Gulf of Aden shipping could be next Qaeda target.
Maritime traffic in the Gulf of Aden could tempt Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to carry out spectacular attacks on shipping or hijackings for ransom, experts and diplomats say. A message posted on an Islamist website in January warned the United States that "we have attacked you on land and in the air ... and soon we will attack in the sea."
"Al-Qaeda troops, especially those in the Arabian Peninsula, have expertise in this area," added the threat, which was translated by the American research institute The Middle East Media Research Institute.
The message referred to a daring attack by an explosives-laden small boat against the USS Cole destroyer in Aden October 2000 that killed 17 sailors and began a wave of suicide attacks by Al-Qaeda against the United States.
AQAP claimed responsibility for the failed attempt to bring down an airliner as it approached the US city of Detroit on Christmas Day.
Officials and diplomats in Sanaa are worried, as the Yemeni coast guard's surveillance and protection capabilities are very limited.
"We are in need of means to control the coast of the country, not just against Al-Qaeda, but also to combat drug smugglers," said Yemen's head of central security, General Yahya Saleh.
Much of the coast is unmonitored, said Yahya, who is the nephew of President Ali Abdullah Sadeh.
"We have some boats, but they are too few. The operations of our coast guard is funded by foreigners, while further out in the sea, international warships patrol the area as part of the fight against piracy."`
A Western diplomat in Sanaa noted that "Al-Qaeda uses the Internet as an operational tool to urge their followers to conduct maritime attacks," said the diplomat who requested anonymity.
"To counter a potential attack from Al-Qaeda, the Yemeni coast guard has had a good deal of training in coastal defence, but they lack deep-water boats which would permit them to extend their defensive reach," he said.
Since Yemen inaugurated its natural gas exportation terminal at Balhaf in the south, Yemeni marines have been protecting vessels at anchor and in areas close to shore, but they do not have the means to escort these vessels away from the shore, said another diplomat.
These vessels, such as oil tankers and cargo ships, sail up and down the Gulf of Aden under the threat of being attacked by Somali pirates -- currently the main source of danger in the zone.
Mustafa Alani, director of security and defence issues at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Centre, said he pirates' success in hijacking numerous ships could inspire the AQAP militants.
"The pressure on the finances of AQAP is very strong now. And they see these guys making fortunes with piracy. They made 139 million dollars in the last years," he told AFP.
For the moment, and despite a declared support for Al-Qaeda by the radical Islamist Somali Shebab movement, no cooperation has so far been reported.
"If they go for a maritime operation, they will go for money," Alani said.
"But for the time being, they face a problem: according to Sharia (Islamic) law, piracy is a theft," he pointed out.
"They need a fatwa (religious edict), some sort of new ideological and religious covert to say 'it's OK,' like the one they had to legitimise suicide bombings. If such a fatwa is issued, it will be a sign. But so far, they don't have it," he added.