By Scott Stewart
The Cosco Asia, a Chinese-owned, Panamanian-flagged container ship, reportedly came under attack as it transited the Suez Canal in the early afternoon Aug. 31. Egyptian authorities said they have arrested three suspects believed to have been involved in the attack, which reportedly occurred approximately halfway between Port Said and Ismailia. The suspects are thought to be affiliated with a militant group based in Bir Rummana in the northern Sinai Peninsula.
There have been conflicting reports as to the weapons used in the attack, with a machine gun and rocket-propelled grenades being mentioned. The head of the Suez Canal Authority, Mohab Mamish, said the attack was intended to impact the flow of traffic in the canal, but was "completely unsuccessful," adding that the attack resulted in no damage to the ship or its cargo.
The attack comes as the Egyptian military is in the midst of a campaign to crack down on militancy in the Sinai. Jihadist militants in Sinai have been quite active for the past decade. They conducted a string of deadly bombing attacks against tourist resorts from 2004 to 2006 and have more recently focused on attacking Egyptian security forces. They have also occasionally launched rocket attacks from the Sinai Peninsula into the Red Sea ports of Eilat, Israel, and Aqaba, Jordan. But this attack against shipping in the canal is a new development and will bear careful watching due to its possible impact on global trade.
The Suez Canal has been shut down in the past due to war. It was closed for several months in late 1956 and early 1957 and for eight years from 1967 to 1975. But the volume of goods that pass through the canal today is much higher than it was in the 1950s or 1970s. Indeed, the Suez Canal Authority reports that cargo tonnage passing through the canal has more than doubled in just the past 12 years, from about 368 million metric tons in 2000 to 740 million metric tons in 2012. Some 8 percent of global maritime trade now passes through the Suez Canal. On Sept. 3 alone, 45 ships passed through the canal carrying 2.7 million metric tons of cargo.
The Suez Canal is also the second-most important seaborne energy choke point for oil and liquefied natural gas headed to Europe and North America after the Strait of Hormuz. This heavy flow of cargo means even a temporary blockage of the canal could significantly impact global trade. However, while the canal is long and difficult to totally secure, it would be very difficult to conduct an attack that would block the canal.
The Canal as a Target
The canal is very narrow. In many places, it is only approximately 300 meters (984 feet) wide. This means that canal traffic can only travel in one direction at a time for the long narrow stretches of the canal. Ships are sent through in three regularly scheduled convoys daily (two southbound and one northbound) at set times. There are some bypasses that allow convoys to pass each other, making passage through the canal more efficient. However, this scheduled convoy system would make it very easy to find a target at a selected attack site at a predictable time. Specific ships can even be tracked through the canal via the Internet.
The narrowness of the canal means that in many places ships in the center of the canal will be within approximately 150 meters of either bank. This is well within the maximum effective range of most weapons systems, including the machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers reportedly used in the attack on the Cosco Asia. The security concern is that due to the constricted nature of much of the canal — and its maximum depth of 24 meters — if a large ship such as the Cosco Asia could be sunk in the middle of the canal's channel at a narrow point, it could effectively halt traffic through the canal until the ship could be moved out of the channel. With Egypt receiving approximately $5 billion a year in transit fees, the canal is a significant source of revenue and foreign currency for the Egyptian government. Consequently, the canal is a potential target for militants who seek to hurt the Egyptian government.
In recent weeks, the Suez Canal Authority has received threats from unidentified groups saying they would target the canal. These threats resulted in increased security along the canal, but this increase was not enough to stop Saturday's simple attack against the Cosco Asia using light weapons. The canal stretches some 190 kilometers (about 120 miles) from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, and as we've noted elsewhere, completely protecting every inch of a long, linear target is a very difficult security undertaking.
Still, following the failed attack, the Egyptian army established checkpoints every 20 kilometers along the canal, has increased mobile security patrols, installed more security cameras and has deployed additional army helicopters to monitor the canal. It will now be even more difficult to conduct a meaningful attack on a ship transiting the canal.
It was not surprising to hear that the small-arms attack directed against the Cosco Asia did not cause much damage, even if the attackers did employ rocket-propelled grenades. Light weapons are not sufficient to target a cargo ship that is nearly 350 meters long and which weighs about 114,000 metric tons. To help put the size of the Cosco Asia in perspective, it is slightly larger than the USS Ronald Reagan, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.
Such vessels are not only very large, but they are also by necessity very well-built in order to handle the massive cargoes they haul in rough seas. As seen in the attacks against the USS Cole in October 2000 and the October 2002 attack against the oil tanker Limburg, both off of Yemen, it is very difficult to sink a large, modern ship even when you attack it with a potent boat bomb containing several hundred pounds of high explosives. Attacking such a ship with a light machine gun or rocket-propelled grenade could injure or kill some of the crew (modern vessels have very small crews, so hitting a member would require a great degree of skill or luck), but is quite unlikely to cause significant damage to the ship itself.
So while the canal is long and difficult to completely secure, and ships transiting move relatively close to the shore at predictable times, it would be very difficult to conduct an attack that would effectively sink a ship and block the channel. It is relatively easy to move up to the bank of the canal with a light machine gun, but it would require far more logistical effort to construct a boat bomb like those employed in the Cole and Limburg attacks — and even then the attack might not succeed.
Additionally, due to its importance and vulnerability, the Egyptian government has established a security zone along the canal, which it patrols on land, by air and by patrol vessel. It is also notable that the small boat traffic in the Suez Canal is far lighter, and much more closely controlled than in a chaotic harbor like Aden, Yemen, so it would also be more difficult to get a boat bomb into the Suez Canal without being discovered than in Aden.
There is also the potential threat of a ship being hijacked and scuttled in the canal. The Egyptian military closed the canal to traffic during the Suez Crisis in 1956 by scuttling some 40 ships in the canal. It was closed for approximately six months until the ships could be cleared from the canal. However, this would be quite a difficult undertaking for a militant group. Unlike the vast reaches of the Indian Ocean, where Somali pirates had time to chase and board ships, Egyptian security forces could respond very quickly to any piracy-type event in the canal. Also, the "citadel" tactic and other counterpiracy measures adopted to combat Somali piracy could also help protect ships transiting through the Suez Canal from being seized.
Egyptian security forces have also closed the bridges spanning the canal at times in the past due to the possible threat of someone using explosives to drop a bridge into the canal to block it. But demolishing a bridge would take time and demolition expertise, and a vulnerable point target such as a bridge is relatively easy to secure from attack.
Like many terrorist schemes, whether attempting to destroy a dam with a truck bomb, or taking down the Brooklyn Bridge with a blowtorch, blocking the Suez Canal would be much more difficult that it might appear at first glance.