SAVANNAH, Ga. — As if piracy wasn’t enough to set merchant mariners’ teeth on edge, now comes a new threat — terror groups targeting the big ships as they pass through the widely used Suez Canal.
A video of one such attack, recently posted on YouTube, shows two individuals firing rocket-propelled grenades at the Panamanian-flagged COSCO Asia in late August, reportedly from the banks of the canal.
One of the individuals sounds as though he is saying “Allahu akbar” — or “God is Great” — before launching his rocket.
Canal officials originally called the attack a terrorist act by an Egyptian extremist group but later downplayed the incident. According to GulfShip News, a group calling itself the “Al Furqan Brigade,” a known affiliate of al-Qaeda, posted the video and conducted the attack.
“The jihadi group aired the video, putting the al-Qaeda flag in a corner, with the name of Al Furqan written over it,” Gulfship News reported, adding that Al Furqan is best known in Syria and Palestine.
“Due to misreporting and possible intentional minimization of the attack, American security firm Nexus Consulting has issued a warning for vessels transiting the Suez Canal to exercise the utmost vigilance,” the online magazine reported.
All of the 11 Suez services that travel to the U.S. East Coast call on the Port of Savannah.
Although there were reports of two explosions during the attack — one of which can be heard on the video — a canal authority spokesperson said the attack was unsuccessful “with no damage, whatsoever, either to the ship or its cargo of containers.”
In an interesting later development, the Journal of Commerce reported that at least one projectile evidently did hit its mark.
“A rocket fired by suspected al-Qaida terrorists at a COSCO container ship as it transited the Suez Canal in August apparently hit a container crammed full of smuggled cigarettes,” the JOC article said, citing a report by the Irish Independent.
The illicit cargo, with an estimated street value of nearly $6 million, was headed to a phony furniture company in Dundalk, Ireland, part of a smuggling operation supposedly run by businessmen with links to the former members of the Irish Republican Army.
According to Irish press reports, the cigarettes were believed to have been acquired in Vietnam and were heading for Rotterdam, the Netherlands, when the ship was attacked. A tracking device was placed on the container at the Port of Rotterdam and tracked by satellite through Dublin Port and on to a village near Dundalk in County Louth, where four men were arrested.
Irish police and customs seized 58 million smuggled cigarettes in the first six months of 2013.
While shippers dependent on some federal agencies to clear cargo are seeing delays at U.S. ports of entry, Savannah’s port has so far dodged that bullet.
Shipments requiring paperwork from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture — all of which face severe staff reductions because of the shutdown — have been delayed up to several hours, according to Marianne Rowden, president and CEO of the American Association of Exporters and Importers.
But U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the primary organization working the Port of Savannah, is among the federal agencies whose mission is considered “essential” and will largely remain intact.
CBP says the shutdown will only furlough about 6,000 out of the 58,000 agency employees. Many offices and port operations will continue functioning as usual.
But the shutdown has resulted in far fewer resources at the EPA, FDA and USDA to process certifications and other documents needed to clear some cargo, Rowden said, adding that shippers of food, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, radiological products and environmentally sensitive items should be ready for slower Customs clearance.
The partial shutdown affects the information technology-intensive shipping industry more than just on the Customs clearance side. Filings and data releases from agencies, including the Federal Maritime Commission and the International Trade Commission, have stopped.
The FMC, for example, isn’t accepting a variety of filings, nor is it accepting or acting on complaints and requests for dispute resolution.