United States spy agencies claim Al Qaeda possesses a maritime fleet of between 12 to 50 vessels. Used to ferry operatives, position explosives or move commodities around the world, the names of ships and their ownership details are constantly being altered to confuse CIA and FBI surveillance, according to reports from Washington. Tracking some of the freighters by satellite or surveillance planes and eliciting the help of friendly navies or paid informants, the CIA has positively identified 15 cargo ships it claims are involved in the terrorist networks operations. The difficulty is that in the murky world of maritime transportation the exact ownership of any vessel that does not want to be identified, is difficult to prove.
As they struggle to keep tabs on the unregulated and secretive global maritime industry, US authorities worry that Al Qaeda is planning a sea borne attack on American ports or US cruise ships. The terrorists demonstrated their capabilities in the attack on the French tanker `Limberg' last year. The suicide bomb attack, off the Yemeni coast, employed much the same technique as that used against the USS Cole in Aden harbour in which some 17 American sailors lost their lives.
"US agencies have set up large databases to track cargo, ships and seamen in an effort to search for `anomalies' that could indicate terrorist activity," Frances Fragos-Townsend, chief of US Coast Guard intelligence service revealed.
Osama bin Laden and his aides have owned ships since their anti-Russian jihad in Afghanistan. Used to transport legitimate cargoes of honey, cement and sesame seed for the organisation's trading businesses the same ships are also used to deliver explosives for suicide missions against US facilities.
The interception late last year of 15 North Korean scud missiles--complete with warheads and propellant--en route for Yemen, proved that even large items can be successfully concealed. Was it not for US satellites capturing the vessel leaving a North Korean port and tracking it halfway across the world's oceans, the deadly cargo would have remained undetected.
US sources say many of Al Qaeda's freighters are ocean going vessels, some over 400 feet in length. With such long-range capability, these freighters are difficult to track because there is no necessity for them to use ports of call for refuelling. Generating profits for the organisation through legitimate commodity transportation, these freighters can also be used to...