Experts: Oil ships a tricky terrorist target

NAIROBI, Kenya — Supertankers — the hulking, slow-moving ships that transport half the world's oil — have few defenses against terrorist hijackers like those envisioned by Osama bin Laden, security experts said Saturday.

Al-Qaida operatives with enough training could easily manage to capture ships carrying millions of gallons of oil or liquefied natural gas. All they would have to do is imitate the tactics of Somali pirates who already use small boats to overpower tanker crews in mostly remote locations, the experts said. Few supertankers have armed guards, due to gun import laws and the risk of accidental gunfire igniting explosive cargo.

But once terrorists captured a supertanker, it wouldn't be so easy to sow the economic chaos and costly environmental destruction bin Laden desired and outlined in secret files captured from his Pakistan hideout. It's actually extremely complex to blow up a supertanker or even sink it near heavily guarded oil shipping lanes like the Suez Canal, the Panama Canal or the Strait of Hormuz at the end of the Persian Gulf.

"It would only be a risk if they could sail it undetected and had worked out how to blow it up, which is pretty complicated," said Graeme Gibbon-Brooks, the head of Dryad Maritime Intelligence.

The FBI and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a confidential warning to authorities and the energy industry Friday that al-Qaida was seeking information on the size and construction of tankers.

Intelligence gathered from bin Laden's hideout revealed that al-Qaida realized the tankers would have to be boarded so explosives could be planted inside them. Security experts say, however, blowing them up would be difficult because the tankers have double hulls and compartmentalized holds that prevent oil spills in groundings and can withstand direct hits from rocket-propelled grenades.