Image: Hijacked oil tanker
William S. Stevens  /  NVNS via AP
The 1,080-foot-long oil tanker MV Sirius Star was hijacked in November 2008 off the coast of Somalia by pirates and held for ransom. Al-Qaida has considered such a hijacking — but to be followed by an explosion meant to disrupt world oil markets.
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updated 5/20/2011 6:08:24 PM ET 2011-05-20T22:08:24

Osama bin Laden's personal files revealed a brazen idea to hijack oil tankers and blow them up at sea last summer, creating explosions he hoped would rattle the world's economy and send oil prices skyrocketing, the U.S. said Friday.

The newly disclosed plot showed that while bin Laden was always scheming for the next big strike that would kill thousands of Americans, he also believed a relatively simpler attack on the oil industry could create a worldwide panic that would hurt Westerners every time they gassed up their cars.

U.S. officials said the tanker idea, included in documents found in the compound where bin Laden was killed nearly three weeks ago, was little more than an al-Qaida fantasy. But the FBI and Department of Homeland Security issued a confidential warning to police and the energy industry Friday. The alert, obtained by The Associated Press, said that al-Qaida had sought information on the size and construction of oil tankers, had decided that spring and summer provided the best weather to approach the ships, had determined that blowing them up would be easiest from the inside and believed an explosion would create an "extreme economic crisis."

"We are not aware of indications of any specific or imminent terrorist attack plotting against the oil and natural gas sector overseas or in the United States," Homeland Security spokesman Matthew Chandler said in a statement Friday. "However, in 2010 there was continuing interest by members of al-Qaida in targeting oil tankers and commercial oil infrastructure at sea."

Years of warnings
With about half the world's oil supply moving on the water, industry and security experts have warned for years that such an attack would be a jolt to global markets. That's particularly true if terrorists carried it out in one of the narrow waterways that serve as shipping chokepoints.

"You start blowing up oil tankers at sea and you're going to start closing down shipping lanes," said Don Borelli, senior vice president of the Sufan Group security firm and a former FBI counterterrorism agent in New York. "It's going to cause this huge ripple through the economy."

Still, even if al-Qaida were able to blow up one of the supertankers that move oil around the globe, it would barely dent the world's oil supply, said Jim Ritterbusch, president of Ritterbusch and Associates, who has been trading oil contracts since the futures market opened on the Nymex in 1983. A tanker holds about 2 million barrels, or enough to supply world demand for about a half hour.

The terrorist threat to oil infrastructure is nothing new. Members of a British terror cell that hoped to hijack trans-Atlantic airplanes in 2006 had also made plans to attack oil and gas targets in Britain. And al-Qaida's franchise in Yemen has attacked pipelines.

Friday's alert was significant mostly because it linked the scheme directly to bin Laden, meaning the idea probably has circulated among al-Qaida's most senior leaders.

The government encouraged companies to continue random screening, to warn employees about possible threats and to establish procedures for reporting suspicious activity. But there was no immediate effect on oil markets, and both shippers and security officials said it was business as usual on the water.

"This has been a possibility on everyone's minds for some time now," said Bill Box a spokesman for the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners. "Everyone is aware of what might happen."

Somali attacks as a model?
Shippers have been on particular alert as threats of piracy have increased along the African coast. In 2008, Somali pirates captured the Sirius Star supertanker and held it for ransom. In 2007 the Japanese tanker the Golden Nori was hijacked carrying 40,000 tons of the highly explosive chemical benzene. Intelligence officials initially worried that terrorists might try to crash the boat into an offshore oil platform or use it as a gigantic bomb, but it proved to be another attack by pirates seeking ransom.

Then in 2010, two groups of pirates got into a shootout while arguing over the ransom for the Maran Centaurus, threatening to turn the ship into a massive fireball.

Pirates have had success with a relatively low-tech strategy. They fire at a ship to get it to slow down, then pull alongside in skiffs. Using lashed-together ladders or grappling hooks, the pirates climb on board with guns. Many ship owners are reluctant to have armed guards onboard, since the cargo is so flammable that sailors are even forbidden to smoke.

Somali pirates take the ships for money. The information taken from bin Laden's compound after he was killed May 2 suggests al-Qaida was interested in adapting that strategy to terrorize.

The U.S. has warned for years that such an attack in a narrow waterway, such as the Strait of Hormuz between Oman and Iran, would immediately send oil prices higher.

In Asia, concerns have centered on the continent's key oil chokepoint, the Strait of Malacca, located between Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. Last year, an Indonesian al-Qaida affiliate set up a training camp at the beginning of the strait, leading to speculation about an attack there and prompting Singapore to issue a warning.

"The good thing is that boats don't move that fast. It gives you plenty of time to interdict," said Crispian Cuss, the program director at Olive Group, one of the biggest private security companies in the Middle East. "If a vessel was hijacked by an al-Qaida organization and headed toward a major port, the authorities would not let that vessel get anywhere near that port."

Sullivan reported from Detroit. Associated Press writers Chris Kahn in New York; Cassandra Vinograd, Raphael Satter, David Stringer and Meera Selva in London; Chris Brummitt in Islamabad, Pakistan; Kimberly Dozier in Washington and Katharine Houreld in Nairobi contributed to this story.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explainer: Bin Laden dead: Who will lead al-Qaida?

  • Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden
    MAZHAR ALI KHAN  /  AP
    Ayman al-Zawahri, left, with Osama bin Laden in Khost, Afghanistan, in 1998.

    With al-Qaida's supreme leader killed, the terrorist group is seeking its next leader.

    Replacing Osama bin Laden, who founded the network more than two decades ago and masterminded the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, is no easy task.

    Following are top candidates for the world's top terrorism job.

  • A video grab taken 06 January 2006 from
    -  /  AFP - Getty Images file
    Ayman al Zawahiri.

    Name: Ayman al Zawahiri
    Age: 59
    Country of origin: Egypt
    Reward: $25 million
    No. 2: He is the longtime second in command to bin Laden. Many in the counterterrorism community say they were surprised that Zawahiri was not named leader soon after bin Laden was killed May 2 and every day he isn’t lessens the chances he will succeed to the top position.

    A pediatrician who was jailed and tortured in Egypt in the roundup following the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, Zawahiri is seen as prickly, arrogant and pedantic by many in al-Qaida. He is also Egyptian, and that is not a positive in an organization dominated by Gulf Arabs. By his own count, he has been targeted by the Americans for attacks six times. They came closest in Domodola, Pakistan, in early 2006.

  • Image:
    -  /  AFP/Getty Images
    Al-Qaida operative Abu Yahya al-Libi.

    Name: Abu Yahya al Libi
    Age: 47
    Country of origin: Libya
    Reward: $1 million
    Hardliner: The leading propagandist of al-Qaida, he is the most charismatic leader in the terrorist group. Although he has no operational position, his videos have outnumbered those of both bin Laden and Zawahiri. He has a great deal of “street cred,” according to one U.S. official, because he fought against the U.S. in Afghanistan. He was captured and then escaped from Bagram prison in July 2005.

    Al Libi is one of a number of Libyans who have risen in al-Qaida ranks over the past decade. Abu Faraj al Libi was the organization’s No. 3 until he was captured, and Abu Laith al-Libi was the No. 4 until he was killed in a Predator strike in 2008. Another Libyan, Abu Gaith al Libi served as bin Laden’s press spokesman after Sept. 11. He is believed to have died.

  • Image: Ilyas Kashmiri
    Saeed Khan  /  AFP - Getty Images file
    Ilyas Kashmiri, commander-in-chief of the Kashmiri militant group Harakat-ul Jihad-i-Islami.

    Name: Ilyas Kashmiri
    Age: 46
    Country of origin: Pakistani
    Reward: $5 million
    Rising star: Kashmiri has risen quickly in the al-Qaida hierarchy. He has his own terrorist group, Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, which operates in Indian-held Kashmir. More importantly, he is known to have been invited to high-level al-Qaida councils in North Waziristan. There were reports in the Pakistani media that he’d been killed in September 2009 in a Predator strike, but those turned out to be false.

    Kashmiri was reportedly killed in a drone strike on June 4, Pakistani officials say.

    Kashmiri was indicted along with Pakistani-American David Headley, in October 2009, on two counts, for "conspiracy to murder and maim in Denmark" (against the newspaper Jyllands-Posten) and "conspiracy to provide material support to terrorism in Denmark."

  • Image: Anwar al-Awlaki
    AFP - Getty Images
    Anwar al-Awlaki.

    Name: Anwar al Awlaki
    Age: 40
    Country of origin: United States, leader of Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula
    Plugged in: Born in Las Cruces, New Mexico, to Yemeni-American parents, al Awlaki speaks perfect English, is a charismatic speaker and is more heavily involved in social media than any of the others. He has reportedly been involved, either directly or as an inspiration, in several AQAP-linked attacks, including Maj. Nidal Hassan’s killing of 15 soldiers at Fort Hood in November 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab’s attempted bombing of Northwest Flight 253 over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, and Faisal Shahzad’s attempt to kill and maim hundreds in Times Square in May 2010. He had his own website and Facebook page, which had more than 5,000 “friends” until Facebook shut it down following an NBC News report.  He has directed messages at African Americans in recent speeches, comparing anti-Muslim bias to slavery and segregation.

    Days after Bin Laden was killed, al Awlaki was the reported target of a Predator strike in Yemen, which killed two other members of his tribe in an SUV. Al Awlaki was not in the vehicle.

  • Name: Atia Abd al Rahman
    Age: Late 30s
    Country of origin: Libya
    Reward: $1 million
    Bin Laden's gatekeeper: A North African, Atia was promoted to No. 3 in 2010 after his predecessor, Sayed Sheikh, was killed in yet another Predator strike.

    He was personally close to bin Laden, going back to the late 1980s when he was a teenager fighting against the Soviets. He is known as an explosives expert and Islamic scholar. He retreated with bin Laden to the mountainous Afghanistan-Pakistan border region in the fall of 2001, according to the FBI.

    He was reported killed in a Predator strike — only to show up alive. One stain on his legacy: He was in charge of bin Laden’s couriers.

  • Image:
    -  /  AFP - Getty Images
    Saif al-Adel

    Name: Saif al-Adel
    Age: 51
    Country of origin: Egypt
    Up close: As military commander of al-Qaida, al-Adel was part of the al-Qaida Management Council, which bin Laden instructed to go to Iran in November 2001 as Afghanistan collapsed. U.S. officials in the past have told NBC News that al-Adel is in some kind of custody in Iran. Iranian officials went further, saying he and the rest were "in jail." There were reports last year that he had somehow left Iran, but U.S. officials then and now said they cannot confirm that.

    Al Jazeera reported this week that al-Adel had been appointed interim leader of al-Qaida.

Video: Posthumous bin Laden message aired

  1. Closed captioning of: Posthumous bin Laden message aired

    >>> u.s. intelligence officials are poring over what was likely osama bin laden 's final message to the world . it was released by al qaeda overnight. nbc's chief foreign correspondent richard engel is in cairo with details. richard, good morning.

    >> reporter: good morning, matt. it was an audio recording released by al qaeda 's official media wing and it appears to be fairly recent and may have been made even as the cia was watching bin laden 's compound. it could be the last message osama bin laden made before he was killed by u.s. navy s.e.a.l.s. in the audiotape presumably recorded in pakistan, bin laden hails this year's revolts that toppled regimes in egypt and threatened million dollarset east leaders from libya to yemen. we watched this historical event and share in your delight. congratulations on your victories that was apparently osama bin laden 's. osama bin laden may have been trying to jump on the bandwagon of the popular revolutions and make himself more relevant. al qaeda had no part in the arab revolt which had been largely secular. in the audiotape bin laden encourages muslims to transform their street protests into an islamic revolution . there was a great rare and historic opportunity to raise the muslim world and be lip rated from enslavement to the wishes of rulers and manmade law in the western domination, he said. take advantage of it and destroy the idols and statues and establish justice and faith but the arab leaders are showing little interest. the audiotape was broadcast on al jazeera , but only 20 minutes into its programming. the news wasn't followed by analysts or guests. for most people in the middle east , bin laden missed the revolutions, which made his strategy and message of political change through terrorism increasingly irrelevant. most people in this part of the world, matt, slim don't want bin laden to be associated in any way with the ongoing revolutions. matt?

    >> richard engel in cairo. thank you very much.

Photos: The compound

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  1. Pakistani boys while demolition takes place on the compound where Osama bin Laden was slain in 2011 in the northwestern town of Abbottabad on Feb. 26, 2012.

    More photos from Abbottabad one year after Osama bin Laden (Aamir Qureshi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. An aerial view shows the residential area of Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden was found and killed by U.S. commandos. (Asif Hassan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A general view of the town of Abbottabad, May 6. Bin Laden was living in a large house close to a military academy in this garrison town, a two-and-a-half hour-drive from the capital, Islamabad. (Khaqan Khawer / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Supporters of Pakistani religious party Jamaat-e-Islami rally to condemn the killing of bin Laden, in Abbottabad on May 6. (Aqeel Ahmed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A Pakistani woman photographs her daughter on May , at a gate of the compound where bin Laden was caught and killed. (Aqeel Ahmed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. School girls pass by armed Pakistani policemen guarding the sealed entrance to the compound in Abbottabad, May 5, in which bin Laden had been living. (MD Nadeem / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Part of a damaged helicopter rests in the compound after U.S. Navy SEAL commandos killed bin Laden, May 2, in a photo made available on May 4. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Boys herd sheep past the compound where U.S. Navy SEAL commandos killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad May 5. (Akhtar Soomro / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Pakistani security officials arrive at the Osama bin Laden compound in Abbottabad on Wednesday, May 4. (Aamir Qureshi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Local residents gather outside a burned section of bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad. (Aamir Qureshi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A Pakistani police officer gestures at a checkpoint along a road leading to a house where bin Laden was captured and killed in Abbottabad. Area residents were still confused and suspicious about bin Laden's death, which took place before dawn on Monday. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Pakistani children look out from a high vantage point at bin Laden's compound on Tuesday, May 3. (Aqeel Ahmed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Pakistan army troops remove canvas screens from outside the compound's house. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Neighbors and news media gather around the compound, right, after authorities ease security around the property. (Aqeel Ahmed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A satellite image, taken June 15, 2005, shows the Abbottabad compound, center, where bin Laden was killed in on Monday. (DigitalGlobe via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A Pakistani soldier secures the compound. (T. Mughal / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. The compound is seen in flames after it was attacked early May 2 in this still image taken from cellphone video footage. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Part of a damaged U.S. MH-60 helicopter lies the compound. The helicopter was destroyed by U.S. forces after a mechanical failure left it unable to take off. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A still image from video obtained by ABC News shows blood stains in the interior of the house where bin Laden was killed. (ABC News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Aerial views released by the Department of Defense show the area in Abbottabad in 2004, left, before the house was built, and in 2011, right. (Department of Defense via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. A graphic released by the Department of Defense shows the compound where bin Laden was killed. (Department of Defense via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Pakistani soldiers and police officers patrol near the house, background, where bin Laden had lived. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. The hideout of bin Laden is seen the day after his death. (Farooq Naeem / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Students look toward the compound from a nearby religious school in Abbottabad. (Faisal Mahmood / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Pakistani security officials survey the walls of the compound where bin Laden was killed. The outer walls were between 10 and 18 feet high. (MD Nadeem / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Pakistani soldiers stand guard near the compound May 2. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Boys collect pieces of metal from a wheat field outside bin Laden's house, seen in the background, on May 3. People showed off small parts of what appeared to be a U.S. helicopter that the U.S. says malfunctioned and was blown up by the American team as it retreated. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Pakistani security officials stand guard at the main entrance to the compound on May 3. (MD Nadeem / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. An image from video seized from the walled compound of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, and released by the U.S. Department of Defense, shows Osama bin Laden watching TV. He is said to have spent his last weeks in a house divided, amid wives riven by suspicions. On the top floor, sharing his bedroom, was his youngest wife and favorite. The trouble came when his eldest wife showed up and moved into the bedroom on the floor below. (Department of Defense via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Above: Slideshow (29) After the raid: Inside bin Laden's compound - The compound
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    Slideshow (81) After the raid: Inside bin Laden's compound - World reaction
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    Slideshow (81) World reacts to death of Osama bin Laden - World reaction
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