Fears of atomic smuggling in ships date back to the very dawn of the atomic age. On August 2, 1939, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt informing him that work by his colleagues Leo Szilard and Enrico Fermi indicated that uranium could shortly be an important source of power that should be developed with caution. Noting that uranium could “also lead to the construction of bombs,” Einstein speculated chillingly that “a single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory.” Roosevelt received the missive on October 11 and passed the letter to an aide with the annotation, “This requires action.” Ten days later, on order of the President, the first meeting of the Advisory Committee on Uranium (the “Briggs Uranium Committee”) was held in Washington. Six years and US$2 billion later, the world entered the atomic age.
Einstein’s prophecy is now a security nightmare for the modern world. Maritime authorities worldwide are worried about ensuring the safety of their ports and ships from terrorist attack. Recent press reports have discussed a number of merchantmen under al Qaeda control, but hard evidence is difficult to come by. Even estimates of al Qaeda’s “fleet” vary widely, from a low of fifteen to a high of 300 vessels. The unhappy fact is that al Qaeda has already struck twice at sea against both warships and merchantmen. For overworked maritime security officials, it is no longer a question of “if,” but rather “when” and “where.” The grim reality is that, with a global maritime fleet of 120,000 vessels, any solution for inspection and search is going to be haphazard at best.
Fortunately, al Qaeda’s top maritime specialist is in custody. Al Qaeda’s chief of naval operations was “Prince of the Sea,” Abdulrahim Mohammed Abda al-Nasheri (also know as Mulla Ahmad Belal). Western intelligence believes that al-Nasheri masterminded the October 12, 2000, USS Cole attack while the ship was refueling in Aden, Yemen. Seventeen sailors were killed and at least forty others injured in al Qaeda’s first successful naval attack, which blew a forty-foot hole in the port side of the ship. Repairs eventually cost US$287 million. U.S. officials concluded that al-Nasheri telephoned orders to the USS Cole bombers from the United Arab Emirates. According to U.S. intelligence, al-Nasheri subsequently fled to Afghanistan. U.S. intelligence believes that, after the 9-11 attacks, Khalid Shaikh Mohammad and al-Nasheri were “promoted” within al Qaeda, taking over operational planning for future attacks.
On May 15, 2003, the Department of Justice identified al-Nasheri as a veteran and instructor in the al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, and named him as an unindicted co-conspirator in the USS Cole attack. The indictment also charged that al-Nasheri was involved in an earlier failed attack against the USS The Sullivans while the ship was refueling in Aden on January 3, 1999. In June of 2002, Zuhair Helal al Tabaiti, one of three Saudis arrested in Morocco, admitted meeting Osama bin Laden and undergoing military training in Afghanistan. While al Tabaiti denied having been asked to carry out any military attacks, he admitted that he was gathering intelligence about the movements of NATO ships in Gibraltar for al-Nasheri, whom he had met while in Afghanistan.
Al-Nasheri was suspected of involvement in a number of other al Qaeda plots as well, including the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings. One of the suicide bombers in the attack on the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, known only as Azzam, was believed to have been his cousin. Al-Nasheri traveled under a number of false identities, including Umar Mohammed al-Harazi and Abu Bilal al-Makki. U.S. intelligence believes that al-Nasheri was in Ghazni, Afghanistan, when the U.S. campaign against the Taliban began in October, 2001. Al-Nasheri is believed to have fled to Pakistan when the Taliban fell and in recent months might have gone to Yemen. Some tribesmen in Yemen, however, said he had gone to Malaysia.
U.S. authorities also suspect al-Nasheri of being behind plans to bomb the Fifth Fleet Headquarters in Bahrain, a plot disclosed in January of 2002 by another top al Qaeda guerrilla, who was captured by Pakistan after fleeing Afghanistan. The Fifth Fleet has responsibility for the Persian Gulf and provides ships for the operations of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). Among the Fifth Fleet’s responsibilities is monitoring sea traffic from the Arabian Sea to the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf.
In Western custody since he was captured in an undisclosed country in November of 2002, al-Nasheri has allegedly confessed to planning additional attacks on U.S. and British warships in the Straits of Gibraltar and in the Mediterranean. At the time of his arrest al-Nasheri was the highest-ranking al Qaeda operative apprehended since the CIA, FBI and Pakistani authorities captured bin Laden’s operations chief, Abu Zubaydah, in Faisalabad, Pakistan, in March of 2002. Al-Nasheri is reputedly a Saudi of Yemeni ancestry who served as a founding member of al Qaeda in 1989.
The threat of al-Nasheri’s operatives was taken sufficiently seriously by Western maritime powers that in the early spring of 2003 a preemptive policy was adopted of stopping and boarding suspicious ships and also of escorting tankers through the Straits of Gibraltar. NATO, which has been monitoring merchantmen in the Mediterranean since the September 11 attacks, is currently tracking fifty ships suspected of terrorist ties.
Al Qaeda not only attacked the USS Cole, but scored a grim success seventeen months later against a tanker as well. On the morning of October 6, 2002, a French tanker, the 299,364 DWT-ton Limburg, was rammed by an explosives-laden boat off the port of Ash Shihr at Mukallah, 353 miles (570 km) east of Aden. A crewman was killed and the double-hulled tanker was breached. The impact on the Yemeni economy was immediate, as maritime insurers tripled their rates.
Despite the romantic image of pirates, the violent seizure of merchantmen on the high seas is a growing problem; in 2001, 335 incidents occurred, a figure that rose the following year to 370. In the first six months of 2003, 234 attacks against merchantmen were recorded, with the waters of the Indonesian archipelago being regarded as the most dangerous. The sixty-four attacks that have occurred there account for nearly a quarter of the global total. Because nuclear devices smuggled on ships are the ultimate nightmare, security specialists lose sleep over the possibility of terrorists making common cause with pirates. It is a worrying fact, therefore, that three of the worst piracy zones are the Muslim nations of Indonesia, Bangladesh and Somalia.
The problems of security are exacerbated by the nature of international shipping. Ironically, while maritime law was first codified in the seventeenth century, the sea remains a largely lawless frontier, where narrowly constrained national interests move with glacial slowness to develop international legislation. The International Maritime Organization, the UN’s 162 nation maritime counterpart, is notorious for the plodding nature of its legislative process. Under current IMO regulations, merchantmen are forbidden to carry firearms for self-protection, a charmingly archaic bit of legislation that singly fails to address the realities of the post 9-11 world. The UN estimates that maritime traffic now accounts for 80 per cent of the world’s commerce–5.8 billion tons in 2001. Cutthroat competition that reduces profits, flags of convenience, miserable wages–all are problems bedeviling the maritime community, creating a statistical nightmare for security specialists.