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On Point

Grab the Planet by the Throat ...


by Austin Bay
April 22, 2009

Pirates, Iran's corrupt tyranny of mullahs and now international cyber attackers all seek to exploit economic and psychological choke points.

Geography provides Somalia's pirates with a throat to choke. Somali pirates pursue a strategy of attacking vulnerable cargo ships as they approach or exit a global maritime bottleneck, in this case Egypt's Suez Canal, which connects the Red and Mediterranean seas.

The Gulf of Aden, where the majority of Somali pirate attacks occur, lies between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Sea lanes to and from the Indian Ocean meet and narrow in the Gulf of Aden, making it a grand geographic funnel for the Red Sea and Suez.

Cargo vessels connecting Asian and European economic powers (India and China to Western Europe) face an expensive choice: either take the long, slow route around Africa's Cape of Good Hope or take the Suez shortcut but risk attacks by pirates operating from Somalia's convenient (and police-less) shores. The pirates, like wolves eyeing a cattle herd gathering in a valley pass, try to select the most vulnerable targets.

Now move north, and once again geography aids outlaws. The Bab al Mandaab, the strait connecting the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, splits Yemen (on the Arabian peninsula) from Djibouti and Eritrea (in Africa) and further constricts shipping traffic approaching Suez.

Straits have always posed problems for mariners. Odysseus had to squeeze his ship between Scylla and Charbydis, figurative monsters portraying the literal threat of narrowing cliffs, shoals and whirlpools. Today's literal monsters include sea mines and anti-ship missiles.

No, the Bab al Mandaab hasn't been closed by mines and missiles -- not yet. However, in late spring 2008, Eritrea suddenly launched a brief border war with Djibouti over waterfront property. Eritrea, like Iran, is at odds with the United States and United Nations. It has a variety of reasons, some legitimate (for example, Ethiopia reneged on a border demarcation agreement), some less so (Eritrea supports Somali Islamists in league with al-Qaida).

In May 2008, after meeting with Eritrea's president, Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that Iran and Eritrea shared "common views" on regional and global issues and were prepared "to resist" the hegemonic system. The hegemonic system is the American-led global system, which relies on cargo vessels passing through narrow straits.

Eritrea's attack on Djibouti sent that message, an echo of the message Iran sends every time it threatens to close the Strait of Hormuz. That strait connects the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf, and at least 30 percent of the world's oil supply transits Hormuz in tankers. Close the Hormuz chokepoint, and you damage modern economies. Threaten to close it, and the price of oil spikes -- and Iran's mullahs pocket the cash. (As a historical note, today's United Arab Emirates, next door to Hormuz, was once a "pirate coast," with Hormuz providing targets.)

 This isn't a conspiracy theory, it's geo-strategic choke point reality. Local and even tribal issues actually propel many small-scale conflicts around the globe, but geography attracts other interested parties and troublemakers. Radical Islamists were very interested in the Achehnese rebellion on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Yes, they shared religious concerns, but Aceh Province also bordered the entrance to the Straits of Malacca, which connect the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

The U.S. Navy will argue that completely closing a major strait like Hormuz is tough to do, and the Navy is correct. But if an admiral says he hasn't pondered the military, economic and political challenges presented by near-simultaneous (likely coordinated) outlaw attacks that affect two or three major straits, he's spinning you.

Cyber attackers also probe for digital chokepoints. Computers guide America's electrical grids -- they are an information nexus. Two weeks ago, U.S. intelligence agencies revealed that hackers (likely from China and Russia) had inserted software that "could damage (electrical grid) infrastructure." Blackouts wreak economic havoc. Knocking out power nationally is a psychological and political shock. Cyberspace is complex terrain, but the same idea obtains: squeeze a vulnerable throat.

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