Flash Gordon Left Me The Keys

The TEST OF ALL MOTHERS

Friday, October 10, 2003

 
CHINA GOES BOLDLY WHERE TWO COUNTRIES HAVE GONE BEFORE

Sometime this month, from a town at the edge of the Gobi Desert and not far from the terminus of the Great Wall, one man, or maybe two, will blast into space.

After four unmanned trial flights, China hopes to launch and successfully return its yuhangyuan _ Chinese for astronaut, or literally translated, "universe traveler" _ aboard a spacecraft called Shenzhou V, adapted from the Russian Soyuz design.

China would become only the third nation in history to achieve manned spaceflight. The feat would follow the Soviet Union and the United States by 42 years, but would not diminish its significance for a country eager to join the ranks of the world's leading powers.

"For the Chinese nation, it is a big event," said Zhai Liyuan, a physicist with the China Association for Science and Technology. "In modern history, China has always been behind in science and technology. Now China can be at the same level as the world powers."

China's reach for the stars doesn't end with a low-earth orbit. It has stated its ambitions to explore the moon, build a space station and send a probe to Mars by 2020.

The propaganda value of such achievements is undeniable. It would help bestow legitimacy on a Communist leadership struggling with a multitude of social and economic ills, while galvanizing national pride and proving the country's technological prowess, analysts say.

But beyond the prestige, Beijing hopes its space program will bring technical benefits to the military and help spur advances in communications, medical technology and other fields, much as the Apollo program did for the United States in the 1960s.

A government white paper on the space program, published in 2000, acknowledges an attempt to recapture a bit of China's ancient glory.

"The Chinese nation created a glorious civilization in the early stage of mankind's history," it said. "The gunpowder 'rocket' invented by the ancient Chinese was the embryo of modern space rockets."

The white paper goes on to call the space industry "an integral part of the state's comprehensive development strategy."

"Practically speaking, the main goal for China is, like the United States did, to accelerate high-level scientific developments," said Zhai. "Internationally, the vast majority of patents, inventions and scientific discoveries are from the developed countries. China has very few." Although China has been launching satellites for more than 30 years, the manned space program was started partly as a reaction to the advanced U.S. military technology displayed in the 1991 Gulf War, according to Charles Vick, a consultant for globalsecurity.org and an expert on the Chinese and Russian space programs.

"The information warfare that we developed and utilized during that war was overwhelming," said Vick. "It had a high impact on their military. They realized how weak they actually were."

The following year, China began its program to send a man into space.

"The key to modern wars lies in outer space, where the most advanced national defense appliance of the United States, the missile defense system, is established," said Chen Ning Yang, a physicist and American Nobel laureate now associated with Tsinghua University, in a recent interview with Hong Kong media.

More generally, the military will benefit from gains in associated industries, including materials, electronics and robotic systems, Vick said. It would also benefit from improvements in procedures such as controlling and maneuvering spacecraft and eventually docking a spacecraft.

The space program also sends a strong message to political rival Taiwan, noted Dean Cheng, senior Asia analyst with the CNA Corporation, a non-profit think tank.

One the one hand, it can be viewed as "a cudgel ... a means of reminding Taiwan that the Chinese can attain the strategic high ground," Cheng said, while also being an appeal to the people of Taiwan to "feel some of the glory" of the Chinese nation.

Competition with India, which has announced plans for a lunar mission in 2008, is prodding China.

"Chinese scientists think if they don't intensify their efforts, they will fall behind India," Zhai said. "It's a worry for them."

The Shenzhou (or "divine vessel") spacecraft, based on the Soyuz but overhauled by Chinese scientists, first took off in 1999. It orbited for one day. Subsequent launches were for seven days each and increasingly complex. Shenzhou III carried a human dummy and Shenzhou IV had a life-support system.

The date of take-off for Shenzhou V is being kept secret. Officials have said only that it would take place by the end of the year. The National Space Administration refused requests for interviews.

The Web site of Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV quoted unnamed experts as saying it would happen between October 10 and 17 and carry two men. Weather is a factor in determining the date.

The spacecraft, along with the Long March 2F rocket that will launch it, were moved several months ago to the well-guarded Jiuquan Space Launch Center in Gansu province in northwestern China.

Fourteen fighter pilots, all male, have been training in secret to be China's first astronauts. Two of them trained in Russia in 1997. Their names have also been kept secret, but the 21st Century News said three have been selected as candidates for the first flight.

Although China may be a bit late, its first flight may exceed the American and Soviet ones in several ways. When cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space in 1961, he orbited once, returning to earth in less than two hours. Alan Shepherd, the first American in space less than a month later, made a suborbital flight that lasted just 15 minutes.

Phillip Clark, a British expert on China's space program, expects China's first manned mission to stay in space for nearly 24 hours, orbiting the earth about 14 times. The craft is expected to return to earth to a grassland site in Inner Mongolian.

Chances of success are good, Clark said.

"It's reasonably certain they will be successful with a single-person crew or multi-person crew," said Vick. "They're getting their feet wet and it's getting real now."


 
RED FLAGS ON GITMO SPY SUSPECT

The latest suspect in the Guantanamo spy scandal flunked out of Army interrogation school, was rejected for a security job at Boston's airport and was under surveillance by Massachusetts police.

Despite the red flags, Ahmed Mehalba, 31, managed to get security clearance to be an interpreter helping interrogate suspected members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

"I would think they would have done a background investigation," said Tim Brown, a senior fellow at Globalsecurity.org, a Washington-area research group.

Mehalba was on his way back to the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, from Egypt when he was stopped Monday by Customs officials at Boston's Logan Airport.

He lied about having classified information from the base on a computer disk in his luggage, according to court papers.

It was not the first time Mehalba raised the suspicions of the feds.

In 2001, his name came up during an investigation of his girlfriend, fellow soldier Deborah Gephart, who was arrested for allegedly stealing a car. Authorities said they found a laptop computer in the car that contained classified information. Mehalba had been discharged days before the arrest for medical reasons and after flunking the interrogation program, Army officials said.

On Sept. 13, 2001, he applied for a security job at Logan, according to officials at the Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs the airport.

"He was never considered or interviewed and was sent a form rejection letter," a spokeswoman said.

Around the same time, Mehalba, living in the Boston suburb of Salem, caught the eye of a cop assigned to watch for possible terrorist activity, according to the Salem Evening News.

"I can say I was aware of him [in 2001], but because of this investigation, I can't say why," Detective Sgt. Michael Andreas told the newspaper.

Before Mehalba joined the Army, he filed for bankruptcy in 1997, owing about $27,000, according to the Boston Herald.

Soon after, while he was working as a cabbie at Cambridge Star Taxi, the owner sued him for failing to report traffic accidents to the police and insurance companies.


 
3rd arrest intensifies spy worries

The arrest of another translator at the U.S. prison for terror suspects at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, has cast broad doubts about security on an operation already reeling from espionage allegations.

Ahmed Fathy Mehalba, 31, a civilian translator who reportedly had tried and failed to become a military interrogator, was detained in Boston's airport after arriving from Cairo, Egypt, carrying a CD-ROM that held what appeared to be military secrets, officials said.

Identified by authorities as a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Egypt, Mehalba is the third worker suspected of breaching security at Joint Task Force-Guantánamo, the controversial detention-and-interrogation operation where the United States is holding about 660 al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects indefinitely.

Those arrests -- all acknowledged within the past two weeks -- are drawing scrutiny to the screening process for linguists, the translators on whom the military relies when questioning al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects who speak Arabic, Pashto, Dari and other languages.

"It's starting to look like there's been a major penetration at Guantánamo," said Tim Brown, an analyst at GlobalSecurity.org, an Arlington, Va., think tank.

Commanders say they are trying to gauge the extent of the damage caused by the apparent security breaches. Analysts called it disastrous.

"When you have this individual coming back from Egypt with the CDs and the documentation on his person, I would have to assume that the entire system has been compromised," said Michael Waller, a professor at the Institute of World Politics in Washington. "I would have to assume that the identities of the detainees have been compromised, that what they have said or not said has been compromised, and that their physical locations and the locations of the American personnel have also been compromised."

In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the FBI issued a broad appeal on behalf of the federal government for help from people who spoke Arabic and other Middle Eastern languages. Some say that call provided an opening for enemies to infiltrate the military and other government agencies.

"There's no telling how much damage has been done," said Steven Emerson, director of the Investigative Project, a counterintelligence research group. "It's larger than a breach of security at Gitmo. This is really a breach of the U.S. military, of national security."

Given a massive backlog in military background checks, Waller said, it is doubtful that thorough checks were performed on the translators.

At a brief hearing Tuesday at U.S. District Court in Boston, Mehalba entered no plea to a charge of making false statements and was detained pending another hearing scheduled for Oct. 8. He could face up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 if convicted. Officials said more charges were possible.

Mehalba spoke during the hearing only to tell the judge that he could not afford an attorney. Michael Andrews, the attorney appointed to represent him, said Mahalba "intends to vigorously defend himself against these charges."

Mehalba was arrested at Logan International Airport in Boston on Monday after arriving on a flight from Cairo with a stop in Milan, Italy.

Agents with Customs and Border Protection were conducting a routine examination of Mehalba when they found a military identification tag showing he was a contract linguist at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, according to a government affidavit filed at U.S. District Court in Boston. Mehalba said he was a private contractor for the Army and produced an ID card for the base.

He was carrying 132 compact discs, the affidavit said. He said the discs contained only music and videos, but agents checked his bags and found at least one that appeared to contain unspecified classified information, some of it marked "SECRET," the affidavit said.

Mehalba denied knowing how the information got on the disc, saying he bought the discs in Guantánamo Bay "as blanks," the affidavit said.

Pentagon officials said Mehalba worked at Guantánamo Bay for the San Diego-based defense contractor Titan Corp.

Titan Corp. did not return phone calls Tuesday. Describing the recruitment process in June 2002, a Titan official said some candidates for the translator jobs were found through the Internet, newspaper ads, language associations and word-of-mouth. They underwent health checks and extensive criminal-record checks, and many underwent additional national-security clearances and polygraph exams, the company said at the time.

As a soldier in the Army, Mehalba twice started but failed to complete the course to become an interrogator, two defense officials told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity. He received a medical discharge from the Army in May 2001 and later was hired by Titan to work at Guantánamo Bay, the officials said.

The officials said they did not know why Mehalba didn't complete the courses, or why he received the medical discharge.

Analysts have criticized what they describe as a relaxed approach to screening translators.

"Any government agency for sensitive positions checks backgrounds, and most businesses do, if someone's going to be hired for a sensitive position," said Waller, of the Institute of World Politics. "In these cases, the background checks were very casual if they took place at all."

Mehalba was the third worker, and the first civilian, to be arrested after working with the detainees at Camp Delta, the supermax-style prison at Guantánamo Bay.

Air Force Senior Airman Ahmad I. al-Halabi, another translator, is accused of sending classified information about the prison to an unspecified enemy, and planning to give more information to a person traveling to Syria. Arrested in July, he has been charged with espionage and aiding the enemy, offenses that could bring the death penalty. He has told government investigators that he is innocent.

Army Capt. Yousef Yee, a West Point graduate who ministered to the prisoners as the only Muslim chaplain at Guantánamo Bay, was arrested Sept. 10 after authorities found him with what they said were drawings of the prison camp and lists of prisoners and interrogators. He has been held without charge while authorities investigate. Family and friends have described the allegations as incredible.

Pentagon officials say other personnel also are under suspicion in what they have described as an ongoing investigation. In a statement Tuesday, the U.S. Southern Command said an assessment team would work with officials at the prison to review security procedures and measures and "will immediately recommend reinforcement or correction of established procedures."

Waller called the possible breaches a "worst-case scenario."

"We had set up such a compartmented, well-organized system," he said. "The organization of the camp down there was great. And all the processes and procedures was great. The fault was the lack of security toward key personnel who were placed there or who volunteered to go there.

"Who knows if these individuals were organizing these prisoners in some way? Who knows if they had information that could be used in a rescue attempt, or, conversely, assassination attempts on those who have been cooperating?

"If you presume that all of your information is now in the hands of the enemy, you have to figure out what they can do with it."


 
Effort to equip planes with missile-defense technology gains momentum

After an Israeli charter jet was nearly struck by two shoulder-fired missiles over Kenya in November, however, aviation and government officials were forced to reconsider. They were further shaken by the knowledge that thousands of portable missile-launchers are loose in the world and could fall into terrorists' hands.

Now, a strong push is on to equip the entire domestic passenger fleet with systems designed to defend against missile attacks. Doing so could cost more than $10 billion, but proponents say the alternative is unthinkable.

"If one surface-to-air missile is fired at a single plane - it doesn't even have to hit - that would be the end of aviation as we know it," said Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y.

Israel has introduced legislation - mirrored in the Senate - requiring that all 6,800 planes in the passenger fleet be outfitted with anti-missile devices at government expense. The airlines would pay for systems on new aircraft.

"We need to install these countermeasures sooner rather than later," Israel said. "What are we waiting for?"

Others in Washington are asking the same question. As a result, a once-plodding exploratory process has suddenly accelerated.

This month, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it had earmarked $100 million for an 18-month research-and-development program and would solicit proposals from contractors. "It is a fairly aggressive timeline," said Brian Roehrkasse, a department spokesman.

Eager to prove that military technologies are transferable to commercial aviation, several U.S. and foreign contractors are gearing up for what figures to be a spirited competition.

Raytheon Electronic Warfare Systems of Goleta, Calif., for example, is promoting its SafeFlight system, designed to divert an incoming missile with hundreds of wafer-thin, chemically coated metal discs. The discs drop, confetti-like, and upon hitting the atmosphere give off a brief burst of heat, drawing the missile away from its intended target, an engine.

SafeFlight has proven effective in testing for the Air Force, said Ron Coleman, a Raytheon spokesman, although it is still conceptual and has not been tested on civilian-class planes. It would be paired with a warning device, an Israeli-made Doppler radar unit that is used on military and commercial aircraft.

Coleman estimated that SafeFlight could be installed on an airliner for $600,000 to $700,000 and become available in 12 to 18 months.

Northrop Grumman's Defensive Systems Division in Rolling Meadows, Ill., is touting a product called Nemesis. Already used on 21 types of military planes, it combines a warning system with a laser that jams the missile's sensor and sends the projectile off course.

The system needs just three seconds to detect and divert a missile, said Jack Pledger, the division's director of business development. The cost would range from about $1 million to $2 million per plane, depending on how many aircraft are outfitted, Pledger said. The device could be adapted and certified for the U.S. passenger fleet in about nine months, he said.

A Minneapolis firm, ATK, says its advanced flare-based system - known as AAR-47 and already deployed on about 1,000 cargo and troop carriers in Iraq and Afghanistan - would be easily transferable to passenger planes, at a cost of less than $500,000 per plane.

"We could take our system tomorrow and begin outfitting commercial aircraft with it," said ATK spokesman Bryce Hallowell. The fast-burning flare it discharges to alter the course of a missile cools before it hits the ground, he said, eliminating any fire risk.

Roehrkasse, of the Department of Homeland Security, said that all the technologies require further study. He would not predict when or if actual installation might occur.

"We'll be looking at things such as overall effectiveness as well as cost," he said.

In the meantime, officials will continue to look for vulnerabilities at large airports and take other measures to shore up security on the ground.

Some believe the department is dawdling.

"I don't know what needs to be studied," said John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, a nonprofit defense and security analysis group in Alexandria, Va. "I would just get everybody in a room and tell them I'm not going to let them out of the room until we've got a plan. These missiles are pervasively available, and the United States is extremely dependent on air travel."

Vendors have told Congressman Israel that they could begin installing systems within a year of the enactment of his bill.

If there's a hang-up, Pike surmises, it's the anti-missile program's potential multibillion-dollar cost, which neither the airline industry nor the government is eager to bear.

"The Department of Homeland Security still can't pronounce the word `billion.' They still have a `millions' mentality," Pike said. "You have to think about it as an insurance policy and think about the potential disruption to the economy if you took a big hit on air travel. That utterly dwarfs the cost of just going out and buying (the systems)."

Not everyone is convinced that shoulder-fired missiles pose the biggest menace to aviation. Some members of Congress have focused instead on the potential for bombs to be placed on cargo aircraft or in the cargo holds of passenger planes. Last week, Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., bemoaned the defeat in the House of a cargo-screening provision that, in his view, would have closed "a gaping loophole in our airline security plan."

An official with the Air Transport Association, a trade group that represents major U.S. carriers, agreed that the industry faces threats other than missiles - a rocket-propelled grenade attack on a taxiing plane, for instance. Dick Doubrava, the group's managing director of security, said that "experts familiar with the (anti-missile) technology" suggest that the cost of outfitting the passenger fleet could exceed $80 billion.

If the government decides to go ahead with the anti-missile program, Doubrava said, it should cover all of the costs. "It's a national defense issue," he said.

Roehrkasse said that there have been 35 attempts to shoot down civilian aircraft - none of them American - with shoulder-fired missiles since 1978. Twenty-four planes, and more than 500 lives, were lost in these attacks, most of which occurred in war zones.

Roehrkasse emphasized that there is no intelligence indicating a terrorist organization "plans to use these weapons to shoot down an aircraft in the United States."

About 500,000 shoulder-fired missiles are thought to exist worldwide, most in military inventories but some within the reach of terrorists. Made primarily in the United States and Russia, they weigh about 35 pounds, and older units can be had for as little as $5,000 on the black market.

The missiles have a range of about 12,000 feet, putting at risk large, slow-moving passenger and cargo planes taking off or landing.

"The threat is credible," said Capt. James Shilling, legislative and security liaison for the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations. "If I were the bad guy, this would clearly be one of my weapons of choice."


 
Northrop Struggles to Control Costs

Northrop Grumman Corp., the sole builder of U.S. nuclear aircraft carriers, is struggling to control costs on the military's latest ship almost two years after acquiring the business, according to Navy documents.

The price for the CVN 77, to be named for former President Bush, has risen $22 million to $3.17 billion, the documents show. That's after the Navy scrapped a $500-million weapons system and opted for 1960s-era technology to save money. The ship is about 30% complete.

Northrop must absorb 30% of the cost overruns, which would eat into the potential profit margin of 17%. The 2002 purchase of the Newport News shipyard, a 550-acre facility along Virginia's waterfront, made aircraft carriers Northrop's second-largest business. They accounted for 12% of Century City-based Northrop's $17 billion in total sales last year.

"One of the rationales of the acquisition was that they would take costs out," said Merrill Lynch analyst Byron Callan. "Whether Newport News is a better company being part of Northrop is still an open question."

The 30% overrun penalty is an important concern for Northrop investors because the carrier program provides the company some of its highest profit margins, said Nicholas Fothergill, an analyst at Banc of America Securities in London.

"Newport News is really a cash cow," Fothergill said. It allows Northrop "to generate $1 billion in cash a year, which they couldn't do before."

The average profit margin at Newport News, based in the Virginia city of the same name, is about 10%, Fothergill estimates. That compares with Northrop's margin of 8%.

Northrop's shares fell $1.96 to $86 on the New York Stock Exchange. They have fallen 32% in the last year.

The aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan, commissioned in July, was 28% over budget.

The Bush originally was projected to cost the same as the Reagan's final price tag of $3.14 billion, including the shipyard's profit, according to the Navy's Program Executive Office for Aircraft Carriers, which gave written responses to questions submitted by Bloomberg News.

The Navy and Northrop are renegotiating terms of the Bush contract related to the weapons system, said Navy spokesman Lt. David Luckett. He declined to elaborate.

If Northrop met its cost target of $2.69 billion and its scheduled 2008 delivery for the Bush, it stood to make a profit of $446.9 million, according to the Navy documents.

Northrop's performance in controlling costs on the Bush could help decide the fate of that program, said Patrick Garrett, a naval analyst at Global Security, a nonprofit organization in Virginia that studies defense policy.

"If things get delayed and run over budget on the Bush, they might run into some problems with the future carrier program," Garrett said.


 
Guantanamo airman with ties to Syria charged with spying

An Air Force translator who worked with suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay has been charged with passing information about the prison camp and its detainees to Syria and enemies in the US war on terrorism, according to military officials and documents filed in the case.

Senior Airman Ahmed I. Al Halabi, who worked for nine months at the controversial US camp before he was arrested in July, could face the death penalty if convicted of espionage and aiding the enemy in a military court. His military attorney denied the charges.

Halabi was the second member of the military stationed at the base on the island of Cuba to be identified as a potential spy in just three days. Air Force Major Michael Shavers said that while US officials do not know whether there is a connection between Halabi and Captain James Yee, a Muslim chaplain who officials alleged also had classified documents, the two were at the base during the same period. "Guantanamo is a small base; pretty much everybody knows everybody else," Shavers said.

Halabi worked as a translator at Guantanamo's Camp Delta from Nov. 15 to July 15. According to documents detailing 32 charges filed in the case, he allegedly tried to pass along information about the identities of detainees, as well as communications from them, including two written notes and 180 electronic versions of written notes "which directly concerned intelligence gathering and planning for the United States' war against terrorists."

He is also charged with trying to pass on documents detailing the transfer of prisoners to and from Camp Delta and layouts of the camp. Other charges included illegally handling classified materials, taking photographs of the facility, communicating with the detainees without permission, lying about his activities, and bank fraud.

Some charges refer to Halabi aiding or communicating with an unnamed "enemy," but at least eight specifically name Syria as a foreign nation that would have benefited from his activities, and one charge said Halabi failed to report a contact with the Syrian Embassy. Officials from the Syrian Embassy could not be reached for comment yesterday. Two other charges mention Qatar, which has been a staunch US ally in the war against Iraq, as being a potential beneficiary of his activities.

Halabi's military attorney, Air Force Major James E. Key III, told the Washington Post, "Airman Halabi is not a spy, and he is not a terrorist." The Post said Halabi is a native of Syria who moved to the United States as a teenager.

The Post reported that relatives of Halabi said investigators are misinterpreting the young man's innocent contacts with the Syrian Embassy in Washington recently, which occurred as he arranged visits to his home country to bring his Syrian-born fiancee to the United States. The woman lives in the Persian Gulf, and Halabi had planned to arrange for her to move to the United States.

Syria is one of seven nations listed by the Department of State as state sponsors of terrorism. Relations between the United States and Syria were strained in the Iraq war. During the major combat of the Iraq war, for example, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld warned the Syrian government against passing military supplies to forces opposing the United States.

"This may just be a classic case of an intelligence agency doing what an intelligence agency does without thinking what the possible consequences might be," said Ian Cuthbertson, director of the counterterrorism project at the World Policy Institute. With 150,000 US troops in neighboring Iraq, "I don't see them rushing to pass the information on to Al Qaeda."

Halabi was arrested on July 23 and charged on Aug. 27. Additional charges were brought on Sept. 12.

Yee, who completed his religious training in Syria, has not been charged with any crime.

Counterterrorism specialists were split over how serious a threat to security the Halabi case represented.

Tim Brown, a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, said such a breach would be "fairly damaging," because not only could Al Qaeda potentially confirm who was being held at the Guantanamo facility, but they could learn what questions the detainees are being asked.

"The questions can be as interesting as the answers," Brown said. "Any of that that got back to Al Qaeda would allow them to know to what degree their organization has been compromised."

But Cuthbertson said that the damage was greater from a public relations perspective.

"It's embarrassing that such a massive security breach happened at what was supposed to be one of the most secure facilities we have," Cuthbertson said.


 
Terror lurks on high seas


Terrorism experts fear that the world's oil tankers, sea lanes and major ports are dangerously vulnerable to 9/11-scale attacks that would cripple world trade.

They cite an alarming combination of factors, including terrorist-connected Southeast Asian rebels involved in piracy, the difficulty of tracking suspect vessels in the murky world of commercial shipping, and an Al Qaeda fleet that could be as large as 300 vessels.

Plots that have already been carried out include the October 2000 attack on the U.S. destroyer Cole in the port of Aden in Yemen, which killed 17 sailors, and the attack last October on the French supertanker Limburg.

Plans that experts fear could be in the works include sinking a massive tanker in one of the chokepoints in the world sea lanes or packing a ship with explosives and sailing into a vital harbor and detonating it.

"Unless the international community invests more resources to monitor and track terrorist ships today, we are likely to suffer another 9/11 inside a port like the New York Harbor in the coming months," said Dr. Rohan Gunaratna, author of "Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror," who has been studying maritime anti-terrorism efforts.

This summer, the world was reminded of the potential dangers when Greek authorities seized a suspicious ship headed for Sudan in the Mediterranean Sea. It was found to be loaded with 750 tons of ammonium nitrate and 140,000 detonators.

NATO, which has been conducting surveillance of merchant vessels in the Mediterranean since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is monitoring 50 ships suspected of having ties to terrorism.

Frighteningly, the vessel stopped by the Greeks was not on the NATO blacklist.

Al Qaeda line

"There's been a lot of talk about the Al Qaeda fleet of merchant vessels," said Tanner Campbell, vice president of the Washington-based Maritime Intelligence Group. "They have owned and operated vessels in the past directly and indirectly."

Terror chief Osama Bin Laden is believed to have ties to anywhere from 15 to 300 vessels, ranging from a shadowy fleet of small fishing trawlers to freighters, experts say.

Locally, the Port Authority has increased security measures at its terminals since the Sept. 11 attacks. Ships coming into the harbor now must alert authorities of their arrival 96 hours in advance. The agency also has increased inspections of cargo from ships and trucks entering the sprawling port.

Since last summer, U.S. intelligence agencies have been picking up chatter from terrorists about ships, ports, bridges and divers.

Then, in November, authorities arrested Abdul Rahim Mohammed Hussein Abda Al-Nasheri, Al Qaeda's chief of naval operations who planned the Cole bombing.

Nicknamed the Prince of the Sea, Al-Nasheri has allegedly confessed to planning more attacks on U.S. and British warships as they traveled through the Strait of Gibraltar.

Maritime security experts say an attack in a major shipping lane like the Strait of Gibraltar would cause a huge bottleneck of freighters and tankers that could have a catastrophic impact on the world economy.

NATO has become so concerned about maritime attacks in the Mediterranean that this past spring it began stopping and boarding suspicious ships, and escorting tankers through the strait.

Perhaps the most vulnerable sea lane is the Strait of Malacca, according to George Friedman, head of Stratfor, a business intelligence firm.

"If you were to close the Strait of Malacca, the disruption to international trade would be astronomical," Friedman said.

The strait passes by Aceh, an oil-rich region at the tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, where rebels have been waging a bloody civil war.

The Free Aceh Movement - which has been linked to Jemaah Islamiyah, the Islamic group charged with the bombings of two Bali nightclubs last October - have increasingly turned to piracy.

On Sept. 2, the London-based International Maritime Bureau, which tracks crime at sea, issued warnings to shippers that attacks against small oil tankers were on the increase in the Straits of Malacca. The attacks "follow a pattern set by Indonesian Aceh rebels," according to the bureau report.

Rebels board tanker

In mid-August, a band of 14 men with assault rifles dressed in fatigues and claiming to be Aceh rebels boarded a Malaysian tanker carrying 1,000 tons of fuel oil and took the ship's master, chief engineer and a crewman hostage for a week, and released them only after receiving a $100,000 ransom, according to Agence France-Presse.

Perhaps more ominous, the Lloyd's List shipping registry of London reported in February that a group of Indonesians who fought with the Taliban in Afghanistan and call themselves Group 272 are believed to be plotting to destroy an oil tanker in the Strait of Malacca.

Japan, which gets all of its oil via the Strait of Malacca, is preparing to send a fleet to bolster security there.

The Gulf of Aden, where both the Cole and Limburg were attacked, also remains a hot spot of terror and piracy, said the bureau's deputy director.

With 120,000 merchant vessels in the world, many of them operating with questionable or phony documents, maritime anti-terrorism forces are facing an overwhelming task.

"We have a global maritime surveillance capability that was basically designed to keep track of a few hundred big Soviet warships," said John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, a Washington research group. "Now you've got thousands of little no-name ships all over the world and you have no idea who they belong to and what they're carrying."


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