The number of boats, the arms and the attire suggests an organization that has both assets and the ability to coordinate the operation of several boats. The location, one of the world's most important shipping chokepoints for oil flowing from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iran, Iraq and other sources of is troubling.Here's a reposting of the map I created showing the locations of these attacks: (top arrow is Jan 2 event, lower arrow is Jan 12 event):
Almost by definition, the arrows are sitting in or near chokepoints, where all ships have limited navigation options.
Now American Scribbles has picked up on the concern and in his own post, raises some interesting issues:
Clearly that's a possibility and I think that Eagle1's concern over what appear to dress rehearsals by groups of high speed interceptor boats crewed by armed, masked men dressed all in black is justifiable.
We know al-Qaeda related groups have been buying or stealing ships over the last few years, the purpose for which remains unknown. What is known is that these ships could be put to use for innumberable missions, all to horrible to contemplate for long.
However, I must wonder if there isn't more to these incidents than just impending piracy. It would seem to me that given the limited success of the insurgency to mount hit and run suicide attacks against U.S. forces, couldn't this be a natural extention of that?
Could what we are witnessing with these bands of boats be an attempt by al-Qaeda to extend the reach of their strike capablility to attacking U.S. naval vessels?
Is this an expansion of the assault tactics used to damage the USS Cole?
Couple these reasonable questions with the recent posting at The Adventures of Chester, who linked to a report of the rerouting of several Military Sealift Command ships to avoid the Suez Canal:
At least 12 huge, unarmed ships of the Navy's Military Sealift Command have been sent on the Cape route rather than through the Suez Canal, adding thousands of miles to the trip, the Navy confirmed...
In the past few months, however, U.S. and British authorities have cautioned of threats to shipping in the Middle East. One U.S. warning in mid-December said significant attacks could take place in the Suez Canal and other "choke points" -- narrow channels where vulnerable ships, if damaged or sunk, would significantly disrupt commerce.
Analysts took particular note of the recent rise of Saud Hamud al-Utaibi in al-Qaida's leadership. He is a maritime terror expert believed to have been responsible for the attacks on the USS Cole and the French supertanker MV Limburg.
"Al-Utaibi is the new head of al-Qaida on the Arabian peninsula, and that heightens the threat to shipping certainly within that region," Dominic Armstrong, head of intelligence and research for Aegis Defense Services, an international consulting firm, said in a telephone interview from London.
Maritime shipping in general, he said, "remains vulnerable."
For al-Qaida, U.S. Navy supply ships are a high-value target, even if they are not sunk. "Their attack on the U.S. consulate in Jedda (Saudi Arabia) last month showed an ambition and a hunger to hurt," Armstrong said. "One of these ships would be similarly important as an icon" of American global power.
Al-Qaida-linked terrorists attacking in a speedboat blew up the Limburg in the Red Sea in 2002, two years after suicide bombers, in a similar attack in Yemen, detonated an explosive against the hull of the anchored USS Cole, killing 17 sailors.
Sealift is vital in the supply of U.S. troops in Iraq. It ferries ammunition, tanks, helicopter parts, replacement transmissions, medical supplies, razor wire, Humvee armor and other supplies...
"Unlike warships, they are virtually defenseless, with no on-board guns, missiles or surveillance radar suitable to detect some of the threats people expect these days," said Norman Polmar, an international naval expert and author. Often the ships carry a Navy detachment for security and communications, Polmar said....
In wider sections of the canal and in open water, the threat comes in the form of suicide speedboats of the type used against the Limburg and the Cole, or rocket attack from fishing or pleasure craft. Experts said ships without early-warning radar are also vulnerable to suicide air attacks...
Wikipedia's definition of asymmetric warfare is
"a military term to describe warfare in which the two belligerents are mismatched in their military capabilities or accustomed methods of engagement such that the militarily diasadvantaged power must press its special advantages or effectively exploit its enemy's particular weaknesses if they are to have any hope of prevailing."
As in judo, you use your opponent's strength against him. One of the U.S. strengths is logistical support from the sea, but as is clear from the comments set out above, it is also a potential weakness exploitable by terrorists.
It appears that the US and its allies are well aware of the prospect of problems in the choke points. The questions are: Are we seeing the training for an attack? At which choke point? When?
Protection of shipping in such circumstances could include using naval escorts and/or providing armed miitary personnel to ride the ships through the potential trouble areas.
Update: Jihad Watch posted on what might have been a similar training exercise back in April 2004 is the Sulu Sea off the Philippines. And see my earlier post on this topic Pirates! Terrorists! Oh, my! from October 2004.
Update2: And for an even older warning, see "THE MARITIME THREAT FROM AL QAEDA" by Mansoor Ijaz from 2003 here.
Update3: Thanks to The Counterterrorism Blog (TCB) for referring so many readers to this post. It's been a "TCBlanche" and I appreciate it!