Militants' claim of 'attack' on oil tanker disputed

Experts say it was highly unlikely a terror group was behind the damage sustained by a Japanese supertanker in the Strait of Hormuz.

DUBAI // Terrorism experts yesterday said it was highly unlikely a militant group was behind damage sustained by a Japanese supertanker in the Strait of Hormuz. The little-known group Abdullah Azzam Brigades claimed responsibility for the attack on M. Star in a statement published online yesterday. The authenticity of the claim could not be independently verified but it appeared on websites that carry messages of militant groups.

Mustafa Alani, a senior adviser at the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai, said he believed a delay in investigations, plus the unclear cause of the damage, had prompted the group to claim responsibility. "Somebody took advantage of the situation and put a statement online," he said. "The statement is not credible as it claims a suicide bomber infiltrated the ship, while the damage was caused by an external factor.

"Abdullah Azzam is the father of the Jihad movement in Afghanistan. His name is frequently used by different groups ? This group is not an actual one." The oil tanker M. Star, carrying 200,000 barrels of oil from Al Ruwais to Tokyo, suffered damage to its starboard near the stern, and blown out windows and buckled doors at deck level, last Wednesday. Experts and officials ruled out speculation a freak wave had caused the damage and said the most likely cause was a mine left over from the Iran-Iraq War.

Alex Vatanka, editor of Jane's Islamic Affairs Analyst in Washington, said: "Based on the evidence we have so far, I do not think the factors are there to make the claims of this group a reality." While there are several groups operating under the Abdullah Azzam name - some of whom are linked to al Qa'eda - Mr Vatanka said none of these were known to be operating in the Gulf. "The last time we heard of a group operating under this name was in southern Lebanon in late 2009, when they were firing rockets into Israel," he said.

"A group with a similar name - Shahid [Martyr] of Abdullah al Azzam - claims to be operating in Pakistan ? but we have no evidence of a group by this name having operated in the waters of the Gulf. "The only maritime terrorism the broader region has experienced has been off the coast of Yemen and the security situation in Yemen is totally different and notoriously unstable. That is not the case with the Gulf states or Iran, so it would be difficult for militant terrorist groups to operate in the Gulf waters," he said. Mr Vatanka also said the delay in the announcement indicated the group might be "late-comers", taking advantage of a situation.

"There are smaller terrorist groups which seek to punch above their weight by claiming responsibility for attacks when they might not have been responsible." If the group's claims were true, it heralded a new era in Gulf maritime terrorism, he said. Lt John Fage, spokesman for the US Navy's Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet, said anything beyond facts provided by the shipping line could only be speculation.

He added the US navy, which had carried out diving operations to assess the damage to M. Star, was "standing by if the shipping line requests further assistance". "We will continue to inspect the cause and consider any possibility," said Kazumi Makamura, a spokeswoman for Mitsui OSK, the company that owns and operates the vessel. * Additional reporting from AP