Examining the Possible Consequences of a Deliberate Attack on Tankers

LNG tanker on a Spanish river


Over the past few decades, international incidents have demonstrated that maritime tankers are both attractive and feasible targets for both pirate and terrorist actors. The global profile of maritime piracy has risen in recent years with the steep increase in attacks from Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa; between April 2005 and December 2012, 179 ships were hijacked in this region, earning pirates an estimated €250-300 million in ransom payments.

Although Somali piracy attacks have declined significantly since international countermeasures were put in place – falling from 237 in 2011 to only 15 in 2013 – this regional surge has vividly demonstrated the feasibility of successful pirate attacks that utilise only very basic capabilities.

Furthermore, piracy continues to present a maritime threat outside the Horn of Africa; worldwide, there were 264 attacks in 2013. As recently as April 2014, a Singaporean oil tanker was captured by pirates in the Malacca Straits in an attack that included stealing a significant portion of cargo and taking three crew members hostage.

While terrorist attacks on maritime targets are less common than piracy, historical cases nevertheless illustrate that both means and motivation exist. Al Qaeda in particular has expressed interest in maritime attacks, as evidenced by the 2000 attack the USS Cole and the 2002 suicide bombing of the M/V Limburg oil tanker. More recently, in 2010 a branch of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula took responsibility for an improvised explosive device (IED) attack on the M/V Maritime Star in the Strait of Hormuz.


In this context of feasible attack threats, the increasing dependence of the European Union on imported energy raises important questions about global shipping lanes’ vulnerability to deliberate attack from pirate or terrorist actors. Europe’s growing energy dependence may have increased the attractiveness of maritime traffic and infrastructure as a target, particularly given the perceived vulnerability of certain elements of the maritime supply chain. There is thus an impetus to develop a thorough understanding of the risks of deliberate attack in this domain, considering both likelihood and impact in order to identify priority risks and suggest mitigation measures.

This project aimed to help the European Commission (1) assess the risks of deliberate attack to liquefied natural gas (LNG) / liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), oil and chemical tankers and (2) propose recommendations to address these risks. The study involved research on the vulnerabilities of tankers as well as the potential threats and consequences of deliberate attacks.

Project Team

Alex Hall
Tess Hellgren
Lucia Retter
Giacomo Persi Paoli