- The Washington Times - Monday, December 17, 2001

BERLIN Acting on intelligence gathered by American and allied agencies, the United States is tracking ships in the Mediterranean that have left ports in Africa and may be involved in smuggling goods to finance terrorist groups, according to a senior U.S. military officer in Europe.
Authorities are now working through technical and legal issues to decide if the ships, which are also suspected of carrying supplies to make weapons of mass destruction, should be boarded at sea or inspected when they try to dock, said the officer, who has been taking part in high-level daily intelligence briefings in Europe.
The ships are being tracked by the U.S. 6th Fleet naval forces, which operate in the Mediterranean, and other assets including satellites and AWACS aircraft. They are currently in areas ranging from North Africa to the Middle East, and most are suspected of being owned by or carrying economic cargo to benefit Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network, the officer said on the condition of anonymity.
"It's beyond just simply monitoring," he said. "It's posing real issues of possible to probable interdiction."
The officer would not be more specific about location or cargo.
Navy Capt. Gordon Hume, spokesman for U.S. Naval Forces Europe, which commands the 6th Fleet, said he could neither confirm nor deny the operation.
U.S. agencies have pieced together information about the ships with the help of the intelligence services of many countries spurred into a new spirit of cooperation since September 11.
Before the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, American agencies shared intelligence with one another but also often pursued leads independently. There was also a great reluctance to share information with other countries, even close allies.
Now, representatives from CIA, FBI, National Security Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency meet daily at U.S. headquarters across Europe, which have video or telephone links to one another, and share information they have gathered, according to the officer, who has been involved in many of the meetings. American agents are providing more detailed information to allies, who reciprocate with their own intelligence.
According to the Bundesnachrichendienst, the German equivalent of the CIA, about 300 intelligence agencies worldwide are cooperating in the hunt for international terrorists. To cope with the increased flow of information, the United States has increased its number of analysts in Europe sixfold since September 11, and they now number in the hundreds, the American officer said.
"Because of this enhanced coordination between agencies we're tracking more effectively the financial aspects of transnational terrorism so that we're better able to watch it from where the money flows and where the goods flow to whose hands they end up in," the officer said.
Bill Harlow, a spokesman for the CIA based in Langley, said the flow of intelligence between both American and international agencies has vastly expanded since the September 11 attacks. He would not comment on the tracking of the ships or other results of the information.
"As you recall, the president talked about how we would be asking for the support of governments worldwide in the fight against terror," Mr. Harlow said. "Any government that has information about terrorism, we would be asking them that it be shared with us [and] the sharing has increased dramatically in recent months."
In the case of the ships, the information came from African, Middle Eastern and the former Warsaw Pact countries of Eastern Europe that had intelligence sources at the docks watching cargo being loaded. They then passed the information to U.S. authorities through their own agencies, the officer said.
Intelligence sources provided information that al Qaeda owns or controls some two dozen ships, said two defense officials in Washington who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Several vessels have been boarded since the program began in November, and another 200 either contacted by radio or other signal and asked to identify themselves and their cargos.

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