US says al-Qa'ida using cargo ships for future attacks

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The Independent Online

US intelligence has identified 15 cargo ships that are apparently being used by al-Qa'ida to ferry supplies, operatives and merchandise around the world.

US intelligence has identified 15 cargo ships that are apparently being used by al-Qa'ida to ferry supplies, operatives and merchandise around the world.

Some of the ships are being tracked by spy satellite and surveillance planes. In other cases, information is being relayed to the US by informants. A large database has been established to monitor the movement of the ships.

"If all you do is wait for ships to come to you, you're not doing your job," Frances Fragos-Townsend, chief of US Coast Guard intelligence, told The Washington Post. "The idea is to push the borders out."

Despite efforts to monitor the ships, they are sometimes lost as they are given new names, repainted or re-registered to fictitious owners.

The scramble to keep track of the vessels highlights a growing concern among Western intelligence agencies about the vulnerability of merchant shipping and maritime targets to terrorist attack.

Ever since al-Qa'ida suicide bombers rammed an explosives-laden boat into the side of the USS Cole in the Yemen port of Aden in October 2000, killing 17 US sailors, there have increasing signs that the terror network has identified shipping as a vulnerable target.

In the past 12 months warnings have been issued to ships operating off the Horn of Africa and the Straits of Gibraltar. The most recent attack took place in October last year when a French tanker off Yemen was rammed by a speedboat packed with explosives, causing a large oil spill. In addition to attacks on merchant ships there is concern that terrorists could target cruise liners.

"This [shipping] industry is a shadowy underworld," said one American official involved in efforts to investigate the suspected al-Qa'ida ships. "After 11 September, we learnt how little we understood about commercial shipping. You can't swing a dead cat in the shipping industry without hitting somebody with phoney papers."

Intelligence officials said the ships suspected of being linked to al-Qa'ida ranged widely in size with some of the larger vessels capable of staying at sea for lengthy periods without needing to refuel, making them hard to monitor.

The search for vessels being used by al-Qa'ida also involves US and allied naval ships operating in the Arabian Sea in what is one of the largest naval hunts since the Second World War. Hundreds of ships have been searched and hundreds more have been ordered by radio to provide full information about their crew and cargo.

Officials said al-Qa'ida operatives were as likely to be using traditional dhows as a modern cargo vessels. US officials said they believed traders with small craft were being bribed to help al-Qa'ida fighters escape from Pakistan to Yemen.

US anti-terror efforts were boosted in November by the capture of Rahim al-Nashri, said to be al-Qa'ida's nautical mastermind in the Gulf. He is said to be co-operating with interrogators.

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