too, that a terrorist organization may have been able to attack an oil tanker in a strategically vital area patrolled by the US Fifth Fleet and naval forces from other countries. About 40 percent of oil shipped around the world passes through the strait.
In the immediate aftermath of the incident some claimed that the tanker had been hit by a freak wave caused by an earthquake in Iran, or that it had collided with a US submarine.
Mitsui OSK, however, clung to its belief that the ship had been the target of an attack by an “external force,” citing testimony from crewmembers who said they had seen a flash and heard an explosion.
The incident left a large dent in the M. Star’s hull, shattered windows and doors, and blew a lifeboat into the ocean. One member of the crew was slightly injured.
No oil leaked, however, and the vessel was today given permission to continue its journey to the Japanese port of Chiba laden with 2.3 million barrels of crude oil, equivalent to about half of Japan’s oil needs for one day.
Al Qaeda has carried out attacks on oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia; it was also behind a 2002 suicide bombing against a French oil tanker off the coast of Yemen, and the bombing two years earlier of the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden.