To look at those images of the French oil tanker Limburg, scorched and holed off Yemen, you had to remember the very last sermon Osama bin Laden gave before he disappeared in Afghanistan last December.
The American economy, he said, would be destroyed. "Oil tankers," a Palestinian friend told me later. "If he goes for the oil tankers, the Americans will have to escort every tanker round the Gulf with a warship. Think what that would do to the price of oil."
Yesterday – as the world mulled over the Limburg captain's report of a small explosives-laden boat ramming itself against the side of his 300,000 ton double-hulled supertanker – the price of a barrel of oil duly broke the $30 envelope.
First we had the USS Cole two years ago, almost sunk by suicide bombers at the cost of 17 US sailors' lives. Then we had the al-Qa'ida men arrested in Morocco this year for allegedly planning to sink an American or British warship off the Straits of Gibraltar. And now the Limburg.
The oil markets were yesterday studying the announcement from Yemen's Prime Minister, Abdul-Kader Bajammal, that "terrorism" was not involved. A senior State Department official seemed to back up the Yemeni contention that it was an accident. The French government did not rule out an attack.
Captain Peter Raes, speaking on behalf of Compagnie Maritime Belge, which owns the ship's operators Euronav, said: "Another vessel colliding with the tanker would never have had the energy to break through to the cargo hold tank."
Captain Raes said the force tore a very large hole 26 feet by 19 across the hull of the ship which was unlikely to have been made by any gas leakage.
"On top of that the explosion occurred on the water line – There is absolutely nothing which can trigger an explosion at that height," he said.
In Bahrain yesterday, US military sources indicated that the 5th Fleet was now examining the security of oil tanker fleets throughout the Gulf.
During the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, US warships were forced to accompany Kuwait-bound tankers up the Gulf to protect them from Iranian attack. One more tanker attack and the American navy could be back in the convoy business again, vulnerable to the same small killer boats that assaulted the Cole.
The price of oil would go on rising – giving Washington even greater reason to invade Iraq and lower the price of crude by seizing Saddam's oil fields.
Osama bin Laden is alive, living in Afghanistan and plotting more attacks, according to a satellite telephone conversation reportedly intercepted over the weekend. Be he on earth or in the netherworld, he must be smiling today.
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