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Al Qaeda 'threat to blow up ships'

The French supertanker Limburg was attacked off Yemen in 2002.
Great Britain
The Royal Navy

LONDON, England (CNN) -- Intelligence shows al Qaeda has plans to blow up shipping in a bid to disrupt world trade, Britain's top Naval officer has said in an interview.

The Royal Navy's First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral Sir Alan West, said that Western governments had intelligence that terrorists view shipping as an attractive target and have plans to destroy ships.

"We have got an underlying level of intelligence which shows there is a threat," West told Lloyd's List maritime newspaper.

West warned that terrorism could potentially cripple global trade and have grave knock-on effects on developed economies.

"What we've noticed is that al Qaeda and other organizations have an awareness about maritime trade," he said.

"They've realized how important it is for world trade in general and they understand that significance."

Lloyd's list commented that the terrorist threat to merchant shipping is nothing new for the maritime industry --illustrated in 2002 by the attack on the French tanker Limburg off the coast of Yemen.

But such a stark warning from such a senior figure in the British military establishment was likely to add further impetus to global efforts to increase security awareness at sea, Lloyds List said.

"We've seen other plans from intelligence of attacks on merchant shipping," West said.

"I can't give you detail on any of that, clearly, but we are aware that they have plans and they've looked at this."

The biggest risk is in ports and maritime choke points such as the Strait of Gibraltar and the Suez Canal, where ships concentrate in large numbers as they sail through narrow waterways, West said.

On the open sea, West maintained, it is "almost impossible" for terrorists to attack a ship.

He also highlighted the role that the Royal Navy and Coalition partners including the U.S. play in deterring maritime attacks.

He said that role could be benefiting the UK's Red Ensign group of registers, whose vessels automatically enjoy the protection of the British naval fleet.

"Ship owners realize that there are vulnerabilities and they realize how important the navy is to actually protect them," he said.

In the Strait of Gibraltar western merchant ships are regularly escorted by navy flotillas operating under the auspices of NATO's Operation Active Endeavour.

The escorts were begun after Moroccan authorities arrested an al Qaeda cell preparing to target ships in the strait.

Fighting maritime terrorism is forcing navies to adapt to new techniques, Lloyds list said. These focused on ensuring that warships can respond to a close-range contact with small, fast craft.

That means increasing upper-deck armament and adjusting weapon systems so that they can take on targets at closer range.

West was speaking during an interview on board the British frigate HMS Grafton, which is in Gibraltar to participate in events to mark the 300th anniversary of the Anglo-Dutch capture of the Rock from Spain.

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