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Is Islamic State a credible threat to Mediterranean shipping?

Is Islamic State a credible threat to Mediterranean shipping?
Recently, British anti-terrorism group Quilliam intercepted a document from the Islamic State detailing the group’s plan to wreak “pandemonium” in Europe from the Libyan coast targeting commercial shipping.

The report, which calls for the “targeting of the Crusader ships and tankers” - with the “closure of shipping lines”, chillingly, listed as a desirable outcome – has been disregarded by some as bluff and bluster. But evidence shows that the group has made considerable headway in the Libya’s coastal cities, with reports indicating consolidated control over Sirte, and increasing control of the capital Tripoli.

Indeed, a widely quoted Italian defence ministry report notes the group has taken control of ports and vessels on the Mediterranean, while a US intelligence official was quoted by ABC news as saying Islamic State “pretty much own” Libya.

If the document is not just propaganda, it presents the biggest threat of disruption to Mediterranean shipping since WWII. Dryad Maritime chief operating officer Ian Millen stresses that while shipping must be prepared for this eventuality, a healthy scepticism should be maintained. “With a strong foothold and logistic base in Libya, it would be theoretically feasible for Islamic State to target shipping in the Mediterranean.  How likely this is and how capable they might be in open sea operations is another question."

Protecting vessels in the Mediterranean would be a job for international navies, and not private security firms, Millen says. “Whilst privately contracted armed security personnel are more than a match for Somali pirates intent on boarding a vessel for hijack, a suicide attack from a ISIS terrorist would pose very different challenges. That doesn’t mean that the shipping industry would not push to have this level of embarked protection."

Indeed, it would be much simpler for Islamic State to sink a vessel than for pirates to hijack and ransom it – but there are some similarities. “It is likely that any threat platforms would be small, high speed craft.  Like Somali pirates, the challenge would be in identifying the hostile intent from available indicators in sufficient time to take avoiding or defensive action.”

However, the experience gained in combatting piracy would help in defending against a terror attack on shipping. “Lessons learned in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean and the fact that European/NATO naval forces routinely operate together would mean that tasking a multi-national force with the protection of shipping would be relatively simple,” Millen continues.  Concentrations of forces in vulnerable choke points and the provision of transit corridors for merchant shipping would be likely protection measures.

“The additional advantage of this theatre of operation is the provision of air bases from which maritime patrol and strike assets could be deployed.  Clearly, there is a heavy logistic bill to be paid for such an operation, but this is a threat that European nations and their allies could not ignore and would likely see a heavy commitment from the governments concerned.”

Aside from the direct threat to vessels in operation, the Islamic State document outlines the possibility of smuggling jihadists into southern Europe by making use of existing Med people-trafficking routes which carry many thousands of illegal immigrants.This month, the International Organisation on Migration (IOM), a UN body, recorded some 3,800 migrants – the majority of which were reported to be sub-Saharan Africans, but which also included Syrians and Eritreans – over what the group called “a busy week” – from Friday 13 to Tuesday 17 February. Although a little lower than Islamic State's claimed “500 people a day, as a low estimate,” the figure constitutes an absolutely massive network, and would present a tangible threat to the cities of southern Europe and beyond if weaponised by the extremist group.

In fact, trans-Mediterranean passages by ISIS may already be happening. A UK P&I club circular, earlier this month, noted a case of “suspicious stowaways” aboard a roro vessel heading from Italy to Turkey, who when apprehended by the Greek coastguard revealed their intention to travel from Istanbul to Syria. With no identification documents, Greek authorities suspected the two of attempting to circumvent border controls.

But it is Italy that has the most to lose. The country already bears the brunt of illegal immigration, and now militants threaten daily to “conquer Rome” - though what is meant by “Rome” - the city, the Vatican, or an anachronistic analogy for the West - is up for debate. If trafficking routes were to be exploited, it would force the authorities in Italy to take the threat seriously.

“There is no current evidence in them being proficient in maritime attacks, but as we’ve seen with the USS Cole" [a US Destroyer which was attacked off Yemen] "and a number of merchant ships, the level of sophistication need not be great," says Millen.

Attempts by Islamic terrorist groups to attack commercial shipping have proved largely unsuccessful. In 2010 Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for an attack on the Mitsui OSK Lines VLCC M. Star in the Straits of Hormuz. The claimed suicide attack did little more than leave a mysterious dent in the tanker's hull. In Al-Qaeda attacked the tanker Limburg off Yemen by ramming an explosive laden craft into the side of the vessel. Although the blast ripped a hole in the hull of the tanker and crewman was killed in the explosion and fire that resulted, the tanker remained afloat.

“In sum… more analysis would be needed to judge how likely this is and how capable they might be,” Millen concludes.