CDI.Org – The dangers of merchant shipping under terrorist control was highlighted for U.S. citizens late last December by a story in the Washington Post saying that U.S. officials had identified about 15 cargo freighters which they believed were being used by al Qaeda for both generating profit and potentially aiding terrorist attacks. The Post story cited the difficulties of tracking the vessels given the constant practice of re-naming, re-painting and re-registering the ships. It was reported that the material for the East African embassy bombings in 1998 had been delivered by a Qaeda-linked freighter.
However, much the same problem had been identified as early as September 2001, and reported in December that year by the British Observer newspaper, which said that at least 20 ships were being hunted by allied security services after investigations thought to be led, the newspaper said, by the Norwegian security service. More information began to become available after the November 2002 capture of a Qaeda official reported to be the organization’s maritime strategist and chief of operations for the Persian Gulf.
Since September 2001, the number of suspected Qaeda ships has varied from a low of a dozen to as high as 50, with the latest reference in late May this year being to concerns in western intelligence agencies about the activities of 20 ships whose actions were prompting suspicions that they were under Qaeda control. The situation is immensely complicated by the extensive use of ‘flags of convenience’ by maritime trade, in which ships often owned by Western companies are registered overseas to avoid stringent safety standards and other regulations routinely imposed by the U.S. and Western European countries. While the availability of cheap third world sailors and shipping has cut costs for many companies, the ‘flags of convenience’ issue has raised the potential risks to Western interests. The advent of cut-price competitors from the third world has also hastened the steep downfall in numbers of U.S. flagged merchant ships.
The giants in the ‘flags of convenience’ business are Panama and Liberia, with some 4,680 and 1,432 ships respectively reported on their registers. However, some 24 other states are also so named by the International Transport Workers’ Federation which scrutinizes such activities. One particular state that has repeatedly come to authorities’ attention in the last year is Tonga, which after searches in 2002, announced in June that it would close its registry. This followed a February 2002 incident in which eight Pakistanis jumped ship in Trieste, Italy, from a Tongan-registered ship operated by a shipping company named Nova. They falsely claimed to be crewmembers, and carried large sums of money and fake identification; U.S. officials said that they had been sent there by al Qaeda. Following the announced termination of the Tongan register in June 2002, which was to take effect a year later, another incident occurred in August when evidence was found linking 15 Pakistanis aboard a Nova-owned vessel to al Qaeda; the ship’s captain sent an SOS to Italian authorities saying he had been forced to take the men on board by the ship’s owners, and that the Pakistanis were threatening his crew with guns. Thousands of U.S. dollars, Italian city maps, and false passports and documents were seized from them. Since that point there have been a number of boardings by allied warships of both Tongan and Comoros Islands’ ships in the Mediterranean Sea, though no further illegal activities have been reported.
The most visible effort against these Qaeda ships takes the form of several naval forces authorized under various mandates to monitor and inspect merchant vessels in the Mediterranean Sea, Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, and the Arabian Sea. Two NATO task forces are operating in the Mediterranean, one under Spanish command guarding ships passing through the Straits of Gibraltar under Operation Active Effort, and another in the Eastern Mediterranean – Operation Active Endeavour – monitoring and on some occasions boarding shipping moving up from the Suez Canal. The Eastern Mediterranean group, supplied by the two NATO Standing Naval Forces Atlantic and Mediterranean in rotation, has been conducting the boardings noted above.
On the other side of the Suez Canal, the threat of terrorism in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, and the surrounding countries prompted the United States to establish a joint task force, bolstered by other countries’ forces, to pursue the war on terrorism in the area. Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) was established in November 2001, with its headquarters afloat aboard the U.S. Navy command ship Mount Whitney. In April 2002, the existence of a multinational naval force, Task Force 150, in the area, working alongside CJTF-HOA to monitor, inspect, board, and stop suspect shipping also became apparent. The group has been under the command of a number of European nations, currently through the multinational European Maritime Force, and consists of a number of European frigates and destroyers, usually with a U.S. escort also attached. It was the Spanish frigate Navarra from this force that intercepted the North Korean vessel Sosan carrying Scud missiles to Yemen on Dec. 9, 2002. Currently the force consists of two German and two French frigates, plus frigates from Spain, Italy, and Britain, as well as a U.S. destroyer and German replenishment tanker.
Further east, since the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, naval forces have been patrolling the Arabian Sea and Gulf of Oman to intercept any fleeing members of al Qaeda who might have escaped through the relatively lawless province of Baluchistan in western Pakistan, or through Karachi, to sea heading for Yemen or East Africa. For much of 2002 and 2003, Canada was leading the naval task group in the area which at various times had ships from Canada, France, Italy, Greece, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Britain under its command. However, the long effort has significantly strained the Canadian navy, and command of the force was handed back to the U.S. Navy in mid-June 2003. The effort will go on, however, with numerous nations continuing to send vessels to sweep the sea lanes.
This summary of the allied naval effort in the Mediterranean and Middle East amply demonstrates that the Qaeda freighter threat is being confronted far from the United States, and also at the greatest distance from Western Europe that the naval forces of the coalition states can provide. However the U.S. Coast Guard is closely monitoring waters closer to America in the Atlantic and Pacific. The Coast Guard, assisted by the Navy in cases, routinely runs counter-drug searches both within and beyond U.S. territorial waters. Perhaps more importantly, it has the right under U.S. law to board any vessel within U.S. territorial waters for any reason.
Added to the web of interagency intelligence relationships all interested bodies maintain, such measures should ensure that no suspect vessels are able to enter any U.S. port before being thoroughly checked, reducing the prospect that any of the suspected vessels will be able to destroy U.S. ports. Thus, despite the dangers inherent in al Qaeda’s control of such shipping, the immediate danger to U.S. port and coastal security appears to be less than initial impressions might suggest.