(CNSNews.com) - Intelligence presented at an anti-terrorism conference in September shows that the al Qaeda terrorist network has obtained a variety of vessels and systems capable of carrying out sub-surface naval attacks on individual ships, seaports and the cities that host them.
While Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda operatives have been suspected of building what might be called a potential terrorist navy since 2001, new information shows those naval assets now include mini-subs, human torpedo systems and divers trained in underwater demolitions.
The growing threat of sub-surface terrorist naval attacks was revealed to attendees at the Terrorism in the Asia Pacific Conference in September.
Delegates to the threat and response conference, held in Singapore, were briefed on mini-sub and human-torpedo systems captured in early 2002 from an al Qaeda cell operating in Southeast Asia.
While some details remained classified and were withheld for security reasons, the captured sub was described as a small, non-pressurized 'wet sub' capable of accommodating up to a half-dozen divers with SCUBA equipment. Such subs are capable of operating at depths of up to 130 feet, officials said.
A photograph of the sub presented to the conferees indicated the vessel to be about 10 feet long, and it's not known whether others are in the hands of terrorist groups.
As for the human-torpedo systems, officials said they represent the underwater equivalent of explosive devices used routinely by suicide bombers in Israel.
Photographs showed the systems involved human-guided underwater sleds equipped with explosives designed to detonate on contact with a ship's hull.
News of the mini-sub and torpedo sleds follows numerous reports about other ships bin Laden and al Qaeda operatives are believed to own and operate.
Initial reports of a so-called terrorist navy began to surface shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S., with the fleet believed to number 20-24 vessels, according to a variety of previously published reports.
The al Qaeda Navy
In a threat assessment presented at the Singapore conference, the al Qaeda vessels were described not as warships but commercial vessels believed to function as revenue generators for al Qaeda, and officials are concerned they could be deployed for terrorist activities or used as floating bombs.
According to Tanner Scott Campbell, director of Maritime Intelligence for Washington Policy & Analysis, a Washington, D.C.-based political consulting group, a large vessel filled with highly explosive materials or fuel could be, "rammed into another vessel or other port infrastructure. Collisions involving such massive vessels have the potential to cause significant destruction."
Campbell noted that the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has warned of liquefied natural gas (LNG) carriers and other ships carrying extremely volatile cargo being effectively used as weapons of mass destruction in major ports.
"The New York port, the third largest in the country, is located in the middle of a city," Campbell said. "Such an operation and the devastating consequences [it would create] warrants a new and much more systematic approach to the modern sailing vessel and its potential."
Estimates presented at a recent maritime security meeting predicted the detonation of a large, LNG carrier could approximate the power of a thermo-nuclear device.
According to a briefing at the Maritime Security Council's (MSC) annual International Maritime Security Summit, held in Washington, D.C. in October, a large ship loaded with LNG could explode with a force of .7 megatons, considerably more powerful than the 15-kiloton nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan during the closing days of World War II.
But commercial ships and ports aren't the only vulnerable targets. Cruise ships with thousands of passengers and virtually no defenses are also at risk, and Campbell pointed out that "Navigation along narrow sea lanes that are not well policed proves especially dangerous to vessels."
Campbell cited the activities of the Islamic Group of Egypt, which he said has been "conducting terrorist attacks against cruise liners sailing on the Nile River," since the 1990s.
At the MSC summit, a highly placed executive in the U.S. cruise ship industry who requested anonymity, told CNSNews.com , "Our ships are pretty well defended from the land side while in U.S. ports, but that's not the case while they are at sea. There's just no easy answer to protecting cruise ships while they are underway."
A recent statement by the MSC reiterated what officials from the Coast Guard, Customs Service, and other agencies told the House Subcommittee on National Security, Veterans Affairs and International Relations at a Nov. 18 hearing.
"Terrorists have little to keep them from the cargo ships and ferry boats plying [New York City] waters. Many of the roughly 6,000 cargo containers that enter the Port of New York and New Jersey each day go un-inspected, making it difficult to stop terrorists from using one to smuggle in a nuclear weapon," the MSC said James Kallstrom, a senior counter-terrorism adviser to New York Gov. George Pataki and a retired FBI special agent, agreed and cited passenger boats like the Staten Island Ferry as easy targets.
The Kamikaze Approach
Al Qaeda's most effective maritime attacks to date have been carried out not by tankers, mini-subs or human torpedoes, but by small boats loaded with explosives and operated by suicidal terrorists.
The first such attack was planned for the USS The Sullivans, a U.S. Navy destroyer bearing the surname of the celebrated 'Fighting Sullivan Brothers,' who were killed together when their ship was sunk by the Japanese during the battle of Guadalcanal in 1942.
The January 2000 attempt on The Sullivans failed when the terrorist boat sank after being overloaded with explosives. But a second planned attack was successful later that year. Seventeen American sailors aboard the USS Cole were killed in October 2000 when the ship was attacked at anchor in Yemen's Aden Harbor. One of the primary players in that attack, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, was arrested in November and is now in U.S. custody.
In October 2002, an al Qaeda suicide team, operating a high-speed boat off the coast of Yemen, attacked a French-owned supertanker, the Limburg, resulting in one crewman's death and a massive oil spill.
Aside from death and damage, the attack also resulted in sudden increases in insurance premiums on oil tankers sailing in the Persian Gulf and other high-risk regions. Shortly after that incident, an audiotape of Osama bin Laden praising that attack and others was released.
The government of Yemen responded by issuing a warning to all vessels in its territorial waters, that its security forces would attack any boat approaching a tanker within 3,000 meters.
The government did not make clear who would be doing the shooting - the Yemeni military or security forces aboard individual tankers.
This policy, still untested, raises difficult legal questions involving responsibility for any deaths caused by such a counterattack on a suspected terrorist vessel that might actually be a craft operated by innocent fishermen or other mariners straying too close to a tanker.
But on April 23, the USNS Walter S. Diehl, an American oiler, repelled a group of six speedboats as it sailed through the narrow Straits of Hormuz off the Iranian coast.
The crew used the ship's .50-caliber machine gun to fend off the boats, but it is not conclusively known whether they were crewed by organized terrorists or run-of-the-mill pirates.
Terrorists As Pirates: The Nuclear Cargo Threat
In July, the Bangkok Post cited Panithan Wattana, a Thai delegate to a recent terrorism conference held by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), warning of acts of piracy in which nuclear materials might be stolen.
Wattana's warning stated that al Qaeda terrorists acting as pirates were targeting vessels ferrying uranium and plutonium oxide through the Malacca Straits along the western coast of the Malay Peninsula in Southeast Asia.
Whether these materials could be used in the construction of a small thermonuclear device or incorporated into a 'dirty bomb,' which uses conventional explosives to spread radioactive materials, is not known.
According to the IMB, there were 649 reports of piracy in the Malacca Straits in 2001.
Indonesian waters are also considered ripe hunting grounds for terrorists, with 72 reported attacks in the first nine months of 2002. Bangladesh has also seen an increase in such attacks and may surpass Indonesia by the end of the year.
Dr. Rohan Gunaratna, from the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews, summed up the capability of Al Qaeda's naval assets when he argued that the group's terrorist cells are "probing the gaping holes in the post 9-11 security architecture."
Gunaratna predicted, "Wherever there are resources and opportunity, al Qaeda super cells will strike.""
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