Egypt’s Suez Canal is one of the world’s busiest petroleum shipping channels. An estimated 2.2 million barrels of oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the Persian Gulf pass through the Suez Canal every day bound for markets in Europe and North America. In addition, more than 1,500 container ships, headed to Europe and Asia, traversed the canal in the second quarter of 2013.
With Egypt mired in political instability, however, a terrorist group sharing al-Qa`ida’s ideology—the Furqan Brigades—attacked vessels traversing the canal in 2013, and have vowed to conduct similar attacks in the future. In the wake of these attacks, there is concern that militants could successfully disrupt shipments through the Suez Canal, such as by sinking a large vessel and blocking the canal for a period of time.
This article provides background on the Suez Canal, discusses the emerging terrorist threat to vessels using the 120-mile waterway, warns of growing unrest in the Sinai Peninsula, and identifies some of the challenges faced by shipping companies in the Suez region. It finds that while security in the bordering Sinai Peninsula remains transient and the Egyptian state appears unable to stamp out militant activity in the Sinai, terrorist groups would have to employ new tactics to sink vessels if their goal was to block the canal for any period of time. Yet such tactics are not beyond their reach, and previous incidents of maritime terrorism could serve as their guide.
Linking the Red and Mediterranean Seas, 7% of the world’s oil and 12% of global LNG traffic pass through the Suez Canal, making it vital to the world energy trade. It has been closed only five times in its 144-year history. It is maintained and owned by the Suez Canal Authority, which is in turn operated by the Egyptian government. The canal generates around $5 billion per year for Egypt and is an important source of foreign currency due to an ailing tourism trade.
In 2012, 17,225 vessels passed through the canal coming from the Mediterranean Sea in the north and the Gulf of Suez in the south, often with just minutes of headway between each ship. Shipping companies using the Suez waterway include Maersk Line, COSCO, Hapag-Lloyd and the French-owned CMA CGM. For North American markets, the Suez is used by container vessels departing Houston, Charleston, Norfolk, and Newark bound for, among other countries, the United Arab Emirates, India and Pakistan.
Moreover, in April 2013, the world’s biggest shipping company, Maersk Line, replaced the Panama Canal with the Suez route for its Asia-East Coast America shipping as a result of increasing toll charges at Panama and the deployment of 18,000 20-foot equivalent unit (TEU) vessels, further increasing the importance of the Suez route to international trade.
Threat to the Canal: The Furqan Brigades
The security of the Suez Canal was threatened on July 29 and August 31, 2013, when militants attacked two ships in the waterway with rocket-propelled grenades (RPG). In both instances, there was only slight damage to the vessels. The Furqan Brigades, a group based out of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, claimed credit for the attacks. The Furqan Brigades, which support al-Qa`ida’s ideology but may not be directly linked to the terrorist group, promised further attacks on maritime traffic, saying that the canal is an important trade route and has also “become the safe way for the Crusader aircraft carriers to cross in to assault Muslims.” Little is known about the Furqan Brigades’ leadership, and it only rose to prominence when the two attacks in the Suez Canal were made public. It may number less than a few dozen militants, although it has now claimed responsibility for a handful of attacks in Egypt.
Details about the July 29 attack are limited, but a video purportedly released by the group showed a Furqan Brigades militant launching what appeared to be a rocket at a ship, under the cover of darkness. Egyptian authorities played down the significance of the July 29 incident, but maritime experts said that the speed with which the Suez Canal Authority apportioned blame to “terrorists” for the second attack on August 31 suggested they had prior knowledge that the two incidents were connected.
In the second attack on August 31, a video released by the Furqan Brigades showed two men moving toward a ship, the COSCO Asia, before each fired an RPG into the port (left) hull of the vessel in broad daylight.
A statement released by the Furqan Brigades in September said, “After becoming fed up with criminal practices such as sieges of mosques, killing and displacement of Muslims, detentions of Muslim scholars, and the vicious attack by Egypt’s Crusaders on Islam and its people and mosques, the Furqan Brigades declare their responsibility for targeting the international waterway of the Suez Canal which is the artery of the commerce of the nations of disbelief and tyranny. By the graces of God, it was carried out with two RPG rounds [on August 31] amid their weak guards.”
The language employed by the group in its statements is typical of al-Qa`ida-linked, anti-Western extremist groups. “We know they aren’t suicide martyrs, we know they are technologically savvy, and we know they have the capability as they proved it twice,” said Kevin Doherty, president of Nexus Consulting, a security firm that monitors maritime threats. “They seem to be a more sophisticated group and yet are keeping a very low profile and WWW [internet] footprint.” Egyptian authorities said they arrested three people on September 1 who, according to an army source, opened fired on the COSCO Asia vessel with “machine guns,” even though video released by the group clearly showed an attack with rockets.
More recently, the Furqan Brigades claimed responsibility for an attack on a satellite communications facility in Maadi, Cairo, in October 2013. In that attack, video showed several militants, under the cover of darkness, launching an RPG at the facility. The explosion reportedly caused a one meter hole in one of the satellite dishes. The group has also claimed responsibility for a number of assassinations targeting Egyptian military personnel.
Growing Unrest in the Sinai Peninsula and Suez Region
The Furqan Brigades are not the only threat to the stability of shipping in the Suez Canal. The canal divides Egypt proper from the 23,000-square-mile Sinai Peninsula. Bordering the Gaza Strip, the peninsula’s northern areas have for years been home to militant activity, chiefly involving Palestinian smugglers and militants attempting to move goods and weapons into the Gaza Strip. Since this activity primarily targets Israel and not Egypt, and because of the wider political turmoil in Egypt, the state’s security forces have concentrated resources elsewhere, which has allowed militant groups such as the Furqan Brigades to grow and prosper.
In August 2012, the Egyptian military launched a massive operation in the Sinai following the killing of 15 Egyptian border guards on the Sinai-Israeli border. Egyptian forces deployed troops, tanks and warplanes, the latter for the first time in the Sinai since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. The following summer, in 2013, Egypt moved two infantry battalions to the Sinai to battle militants. Throughout September and the following months, Egyptian authorities conducted more operations. The aggressive operations left homes and villages in rubble, and the Egyptian military said it captured hundreds of militants, including Palestinians.
Despite the Egyptian security operations, militants have since carried out several attacks in the Sinai. On October 7, 2013, unidentified militants attacked a government army convoy close to the Suez Canal, killing six soldiers. The same day, a suicide bomber drove a vehicle into a security building in the Sinai Peninsula. In addition to the Furqan Brigades, other terrorist groups are operating in the area, including Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis. This group, which has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks on Egyptian security forces in the Sinai, is thought to comprise local Bedouins as well as some foreign fighters.
The civil and political unrest that has rocked Egypt since the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 has affected every major population center. In Suez, a port city of 500,000 people situated at the southern mouth of the canal in Egypt proper, civil unrest has erupted sporadically over the past three years. In July, street fighting between pro- and anti-Muslim Brotherhood groups resulted in injuries to more than 100 people.
Elsewhere in the Suez region, police found explosives planted on a railway line in September 2013, while fighting following the fallout of the Port Said stadium killings in 2012, in which more than 70 died, has added to a sense of instability and drawn the army to the area.
Problems for Shipping Companies
The threat of terrorist attacks and the growing unrest in the Sinai Peninsula have raised obvious concerns about the stability of shipments through the Suez Canal. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, closure of the Suez Canal “would add an estimated 2,700 miles of transit from Saudi Arabia to the United States around the Cape of Good Hope via tanker.” Nevertheless, major shipping companies do not, at least publicly, appear overly worried about the threat of further attacks. Mikkel Elbek Linnet of Maersk Line, for example, said the company was not planning to alter future plans because of emanating threats.
Some experts argue that RPG attacks are unlikely to sink a major vessel and thus close the canal, and that only an attack launched by an explosives-laden smaller boat could achieve that outcome. The fact that the Furqan Brigades have not yet succeeded in carrying out bombings on board ships, nor have resorted to suicide attacks on vessels, suggests that, at least as a new organization, such capabilities may not yet exist. Analysts, however, believe that the Furqan Brigades could gain the skills necessary to launch waterborne attacks on cargo vessels if they should choose to do so. There are a number of groups operating in the Sinai with proven bomb-making experience that share the same ideological outlook as the Furqan Brigades, and cross training between groups is a possibility.
The Furqan Brigades are not the first group to plot attacks on ships transiting the Suez Canal. In July 2009, Egyptian authorities said that they arrested 25 militants with suspected links to al-Qa`ida for plotting to use explosives fitted with mobile phone-activated detonators against ships in the canal. Other plots have been foiled as well.
Securing the Suez Canal is problematic. Locals keep small fishing boats along the waterway and its lakes, while numerous towns, villages and farms dot its western shoreline. In March 2008, a ship contracted to the U.S. Navy fired at a group of boats in the canal, killing one man, after the latter failed to heed warnings from the Navy vessel to keep the required distance.
According to one expert, there are numerous points along the canal where security is absent or lacking: “There are ferries that go east to west, locations where people sit along and watch the ships go by, there are bridges that overpass the canal of which things can be dropped from or people can gain access from, even fishermen and sales folks selling DVDs and such inside the canal waterways.”
In the case of the Furqan Brigades’ attack on the COSCO Asia container ship on August 31, the militants reportedly fired at the ship in an area where dense shrubs divided the road from the canal, obscuring the jihadists from view of the authorities or other observers.
An attack on any large transport vessel that resulted in its sinking would “effectively shut the entire canal” for days, even weeks. Even if militants failed to sink a major vessel, a waterborne suicide bomb attack on an LNG or oil tanker, or cruise or container ship transiting the Suez Canal—a tactic used against the USS Cole in 2000 and the M/V M. Star in 2010—would have immediate effects on the use of the Suez as a major shipping route.
Egypt’s military recognizes the threat it faces over securing the Suez Canal, although it has not done enough to mitigate the risk of attacks, instead favoring reactive military campaigns against militant groups and individuals operating from the Sinai Peninsula. Yet the threat of serious attacks by militants—operations that could sink a major vessel and thus block the canal—is a real one.
The military, a cornerstone of the Egyptian state, has been on the wane in recent years as popular protests increasingly dominate the political sphere. Furthermore, the loyalty of the security forces and police was called into question in Port Said early in 2013 when police took part in strikes and protests after being blamed for crackdowns on demonstrators. The military appears increasingly incapable of preventing the sporadic attacks such as those being launched by the Furqan Brigades and Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis. As a result, the Sinai Peninsula remains a hotbed of militant activity, and ships in the Suez Canal risk future attacks.
Stephen Starr is a journalist and author who has been based in the Middle East for six years. He lived in Syria from 2007 until 2012 and published the book Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising (Oxford University Press) in 2012.
 “World Oil Transit Chokepoints,” U.S. Energy Information Administration, August 22, 2012.
 “Decline in Suez Canal Container Ship Transits Slows,” Journal of Commerce, August 5, 2013.
 “Group Behind Cosco Asia Attack Promise More Suez Strikes,” GulfShip News, September 6, 2013.
 “World Oil Transit Chokepoints.”
 See “Canal History,” Suez Canal Authority, undated.
 “The Suez Canal: A Vital Shortcut for Global Commerce,” World Shipping Council, undated.
 “Islamist Militants Claim Responsibility for Suez Canal Attack,” Ahram Online, September 5, 2013.
 “Suez Canal Traffic Stats,” Suez Canal Authority, undated.
 See “MECL1 – Eastbound,” Maersk Line, undated; “MECL2 – Eastbound,” Maersk Line, undated.
 Even when the Panama Canal opens its new, bigger locks next year, it will still be unable to service 18,000 TEU container ships. See Kyunghee Park, “Maersk Line to Dump Panama Canal for Suez as Ships Get Bigger,” Bloomberg, March 11, 2013. The canal is also essential for U.S. Navy vessels. See “US Naval Convoy Crosses Egypt’s Suez Canal,” al-Jazira, November 8, 2013.
 “Islamist Militants Claim Responsibility for Suez Canal Attack.” Video of the first attack is available at www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=TaI-JXRl8N4.
 Jamie Dettmer, “Egypt’s Newest Jihadists: The Jamal Network,” Daily Beast, November 1, 2013.
 Ibid. Lee Ferran, “Video Shows Rocket Attack on Suez Canal Ship, Group Says,” ABC, September 6, 2013.
 See, for example, the video they released of the August 31 attack, available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=buS4mfEX3w0.
 “Egyptian Army Says No Sign of Blast Near Suez Canal, Shipping as Normal,” Reuters, July 30, 2013.
 “Ship Attack Foiled in Suez Canal,” al-Jazira, September 1, 2013.
 Personal interview, Kevin Doherty, president of Nexus Consulting, December 2013.
 Video of this attack is available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=buS4mfEX3w0.
 This letter can be accessed at www.ncga.us/assets/First_Letter_AF.jpg.
 Asma al-Sharif, “Egypt Arrests Three After Gun Attack on Ship in Suez Canal,” Reuters, September 1, 2013.
 David Barnett, “Al Furqan Brigades Claim Attack on Satellite Station in Cairo,” The Long War Journal, October 8, 2013.
 Video of this attack is available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=1XhYAU9xyd4#t=111.
 “Al-Forqan Brigades Claims Responsibility for the Maadi Satellite Station Attack,” al-Masry al-Youm, October 8, 2013.
 David Barnett, “Al Furqan Brigades Claims Responsibility for Recent Shooting Attacks in Egypt,” The Long War Journal, November 30, 2013.
 Harriet Sherwood, “Egypt-Israel Border Attack Leaves Over a Dozen Dead,” Guardian, August 6, 2012.
 Avi Issacharoff and Ricky Ben-David, “Israel Allows Two More Egyptian Battalions into Sinai,” Times of Israel, July 15, 2013.
 David Kirkpatrick, “Egypt Reports Gains Against Militants in Sinai,” New York Times, September 15, 2013.
 Richard Spencer, “Suez Canal Targeted as War in Sinai Spreads,” Sunday Telegraph, November 17, 2013.
 “Egypt Army Claims Progress in Sinai Campaign,” al-Jazira, September, 15, 2013.
 Abigail Hauslohner, “Bomb Hits Egypt’s Sinai, Soldiers Ambushed a Day after Deadly Clashes in Capital,” Washington Post, October 7, 2013.
 Abigail Hauslohner and Erin Cunningham, “In Egypt, Jihadist Group Bayt al-Maqdis Claims Responsibility for Bombing,” Washington Post, October 21, 2013; David D. Kirkpatrick and Mayy el Sheikh, “Video Offered to Back Claim of Cairo Attack,” New York Times, October 27, 2013.
 “112 Wounded in Bloody Violence in Egypt’s Suez,” Ahram Online, July 22, 2013.
 “Egypt’s Army Finds Explosives on Rail Line Near Suez,” Reuters, September 7, 2013.
 Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Ian Lee, “Anger Flares in Egypt After 79 Die in Soccer Riot,” CNN, February 2, 2012.
 “Egypt Protesters Torch Buildings, Target Suez Canal,” Reuters, September 3, 2013.
 “World Oil Transit Chokepoints.”
 Personal interview, Mikkel Elbek Linnet, group press officer at Maersk Line, November 2013.
 Personal interview, Charles Lister, IHS Jane’s researcher, October 2013.
 Personal interview, Kevin Doherty, president of Nexus Consulting, December 2013.
 For example, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis.
 “Egypt Arrests 25 in ‘Suez Plot,’” BBC, July 9, 2009.
 See, for example, “National Security Agency Foils Alleged Attack on Suez Canal,” Middle East News Agency, March 21, 2012.
 A 2009 Maersk container vessel’s voyage through the canal provides a partial, if useful, view of the waterway and surrounding areas. See www.youtube.com/watch?v=DU4zbMOqapQ.
 “US Admits to Suez Canal Killing,” BBC, March 26, 2008.
 Personal interview, Kevin Doherty, president of Nexus Consulting, January 2014.
 According to the Telegraph, “The Canal-side lane of the road has now been closed to traffic there and security stepped up.” For details, see Richard Spencer, “Suez Canal Targeted as War in Sinai Spreads,” Telegraph, November 17, 2013.
 Christian Le-Miere, “Suez Attack Highlights Risks to Shipping,” International Institute for Strategic Studies, September 6, 2013.
 Michael Nayebi-Oskoui, “The Weakening of Egypt’s Military State,” Forbes, July 9, 2013.
 Maggie Michael, “Police Strikes in Egypt Accelerate, Adding Turmoil,” Associated Press, March 8, 2013.