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The LNG Threat

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Terrorist Threats to Liquefied Natural Gas: Fact or Fiction?

June 2nd 2008

Energy / Environment - LNG Tanker
LNG Tanker at Sea

“Once ignited, as is very likely when the spill is initiated by a chemical explosion, the floating LNG pool will burn vigorously…Like the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City, there exists no relevant industrial experience with fires of this scale from which to project measures for securing public safety.” Professor James Fay, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

On 14 February 2007, the Saudi Arabian arm of al-Qaeda put out a call to all religious militants to attack oil and natural gas sources around the world. Through such attacks, according to the call, al-Qaeda hopes to “strangle” the U.S. economy. Such proclamations give fodder to those who highlight the possibilities that liquefied natural gas (LNG) could be used as a lethal weapon of mass destruction. Industry officials on the other hand point out the improved security measures in place as a result of 9/11.

While the U.S. continues to pursue LNG as a way to diversify its natural gas resources, in order to meet anticipated future shortfalls and increase energy security, the opponents and proponents of LNG have been locked in a bitter debate with no solid conclusion.

Proponents are correct in that both safety and security measures currently in place make LNG terminals and ships extremely hard targets for terrorists. However, it would be imprudent to believe that terrorists are either incapable or unwilling to attack such targets.

It would be equally imprudent to assume that these targets are impenetrable. If anything, in today’s environment, insiders will always remain a potential threat.

Dangerous Assumptions

On 1 February 2007, the media reported on a study by former White House counterterrorism chief Richard A. Clarke who worked as a consultant to a firm proposing an LNG terminal in eastern Baltimore County in Maryland. Clarke is said to have released a two-page summary of his report on the proposed Sparrows Point LNG terminal in the Baltimore area. In it, he stated that the terminal would be located sufficiently far from homes and schools and would therefore pose “no threat.” Clarke, according to media reports, went on to justify his findings by saying that terrorists “want to kill people. They want to kill hundreds of people.” Therefore, since the proposed terminal would be located 1.2 to 1.3 miles from the Dundalk neighborhood of Turners Station, according to Clarke, it would not be a sufficiently attractive target for terrorists. Additionally, he said that the facility would not be close enough to Washington to be a “symbolic target.”

However, recent studies run counter to Clarke’s alleged conclusion. One of the best ways to study al-Qaeda, or any other terrorist group, is through an analysis of historical trends. In early 2007, Rand Corporation released a lengthy analytical report on terrorist targeting preferences for the Department of Homeland Security. The paper focused on 14 terrorist attacks in which al-Qaeda was believed to have been somehow involved, either through association, sponsorship, or direction.

According to the study, 10 out of the 14 attacks analyzed had either a medium or high casualty potential. In other words, these attacks were meant to kill people—a lot of people. However, the other four attacks had a low casualty potential. The study further showed a desire to damage the economy, with 10 of the 14 attacks indicating a medium or high potential to damage the economy and the other four with a low potential. Based simply on the Rand study, Clarke’s statement that the proposed terminal location would pose “no threat,” is a dangerous assumption which leaves no room for error. Al-Qaeda and its associates, through propagations distributed via the Internet, have already expressed an interest in crippling the U.S. economy. To further compound the argument against Clarke’s conclusion, energy experts expect LNG imports into the U.S. to increase dramatically through 2030. This shift could potentially make LNG an even more desirable target as the U.S. becomes increasingly dependent on LNG to satisfy its growing natural gas consumption habits.

The final argument against Clarke’s claim, and perhaps the most compelling one, lies within a study released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in February 2007 on the public safety consequences of a terrorist attack on LNG. In its analysis, the GAO scrutinized six completed studies on the potential hazards of an LNG spill. The GAO then drew a series of conclusions from the studies and polled a panel of 19 experts to see whether or not they agreed with the findings. Not all experts agreed on the heat/hazard zone of an LNG spill. One quarter of the experts polled during the study believed that 1 to 1.25 miles was not a sufficiently conservative estimate to describe the heat hazard zone of an LNG-related fire. If the experts who disagreed with this distance happen to be correct, it would put members of the general population located at the questionable threshold of 1.2 or 1.3 miles away from the site in a risky location.

Probability and Motivation of a Terrorist Attack

Few groups are capable of implementing an attack on LNG. However, an attack on LNG would fit well with al-Qaeda’s tactics, techniques, and procedures. Al-Qaeda is a radical Sunni Muslim organization with approximately 50,000 members, located at various bases of operations in 45 countries. In addition to its own members, al-Qaeda’s network includes groups operating in up to 65 countries. Al-Qaeda’s objective is to serve as a “defensive jihad” fighting against anyone or anything it perceives as attacking Muslims across the world. As a result, the group’s aim is to overthrow non-Islamic (or insufficiently Islamic) regimes that seem to oppress their Muslim citizens. In 32 incidents traced back to al-Qaeda, there were 3,464 deaths and 8,864 injuries. Although there has never been an attack against either an LNG terminal or tanker, maritime terrorism has been a core part of al-Qaeda and its affiliates’ historical strategy. In 2000, suicide bombers rammed the USS Cole in Yemen, killing 17 sailors. In 2002, terrorists rammed the Limburg, a French oil tanker carrying 400,000 barrels of crude oil.

There reportedly have been indications of terrorists planning to hit LNG tankers. In November 2002, the capture of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, al-Qaeda’s operational commander in the Gulf region, brought to light the idea that terrorists were already planning to go after such targets. Nashiri, allegedly a specialist in maritime operations, had already played a key role in the attack on the USS Cole and the Limburg. According to a Western counterterrorism official during an interrogation, Nashiri indicated that al-Qaeda had information on the vulnerability of supertankers to suicide attacks and the economic impacts they would have. The official informed The Daily Star that al-Qaeda had a naval manual describing “the best places on the vessels to hit, how to employ limpet mines, fire rockets or rocket-propelled grenades from high-speed craft, and [how to] turn LNG tankers into floating bombs. They (terrorists) are also shown how to use fast craft packed with explosives, and the use of trawlers, or ships like that, that can be turned into bombs and detonated beside bigger ships, or in ports where petroleum or gas storage areas could go up as well. They (manuals) even talk of using underwater scooters for suicide attacks.”

According to Dan Verton in his book Black Ice: The Invisible Threat of Cyberterrorism (2003), “al-Qaeda cells now operate with the assistance of large databases containing details of potential targets in the U.S. They use the Internet to collect intelligence on those targets, especially critical economic nodes, and modern software enables them to study structural weaknesses in facilities as well as predict the cascading failure effect of attacking certain systems.” Al-Qaeda is a “goal-driven organization.” This means that they take action toward an end goal of affecting the “future state of the world.” Al-Qaeda’s ultimate goal is to establish “an Islamic caliphate,” which will ultimately extend across the global Islamic community. The biggest obstacle to accomplishing this is the U.S. Therefore, in order to try to achieve this goal, al-Qaeda must first bring down the U.S. With America’s growing appetite for natural gas, LNG could potentially become one of al-Qaeda’s targets.

The 2007 Rand study, entitled Exploring Terrorist Targeting Preferences, not unexpectedly, lists capability and motive as the two variables that can best predict the probability of al-Qaeda or one of its affiliates selecting a particular target. It would be impossible for an attack to occur with only one variable. In other words, al-Qaeda must first have a motive. Once a motive is established, the group must then possess the capability to carry out its selected mission. Without capability, the attack cannot occur, at least not successfully. Capability includes financial backing, technology, flexibility in movement, physical access to target or target area, ability to penetrate security of a target or target area, ability to conduct reconnaissance and planning, external links to sources of information/weapons/technology, and sophistication of media.

The Rand study broke down al-Qaeda’s motivational factors into four plausible groups. These four factors are coerce, damage, rally, and franchise operations.

Coerce: Al-Qaeda’s desire is to “coerce” the U.S. and its Western allies toward a specific goal by causing pain, most likely through casualties. A successful attack on LNG has the potential to be deadly.

Damage: Al-Qaeda’s desire is to reduce the ability of the U.S. to intervene in the Islamic world. This would likely be accomplished by somehow damaging the economy. Under the damage hypothesis, al-Qaeda has already repeatedly demonstrated the desire to try to cripple the U.S. economy through both its propagations (i.e.: its call to attack oil and gas sources to “strangle the U.S. economy”) and through a pattern of historical terrorist acts, both successful and unsuccessful, many of which affected the economy to some degree. While the bombing of the World Trade Center was clearly motivated by a desire to take as many lives as possible, it also had a strong impact on the economy. An attack on LNG would also have an impact on the economy. The extent of that impact would depend upon the extent of the damage, coupled with the human-emotion factor.

Rally: Al-Qaeda’s desire is to rally support in the Muslim world. Under the rally hypothesis, hard targets symbolize U.S. strength and are the most difficult targets to penetrate. Three of the 14 terrorist attacks analyzed by Rand were hard targets. “By striking and destroying them, al-Qaeda has been able to underscore its credentials as a meaningful force, establishing a benchmark of power that it has then used to build morale among existing members and attract new recruits.” Indeed, al-Qaeda tends to hit soft targets more frequently than hard targets. However, it has already proven it is willing to hit hard targets. With the numerous security measures implemented in every LNG shipment, LNG terminals and tankers are extremely hard targets. The added publicity surrounding LNG terminals in the U.S. could potentially draw increased appeal to them as targets for terrorist groups hoping to send out a strong message on their strength and potential, which could lure more support.

Franchise: Al-Qaeda might not possess the means or capability to carry out a particular terrorist act and, therefore, a like-minded terrorist group might assume the task instead. Under the franchise hypothesis, since 9/11 and the global war on terrorism (GWOT), the U.S. has managed to destroy much of al-Qaeda’s infrastructure in Afghanistan. However, some analysts believe that rather than destroying bin Laden’s movement, the GWOT has actually “given rise to new, less predictable organizations composed of dozens of like-minded extremists.” If al-Qaeda is unable to execute an attack on LNG, perhaps a lesser known extremist group would step in unexpectedly.

The Rand study found that the majority of terrorist acts committed fell under at least two categories of the above hypotheses. For example, the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, in which a car bomb was detonated in the underground parking garage, killing six people, and injuring 1,042, falls under the categories of coercion and damage. This attack was meant to cause mass casualties while also impacting the economy. September11 falls under three categories – coerce, damage, and rally. It caused mass casualties, impacted the economy, and rallied support in the Muslim world. A well-executed attack on the U.S. LNG infrastructure would fall under three categories, or potentially under all four categories.

The most controversial LNG terminal in the U.S. is the Suez Energy North America’s Everett LNG terminal in Everett, Massachusetts. The location of this terminal makes it an ideal candidate for a terrorist attack under the coerce hypothesis. Almost weekly, LNG tankers have to pass within several hundred yards of the crowded Boston waterfront, past the end of the Logan International Airport runway, and under a busy bridge. Immediately after 9/11, Richard Clarke, who was then the White House counterterrorism chief, prompted the U.S. Coast Guard to close Boston Harbor to all LNG tankers. LNG shipments resumed several weeks later after a federal judge ruled there was no evidence of a credible threat. However, these LNG operations started back up under much heavier security.

The rest of the world does not seem to share the same security and safety concerns as Americans regarding LNG. This could be a potential problem. Acting on these concerns, the U.S. has strict security measures in place. Meanwhile, in other areas of the world security is severely lacking, leaving massive tankers floating as easy targets. An attack could occur anywhere. One key location would be in Southeast Asia. Since 9/11, analysts have often pointed to the vulnerabilities of the Strait of Malacca. The Strait of Malacca is approximately 600 miles long, but only 1.5 miles across at its narrowest point. Furthermore, it is the busiest chokepoint in the world. In 2006, more than 65,600 ships passed through it. An attack on an LNG tanker in the narrowest part of the strait would put a serious delay on the traffic traversing through. This could have a significant impact on the world’s economy, which is heavily dependent on commerce traversing the strait. At least a dozen LNG tankers pass through the Strait every day. Catherine Zara Raymond, of the Jamestown Foundation, described a number of potential scenarios that could occur in Southeast Asia involving maritime terrorism. Citing concern by Singapore’s Foreign Minister George Yeo in a speech to the ASEAN Regional Forum in July 2005, Raymond suggested that terrorists could highjack an LNG tanker and blow it up in Singapore harbor.

Yeo described the potential impact of such a scenario as severe. According to Raymond, terrorists would most likely try to create an explosion onboard an LNG tanker by ramming it with a smaller vessel. This could rupture the hull and cause the gas to escape. However, experts point out that the fire would likely be contained at the site where of the leak, burning the fuel off as it escapes, and therefore might not be as deadly as would be the case if a vapor cloud were allowed to form and be ignited.

When assessing the probability of a terrorist attack against LNG infrastructure based on the Rand Study, it is important to remember that these are simply a series of hypotheses based on an intense analytical study of previous terrorist attacks not related to LNG. It is not a scientific study but it might provide some indication of the probability of a terrorist attack against LNG. The fact that LNG fits well into each hypothesis would seem to increase its potential as a target.

Cindy Hurst is a political-military research analyst with the Foreign Military Studies Office. She is also a Lieutenant Commander in the United States Navy Reserve. The views expressed in this report are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. This article was adapted from a report for the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security at www.iags.org. The views expressed in this report are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


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