CAIRO — An obscure al-Qaida-linked group said Wednesday one of its suicide bombers attacked a Japanese oil tanker in the Persian Gulf last week – a claim that, if true, would be the first time the terror network has attacked the Japanese.
There have been conflicting reports about what happened to the M. Star supertanker, which was damaged July 28 in the Strait of Hormuz – a transit point for about 40 percent of tanker-shipped oil worldwide. An investigation into the cause of the damage is ongoing.
The Brigades of Abdullah Azzam posted a statement on the Internet claiming responsibility for attacking the vessel. The statement's authenticity could not be independently verified but it appeared on websites that usually carry militant groups' messages.
The ship's owner, Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, said it was aware of the militant posting and was investigating the claim.
A crew member was injured and the tanker sustained a square-shaped dent on the rear side of the hull during an incident that occurred as the Marshall Islands-flagged vessel entered the strait shortly after midnight. At the time, the ship, loaded with 270,000 tons of oil, was heading from the petroleum port of Das Island in the United Arab Emirates to the Japanese port of Chiba outside Tokyo.
The militant statement identified the purported bomber as Ayyub al-Tishan and carried his picture, showing him dressed in a white Arab robe and head-cover and pointing to a photograph of a tanker on a laptop. It said the bomber was a "martyr" – meaning he had died in the attack. It also said it had delayed the announcement until several group members who were involved in the operation "returned safely to base."
The statement claimed the attack meant to "weaken the international blasphemous system that plundered the wealth of the Muslims" and mocked officials who had said the tanker may have been damaged from an earthquake, describing those remarks as an effort by authorities to conceal the nature of the attack because of the effect it could have on oil prices and world economy.
Originally, Mitsui said the tanker damage was caused by "an attack from external sources" while the vessel was passing through the strategically vital waterway between Iran and an enclave of Oman surrounded by the United Arab Emirates.
"The truth and reliability of this statement is not clear, and so we will not comment on it," said Hidenobu Sobashima, a deputy press secretary at Japan's Foreign Ministry. Sobashima said he was not aware of any attacks by al-Qaida groups on Japanese individuals or company assets in the past.
Mitsui spokeswoman Eiko Mizuno said the tanker was still being investigated at the Emirati port of Fujairah. "We believed the cause (of the blast) came from outside, not something from inside the tanker," she reiterated.
Emirati officials had no comment on the militant claim.
Lt. Cmdr. Corey Barker of the U.S. 5th Fleet in Bahrain said the Navy had no information on the claim. The 5th Fleet is offering support to Mitsui as it investigates what caused the accident, Barker said, but he declined to say what specifically the shipping company has requested or what help is being provided.
"The investigation is still under way, but at this time we don't have any information to put out," Corey said.
The little-known group claiming responsibility was named after Abdullah Azzam, a mentor of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
The group also said in its statement the tanker attack was a tribute to blind Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, convicted 15 years ago and serving a life sentence for conspiracies to blow up New York City landmarks.
The Brigades have in the past claimed responsibility for the August 2005 firing of Katyusha rockets that narrowly missed a U.S. amphibious assault ship docked at Jordan's Aqaba Red Sea resort but killed a Jordanian soldier. It had also claimed the July and October 2004 bombings at Egypt's Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik and two other resorts that killed a total of 98 people.
Al-Qaida has in the past carried out attacks on oil infrastructure on land in nearby Saudi Arabia, as well as a 2002 suicide bombing against a French oil tanker off the coast of Yemen and the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden.
Associated Press Writers Jay Alabaser and Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo, and Adam Schreck in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.