The car bombing on the Spanish island of Mallorca, a very popular sailing venue, staged just before the start of the 28th Copa del Rey Audi Sailing Cup, has bought the topics of terrorism and sailing into sharp relief
Those who dusted off their atlases to find out the location of Ras al-Khaimah, in the United Arab Emirates, the proposed venue for the 33rd America’s Cup, will have been a little taken aback to see that the racing will be staged within about 30nm of the Iranian coast.
Iran is a country which does not enjoy good diplomatic relations with too many countries, and the Challenging nation, USA, in particular, and with the exception of Defender, Switzerland.
Many will question the wisdom and sensitivity of staging an America’s Cup so close to the shores of a nation that was close to being invaded by the USA in the reign of the last President.
The complete lack of consultation with the Challenger, on security issues implicit in the venue will not sit comfortably with many, and while playing hard and fast with America's Cup rules is an accepted part of the game, putting the security of sailors at risk is always completely unacceptable.
A look at the Travel Advisory?nid=59871
posted by the Australian government for the area would not give the US team too much comfort – particularly with a three to four month run up to the 33rd America’s Cup, scheduled for February 2010.
In part, the Australian advisory reads: 'We advise you to exercise a high degree of caution in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) because of the high threat of terrorist attack. Pay close attention to your personal security at all times and monitor the media for information about possible new safety or security risks.
'Statements by international terrorist groups have called for attacks against Western interests in the Gulf region. These include references to residential compounds, military, oil, transport and aviation interests. We continue to receive reports that terrorists are planning attacks against Western interests in the UAE and the wider Gulf region.
'The terrorist organisation al-Qaeda continues to publicly threaten to attack Westerners in the Arabian Peninsula. Terrorists have attacked Westerners in this region. Further attacks against targets in the Arabian Peninsula, including the UAE, cannot be ruled out.
'The UAE has a low incidence of crime. Petty crime, including pick pocketing and bag snatching, is rare. '
The Australian Government rates 160 contries in its advisories UAE is rated as 'High degree of caution' which is mid-range on the five point scale. Spain, the subject of last week's bombing, rated one grade lower at 'Exercise caution' (rating posted on 30 June 2009).
Dr Paul Buchanan -
USA is heavily involved in two theatres of war within 600 miles of the proposed regatta venue, and the US nation does not enjoy the same degree of international neutrality as the Swiss.
Those of us who covered the last Olympics, will be well aware of the issues working and covering a major event, when it is in a security lock down mode - even for just a couple of weeks. Whether the US Challenger can fairly compete in such an environment has yet to be determined, certainly they have competed in events in Dubai in the RC44's, however that is quite a different operation from the sustained and much bigger involvement covering a lot more people and resources as is required for the America's Cup.
So what is the real risk with a high profile US Challenger sailing in the Persian Gulf both in the work up phase and the America’s Cup itself?
Sail-World turned to Dr Paul Buchanan a frequent NZ media commentator on terrorism and a well regarded international security analyst, who is currently a Visiting Associate Professor of Political Science at the National University of Singapore
'I think that the travel advisory is fair warning,' says Dr Buchanan. 'It concurs with my view that an attack, should it happen, will happen on land rather than at sea and be led by Jihadists rather than Iran. Just remember that there will be added layers of security brought into the mix once the Cup venue is announced, which will mitigate against a successful attack.'
Touching on the security and terrorist threats in the area, Dr Buchanan commented. 'The UAE is a relatively safe destination and will have its security forces deployed for the event. The major threats are the smuggling of arms to the Iraq conflict zone and Iranian-US tensions. The risk of terrorism, while never to be discounted, is relatively low in the Gulf simply because of the presence of a flotilla of Western warships undertaking maritime interdiction duties (including, until recently, a NZ frigate) and the anti-terrorist focus of all security forces in the region (even more so than the usual inter-state conflict orientation that is the traditional military/security concern).
'Therefore the terrorist threat is less than in the Horn of Africa, particularly at sea', he concluded.
Ras al-Khaimah, in the United Arab Emirates, is close to Iranian waters. The 20nm America’s Cup windward leeward course is shown to scale. - Google Earth Click Here to view large photo
As mentioned the proposed venue of Ras al-Khaimah is very close to Iran, a nation which comes under considerable political heat from the West, and USA in particular. We asked Dr Buchanan whether adequate security can be assured by organisers/local authorities, if for instance, was an attack mounted by fast boat from Iran or other places in the Persian Gulf, and given the warnings from the Australian Government about continued threats from the terrorist organisation al–Qaeda to attack Westerners in the Arabian Peninsula?
'The Iranians would have no real interest in disrupting the event. Not only are their relations with the UAE cordial, but it would invite further international sanctions and a possible military response,' Dr Buchanan replied.
'Of course, it could be the case that the Revolutionary Guard would try to stage a provocation in order to divert domestic attention in Iran away from the divisive election results and ensuing discontent. But that will be countered by heightened US and allied concern about such an incident and the preventative measures undertaken to forestall it.
'I foresee a layered line of gray hulls (warships) in the international corridor between Iranian and UAE territorial waters focused on deterring fast boat or inflatable attacks at numerous points in their trajectory. There will also be ample air cover to that effect, since the US regularly rotates carrier task forces in the Gulf (which means that the Task Force will have Cup protection as one of its duties).
'Attacks staged from other areas will be countered in the same way. The real issue to me is that with so many military assets detailed to secondary/perimeter Cup protection duties, Jihadists may stage an attack on regional targets left relatively unguarded. But even that is a remote possibility because I am sure that once the venue is formally announced military planners will swing into action to prepare contingency operations for a variety of threats.
Turning to the issue of land-based threats and the general degree of security or lawlessness in the area, Dr Buchanan said he believed the major problem was with smuggling along with piracy. Adding that the biggest problem for security will be corruption.
'It is possible that UAE or other security officials in the region could be bribed to look the other way when a terrorist unit deploys towards or pre-positions weapons in the UAE. My semi-informed opinion is that the biggest threat could well be on land rather than at sea - an attack on the America's Cup 'Village' would be of far more value to Islamicists than sinking one boat. Yet here again, I am sure that security planners will be hard at work gaming out all such possibilities and deploying their security forces accordingly.'