Britains North Sea oil rigs and coastal refineries are prime targets for Al Qaedas fleet of twenty-eight ships. The vessels are feared to contain suicide bombers and cargoes of explosives and poisons, including anthrax. Code-named Operation Noble Eagle, By Gordon Thomas… the ships are being hunted in the biggest sea search since the British Royal Navy tracked and sank the Nazi raider, Bismark, and the pocket battleship, Graf Spee, in World War Two. South African aircraft and warships are searching far into the South Atlantic to find the terror ships. The Pacific and Indian Oceans are being searched by the Australian and New Zealand navies along with warships from the Gulf. The Russians are conducting surveillance operations into the North Sea. Neal Adams, a Houston based off-shore security and anti-terrorism consultant, said that oil rigs and refineries are attacks waiting to happen. There is a significant threat because oil is the lifeblood of the Western world. But last weeks government White Paper has infuriated Britains Naval chiefs. Its cutbacks mean many destroyers that could be used to intercept bin Ladens fleet of death will soon be retired. So will long-range reconnaissance aircraft. Even as Secretary of Defence, Geoff Hoon, was making his announcement almost certainly his last major decision before the Hutton Report in the New Year is expected to censure him and end his ministerial career the ultra-secret United States Shipping Coordination Centre in San Francisco intensified tracking the Al Qaeda ships after receiving new intelligence. The Shipping Centre is at the core of the Pentagons Global Command and Control System. Formed in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, the System has an open-ended secret budget and access to all CIA and intelligence from MI6 and other agencies. But it is still like looking for a matchstick floating in the vast empty spaces of the oceans. By the time we think we have a fix and get our ships into the area, they have gone, said a naval intelligence officer in Washington, engaged in Operation Noble Eagle. But last week came what the officer called a major breakthrough. It followed important information from some of the nine British terrorist suspects held at Camp Delta on Guantanamo Bay. They agreed to talk to MI6 and CIA agents in return for a guarantee they will be sent back to Britain to face trial. Their information has already led to the recent widespread arrests of terrorist suspects in Britain. Three of the detainees at Camp Delta have now provided hard details about the bin Laden fleet. It identified their countries of registration, including Senegal and Liberia. Several of the ships fly the flag of St Vincent and the Grenadines in the West Indies. The tiny Caribbean nation has a population of only 111,000. But 1,350 ships fly its flag. Like the German raider ships of World War Two, bin Ladens vessels constantly change their names, flags and appearances, said the senior US naval intelligence officer. Among the details the Britons have provided are the names by which the Al Qaeda ships identify themselves to their land controllers in Afghanistan via short-burst radio transmissions. One ship is known as Thawra (Revolution). Another is named Nidal (Struggle). Master terrorist Abu Nidal was bin Ladens own hero. A third has the call sign Tahereer (Liberation). Other names include Saber (Patience) and Jihad (Holy War). Flying flags of convenience, the ships avoid stringent checks on their crews, cargoes or passengers. US intelligence documents confirm that an Al Qaeda ship carried the explosives used to bomb two US embassies in Africa in 1998. Another ship brought in the explosives that destroyed the Bali night club complex. Last year in Trieste, Italy, eight Al Qaeda operatives were arrested on terrorist conspiracy charges the day after they came ashore from a Liberia-registered ship. By then, it had disappeared beyond the horizon. The latest reporting from the System puts the Al Qaeda ships somewhere south of the Equator. The difficult task of finding them is compounded by the way the ships assume the names of innocent vessels. Last month, the bulk carrier Athena was bordered when US intelligence sent a red alert to South Korea to hold the ship and crew as it is suspected of having Al Qaeda links. But Lloyds Marine Intelligence Unit in London lists six vessels of the same name. The one held in South Koreas Kunsan port was found to be carrying a cargo of logs from New Zealand. Its owner, Petrobulk Maritime in Athens, was told their ship had been a subject of mistaken identity. But we didnt expect an apology. These are dangerous times, said a spokesman. A Rand Corporation report, produced in cooperation with the EU, warns that the international community has not become significantly aware of Al Qaedas threat at sea. The focus is still on stopping an attack from the air. And former CIA director, James Woolsey, warned that terrorist attacks against a port or oil rig are a malevolent reality. A senior US Navy intelligence officer helping to hunt the Al Qaeda armada said: Oil rigs and refineries are at their highest risk since 9/11. We have good information that some of the bin Laden boats are carrying high powered speedboats. These could be launched off shore with a thousand pounds of explosives on board. Their suicide crew could ram them into an oil rig or refinery. Christmas is a time when security can lapse due to human failing. Al Qaeda will see this as a chance for them to also celebrate by hitting their targets. Gordon Thomas is the author of Gideons Spies: Mossads Secret Warriors.

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