DEBKAfile’s Experts Read in Tanker Explosion:
First Al Qaeda Strike Against Oil Target -
Possibly in Collaboration with Iraq
7 October: 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
Mina al-Dabah near Mukallah on Yemen’sArabian 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.
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.
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.
Contd. from opp. col.
That response will also influence Saddam’s calculations. He may decide to emerge from the
low-key, semi-clandestine war and openly bend all his resources to counter-attacking his adversaries.
Such a counter-attack could well take the form of a
missile strike against Israel. If that happens, Washington knowsIsrael will strike back.
To prepare for both contingencies, the Americans summoned top Israel defense officials to
Washington. They also published the presumed scale of the threat they estimate as confronting Israel as one of Baghdad’s foremost targets.
With so much vital information affecting every Israeli
spilling out, it becomes increasingly inappropriate for Israel’s leaders, top officials and army chiefs to try and fob the country off with such generalities as:
“Israel is the best prepared country in the world against an Iraqi attack.”
The nearly 2 million inhabitants of Greater Tel Aviv, like the rest of the country, feel entitled to credible
information about any potential threats fromIraq. If Israeli officials believe American estimates and figures are exaggerated or wide of the mark, they ought to set the record straight. Their failure to
confirm or refute Washington’s evaluations sets up the confusion and fear that overtook Israel in the first Gulf War 11 years ago. Then, too, Israelis were
told that the chances of an Iraqi missile attack were very slim - until 39 Scuds hit Tel Aviv and Ramat Gan, 8-12 in each salvo – an experience that has left
its mark on the national psyche up till the present.
That mark will not be erased by official soft soap.
DEBKAfile Two-Part Analysis:
Bush Prepares Nation for War
A. Iraq May Have 80 WMD-Capable Missiles
5 October: In his radio address Saturday, October 5, President George W. Bush further sharpened the options in advance of his major
address to the nation Monday, October 7. He said: “If the Iraqi regime persists in its defiance, the use of force may become unavoidable.”
His sense of urgency was marked in this assertion:
“Delay, indecision, and inaction are not an option for America because that could lead to massive and sudden horror.”
The contrast between the stressful tones emanating
from Washington and the soothing statements from one Israeli official after another is striking.
Friday, October 4, IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, reiterated that he is not worried about
Iraq;Israel, he said, had drawn ahead of Iraq to create a substantial gap in the last ten years. He was more disturbed by the Palestinian menace.
On Saturday, October 5, chief of military intelligence Maj. Gen. Aharon Zeevi declared in a TV talk show that there is no missile presence in western Iraq,
although the continuation of this situation depended on the deployment of American troops. But, he said, Baghdad had other options, such as aircraft from
dropping chemicals over Israel. He believed that Israel’s ability to intercept any such threat had advanced far beyond what it was in 1991.
Other Israeli military sources admit Iraq may have one or two mobile missile launchers in the area but do not consider this cause for concern. Knesset Member
Yuval Steinitz, who is considered a strategic expert, claims that Iraq’s weaponry does not warrant being classified as weapons of mass destruction. This term
should apply only to nuclear devices, not chemical or biological weapons.
Former military intelligence commander, Amos Malka, remarked that he gave his children a list of dangers
they should beware of. Traffic accidents came first, followed by terrorism and Iraqi missile attack in third place.
Drawing on its latest information, DEBKAfile’s
sources would reverse that order.
General Yaalon’s anxiety to play down the Iraqi threat led him to a fallacy: the technological gap between Israel and the Palestinians is many times greater than
it is with Iraq. Yet he himself calls the Palestinian-Israeli war that has dragged on for two years and cost 650 Israeli lives and thousands of wounded, the toughest in Israeli history. And the
contest is not over, certainly not won.
The gap between combatant forces is only one factor in a geo-strategic equation – and not necessarily the decisive one. This the Americans discovered when
they brought their techno-military might to bear against al Qaeda and the Taliban inAfghanistan. Regime change was accomplished in Kabul, but both enemies are very much alive and rampant.
Russia reached the same impasse in Chechnya.
In Bethlehem, the presence of Israeli defense forces and an imported, well-trained Jordanian-Palestinian military unit, cannot prevent this small town on
Jerusalem’s southern boundary from sliding back as a hotbed of West Bank violence.
Last Tuesday, October 1, defense minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer, said: “The Iraqis are trying to advance a
battery or two of mobile missile launchers into H-3. Let’s see if they make it.”
The question is: Where are the Iraqis advancing those batteries from? And who is there to stop them?
If that is what they are up to, why does the head of military intelligence say there are no missiles in West Iraq?
If nonetheless Iraqi missiles are deployed somewhere
between central and western Iraq in such locations as the H-2 air base or the Tikrit region - and are trying to advance them closer to the Jordanian frontier to the
west (400 kilometers from Israel) in order to fire them off - might it not be better to say so?
Israelis were informed Saturday, October 5, that America was sending more improved Patriot
anti-missile batteries next week. American Patriots are already deployed in Israel, and so are two Israeli Arrow-2 anti-missile missile emplacements, covering
the northern, central and southern regions. So, if no Iraqi missiles are parked within striking distance of Israel, why are extra Patriots being rushed over?
When we put this question to a well-placed Israeli military source, the answer was: The Americans are playing it safe – an answer as imprecise as most other official Israeli assertions.
DEBKAfile’s military and American sources, there is a reason for all this evasive, cagey Israeli rhetoric; US and Israeli intelligence assessors
don’t see eye to eye on the sum of Iraqi missile capabilities, or in the way the two countries need to prepare for war.
US armed forces, before going to war in the Middle
East, have exhaustively researched pertinent areas and gathered certain specific data. The file the Americans have built up on the dangers facing Israel is not encouraging.
Some of the data comes from a report published on September 25 by the Heritage Foundation, which is close to the White House and the Pentagon, on the impact of an unconventional Iraqi attack on Tel Aviv.
Here are some high points:
1. A warhead with 400 kilograms of the nerve gas sarin and an unprotected population would leave 59,000 casualties.
An Iraqi missile filled with botulinum would kill 50,000.
3. One missile carrying 450 kilos of VX nerve gas would kill 43,000 unprotected people.
The masks allocated to every Israeli can protect against biological and chemical agents.
4. The author of the report, Dexter Ingram, believes Iraq needs another six months to two years to
become a nuclear power. An Iraqi warhead of one kiloton carried by Baghdad’s al Hussein missiles (which has a range of 650 km) could kill 75,000.
US analysts believe Iraq may have up to 80 such
missiles which could be tipped with biological and chemical warheads.
The Iraq dossier that British prime minister Tony Blair laid before parliament last week estimated the number
of Al Hussein missiles as 20.
In recent weeks, DEBKAfile’s military sources estimated Saddam commanded between 35 and 50 missiles of all types, as well as air craft, drones and
kamikaze pilots capable of dropping chemical and biological agents over Israel.
DEBKAfile Two-Part Analysis:
Bush Prepares Nation for War
B. Covert War at Crucial Stage
5 October: What do Israeli official sourcessay in response to the American assessment of the Iraqi threat to Tel Aviv? They reply:
1. The Americans
are thorough and cautious enough to prepare for the worst.
2. We have no intelligence data proving the Iraqis have developed warheads capable of carrying
hundreds of kilos of chemical and biological toxic substances, only very small quantities - and even these amounts would be burnt up in the heat generated during propulsion.
Israel’s missile defenses are fully capable of intercepting any such missile before it reaches Tel Aviv.
4. The American Iraq campaign will be a blitzkrieg,
the war will be over in two or three week, and one of its first priority will be – if it is not already – to destroy Saddam’s WMD capabilities.
The Iraqi ruler knows that Israel will respond to serious harm in kind against his main cities, including Baghdad.
These answers effectively gainsay the official Israeli
claims that Iraq has few missiles or none at all with launching range of Israel
Last week, the top operational echelon of Israel’s defense minister, was abruptly summoned to
Washington for urgent consultations at the National Security Council and the Pentagon. It is still there. In the next ten days, prime minister Ariel Sharon has been invited by the White House.
’s sources in Washington account for the urgent need for consultations by the fact that American military preparations for the Iraq offensive are complete but for the final go-ahead from the
president. This can be given any time from a week from now to two months hence. The date depends on one man’s decision.
Our military sources stress that, notwithstanding the
domestic and international importance attached to a formal, authorized declaration of war, battle has already been joined on the ground in Iraq.
The question exercising Bush’s war planners is this:
How long will Saddam Hussein join Washington in the pretense that international diplomacy, focusing now on the UN Security Council, has the power to prevent the outbreak of war. Until now, the charade
suited Baghdad for two reasons:
First, although much of northern Iraq has fallen to combined American-Turkish-Iranian forces - and heavy US-UK air raids have blasted most of his air
force and air defense commands - Saddam remained firm in the saddle in central and southern Iraq and his army is still holding together.
Second, he has watched the Bush administration
cross the Rubicon with no way of retreat and looked forward to the moment that America could no longer pursue a covert war without incurring casualties. That moment may now be at hand.
Our military sources calculate that Bush finds himself tied down by the constraints of protracted political and diplomatic processes that prevent him from
admitting to ongoing combat in the field and force him to keep it low key. He dare not throw into the fray substantial air, sea or land forces, even though it is
indicated by every tactical consideration.
Last week, Iraq began to exploit this dilemma to military advantage by mounting a counter-attack on the American-led forces outside the strategic H-3
complex of bases in western Iraq. In other words, Saddam started to blunt the edge of the American-led vanguard operation inside the country.
Bush, like the proverbial cork stuck in the neck of a
bottle, can either push forward or out – but not stay put.
This situation is fully grasped in Moscow, Paris, and Beijin, none of whose leaders is raising a finger to
extricate the Americans from the bottleneck. Sharon in Moscow last week tried his hand at talking President Vladimir Putin round to backing the United States. He was greeted with smiling faces and a firm
The American central command chief, Gen. Tommy Franks, who leads the Iraq campaign, must come up with a way to break the H-3 base standoff. How he solves the predicament will depend on how much
license he receives from the White House.
Contd. in opp. col.