Cruise ships in the Mediterranean could be targeted in a terror attack by militant groups armed with Russian weapons, a top British commander warned yesterday.
Vice Admiral Clive Johnstone, the UK’s highest naval officer in Nato, said Islamic State’s spread into Libya had cast an ‘uncomfortable shadow’ over the sea.
In stark remarks, he revealed the IS terror group are attempting to build a navy to wage war against the West.
He said there was a ‘horrible opportunity’ that a ‘very high quality weapons system’ would be used to hit ships crossing the sea, having ‘extraordinary implications’ for the Western World.
Speaking onboard a Spanish Nato ship in London yesterday, Vice Adm Johnstone said that Nato must not get ‘hustled out’ of eastern Mediterranean water space.
He said: ‘Nato mustn’t think the Mediterranean is just about immigration. It is the spread along the North African seaboard, it is the Daesh entry into Libya, it is the Daesh control of Sirte and other places, which has an uncomfortable shadow over maritime trade and maritime access.’
Conflict and revolt across the region had made it more difficult for Nato countries, including Britain, to ‘ascertain what threats are there’, he said.
He added: ‘At the same time, we are tracking the spreads of really quite capable Korean, Chinese and Russian hardware, into bodies such as Hamas and Hezbollah and other places.’
While they were not targeted at Nato or commercial shipping at the moment, he said: ‘There is a horrible opportunity in the future that a misdirected, untargeted round of a very high quality weapons system will just happen to target a cruise liner, or an oil platform, or a container ship.’
He said: ‘The eastern Mediterranean has started to become a competed space.
‘We are not in any war, we are not in any period of tension, but there are quite a lot of actors with a say there and we have just got to make sure we can access that, with all the freedom of navigation in international law we want. Does it worry me, yes, quietly it does worry me a bit.’
He said he believed an attack on ships such as cruise liners would be an act ‘which is almost a mistake…or it will be an act of random terrorism that will suddenly have extraordinary implications for the Western world’.
Last year it was revealed that IS militants were building a ‘retreat zone’ in Libya to avoid international air strikes in Syria and Iraq.
As many as 3,000 jihadist fighters are believed to have travelled to the war-torn country to create a strategic hub for recruits unable to reach IS in its Syrian heartland.
Speaking about the Russian threat to Nato, Vice Adm Johnstone revealed how defence officials were looking to move submarines from the Gulf back to protect countries such as Britain.
He said he was ‘worried’ about Russian submarines coming close to Britain’s waters. He said there was more activity from Russian submarines than Nato has seen since the days of the Cold War.
‘We were used to in the Cold War playing a game of cat and mouse… but it is very different from the period of quiet submarine activity that perhaps we’ve seen in the past.’
He said he was starting to see nations ‘who in the past had prioritised to have submarines in the Gulf or eastern Mediterranean’, ‘now looking to reinvest that capability’ to protect British, French and American waters.
In October 1985, Palestinian gunmen hijacked an Italian cruise liner in the Mediterranean and threatened to blow it up.
The Achille Lauro was on its way to the Israeli port of Ashdod with more than 400 holidaymakers and crew onboard.
The four heavily armed gunmen demanded the release of 50 Palestinian militants imprisoned in Israel.
If their demands were not met, they threatened to blow up the ship and kill the 11 Americans on board. The next morning, they also threatened to kill the British passengers.
They ended up shooting an American-Jewish pensioner in a wheelchair and then threw him overboard.
On July 10, 1986, an Italian court convicted three of the terrorists and sentenced them to prison terms ranging from 15 to 30 years.