First Al Qaeda Strike Against Oil Target -
Possibly in Collaboration with Iraq

by DEBKAfile

7 October 2002

Hours after an explosion ripped a gaping hole in the French-owned giant oil tanker Limburg on Sunday, October 6, the various military authorities watching the thick, black plume rising over the Arabian Sea had no doubt it was a copycat attack on the same lines as the ramming of the USS Cole by al Qaeda suiciders in Aden Port. Indeed the ship caught fire on the second anniversary of that attack that cost the lives of 17 sailors - short six days.

The incident immediately pushed global crude prices up by 1.3 percent past the $30 mark. A Gulf shipping executive spoke of a threat to the crude tanker market and predicted a rise in insurance rates.

Yet the French and Yemeni authorities threw cold water on the possibility of a terrorist attack. The Bahrain-based spokesman for the US Fifth Fleet – which maintains aircraft carriers, destroyers and other ships in the Gulf and Arabian Sea - said the fire had prompted no changes in security measures on the Gulf, although last month, the US Navy warned Gulf shipping of possible al Qaeda attacks on oil tankers.

According to DEBKAfile’s intelligence and military experts, the hand of al Qaeda was plain to see from the first: its operatives must have taken to sea in a fast, explosives-packed boat from the Arabian Sea shores of eastern Yemen. Cap Hubert Ardillon, skipper of the two-year old supertanker, and another officer, saw the small vessel approaching fast and impacting shortly before the ship burst into flames. The Nantes-based Euronav spokesman said the Limburg was new and in good condition. To drive a hole 6-8 meters deep through its double hull would have required great force, only possible with the help of a large quantity of explosives.

The relaxed official response to a terror attack on a main oil traffic highway bodes ill for the prospects of oil supplies getting through to world markets and stable prices once the US-led war against Iraq is in full stream.

The different official accounts are moreover shot through with discrepancies.

According to the Yemeni authorities, the 299,000 deadweight ton tanker carried nearly 400,000 barrels of crude loaded at the Iranian oil port of Kharj. It was preparing to fill up at Mina al-Dabah, 353 miles east of Aden.

According to Euronav, the Limburg loaded 400,000 barrels Arab Heavy crude at Saudi Arabia and was on its way to load another 1.5 million barrels in Yemen when attacked.

Mina al-Dabah near Mukallah on Yemen’s Arabian Sea coast is far from being the quiet out-of-the-way corner it has been depicted. It is an important oil port, located amid the bustling oil traffic, commercial shipping and US warships plying routes between the Gulf and their big naval bases on the Yemeni island of Socotra east of the southern mouth of the Red Sea.

DEBKAfile’s counter-terror sources have no doubt that the holing of the Limburg signaled a revival of the al Qaeda war of terror and its focusing on economic targets in order to shake up oil and financial markets in the West.

Osama bin Laden warned as much - If the recording released by the Arabic satellite TV station al Jazeera Sunday October 6, just after the tanker explosion, is authentic: ”I call on you,” said the voice purporting to be that of the Saudi-born terrorist, “ to understand the lessons of the New York and Washington raids.
…those who follow the movement of the criminal gang at the White House, the agents of the Jews, who are preparing to attack and partition the Islamic world… the youth of Islam… will target key sectors of your economy until you stop your injustice and aggression… whether America escalates or de-escalates this conflict, we will reply in kind…”

The Limburg attack is seen by DEBKAfile’s intelligence and counter-terror experts as marking five important developments:

1. The first al Qaeda strike against oil interests which hitherto enjoyed immunity as “Allah’s gift to the Arabian and Muslim peoples”. If bin Laden’s terror network is willing to shed its religious scruples, it could mean that the Islamist leaders feel pressure-driven – both by the relentless US pursuit of its cells in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and by the immense American military resources piling up in the Persian Gulf and Middle East for the assault on Baghdad.
Bin Laden declared war on America in the first place in 1990, when the US forces assembled in Saudi Arabia for Gulf War I were seen by him as “the conquest of Arab lands and the Holy Places of Islam”. In 1991, after the war ended, the first al Qaeda operatives reached American shores to plot the deadly war of terror that climaxed in the suicide strikes against New York and Washington. This order of events was aired before the congressional committee during its hearings in Washington on the pre-9/11sequence.

Al Qaeda’s leaders will have grasped by now that American expeditionary units in the region to fight Iraq will not be leaving in a hurry. Some American working papers estimate that between 50,000 and 70,000 American troops will remain in Iraq for five to ten years after Saddam Hussein is overthrown. This prospect injects urgency in al Qaeda’s operations against the United States.

2. The Limburg attack was deliberately timed and carried out in a way to recall the disabling of the USS Cole two years ago. The Cole was one of the US Navy’s proudest hi-tech vessels, while the Limburg is one of most sophisticated high-security supertankers on the high sea. Successful strikes at the finest products of western military might and technology go down in the world of Muslim extremism as an Islamic triumph over the infidels.

3. The Limburg’s bombers will no doubt have kept close watch on passing shipping from coastal vantage points before swooping on their prey. Our intelligence sources see similarities in al Qaeda’s modus operandi. For this week’s attack, they are told the terrorists maintained a rear base in the Hadhramaut region of Yemen and operated out of coastal villages; in 1985, the terrorists who struck US embassies in Dar Es Salaam and Nairobi maintained a rear base on the Comoro Islands of the African Coast and forward bases closer to target.

Hadhramaut would be hospitable terrain for al Qaeda. It is the ancestral homeland of the bin Laden clan which migrated to Saudi Arabia at the beginning of the last century. Many of the local tribesmen, reputed to be skilled mountain fighters, give him their full support.

Ever since the second week of September, American special forces are reported by DEBKAfile’s military sources to have been fighting terrorists amid the stark cliffs and narrow ravines of this precipitous region of Yemen. Little is known about the state of combat, but it is believed that American troops are facing the same sort of difficult terrain as they do in Afghanistan, where locals play an easy game of hide and seek. Al Qaeda’s decision to go for an oil tanker may have been a stroke in this secret battle.

Yemen is also home to a strong Iraqi military intelligence presence, although both Yemeni and US officials try to keep this dark. There are strong indications of cooperation between Al Qaeda operatives Iraqi agents in advance intelligence and the organization of terrorist activity against American and Western targets in the.

4. Whether the Limburg loaded up in Kharj (according to the Yemenis) or Saudi Arabia (as the owners report), al Qaeda was targeting the oil interests of a Muslim state which they will denounce as a Washington collaborator. As DEBKAfile was first to report, Tehran has come over to the American side against Baghdad and is helping the Americans round up al Qaeda terrorists still hiding in northern Iran.

5. The terrorists’ latest success must have set some red alarms flashing for American planners of the Iraq war. In its issue of September 27, DEBKA-Net-Weekly referred to one of Saddam Hussein’s contingency plans: Instead of engaging the Americans in a hopeless battleground duel, he may be planning to disrupt Gulf and Middle East oilfields, terminals and seaways with a hail of missiles and an onslaught of seaborne terror. Another of the Iraqi’s ruler’s schemes is reported to be to hit American warships and carriers assembled in the Gulf of Aden and Persian Gulf.

As a preventive measure, the US navy is blockading the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab, Iraq’s only outlet to the Persian Gulf, to prevent Iraqi naval commandoes from heading out to jumping off points along the Gulf. The fact that Sunday, al Qaeda forces in Yemen struck at a seaborne target which Iraqi commandos are unable to reach is no coincidence, given the operational collaboration fast developing between Baghdad and the Islamic terror network.

The investigation of the Limburg affair and its fateful ramifications is only just beginning."