LONDON (Reuters) – NATO naval forces, which tipped off Greece to a ship in its waters carrying 680 tonnes of dynamite, say they are hunting 20 “suspect” vessels that intelligence trackers say could be used by terror groups. “It’s in the order of 20: a moving list, moving target. Vessels fall off it and vessels join it,” Lieutenant Commander Harvey Burwin, a spokesman for “Operation Active Endeavour”, told Reuters in a telephone interview on Monday.
“Active Endeavour” is a maritime anti-terror operation that began in October 2001 and covers the Mediterranean Sea. Its activities have recently been stepped up, with suspicious vessels boarded and searched.
“The ‘Contact of Interest’ list are vessels which have achieved a level of suspicion by numerous intelligence sources and if they fell within our level of interest there is a possibility that they would be boarded and searched,” Burwin said.
“We look for ships that have had frequent changes of flag and ownership.”
Asked if the ships on the list were suspected of being operated by militant groups like al Qaeda, he replied: “Yes at the extreme.”
He said organisations like NATO, the U.S. Navy and national governments share information on suspect vessels.
NATO naval forces said on Monday they had tipped off Greece about the “Baltic Sky”, which was seized on Sunday by Greek special forces who discovered it was carrying 680 tonnes of explosives.
Greek Shipping Minister George Anomeritis said: “The cargo was destined for a company with a post office box in Khartoum that does not exist.”
Burwin said he could not say whether the “Baltic Sky” was on the “Contact of Interest” list.
“It would be reasonable to suppose that because this information has been shared it would certainly be a ship of interest # whether it resides on the list of ‘contact’ is something I can’t comment on.”
Burwin said two other Comoros Islands-flagged ships had been boarded in international waters off Cyprus in late April as part of a new anti-terror drive, but said the latest incident was unconnected.
The vessels were released after their cargoes were found to be in accordance with manifests.
NATO said the boardings, of which there have only been a handful, were the first to be made since the start of “Active Endeavour” in October 2001, although some 30,000 ships have been actively monitored in that time.