- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 20, 2002

ASSOCIATED PRESS
After months of searching the high seas, the international anti-terror coalition for Afghanistan captured four men with suspected al Qaeda links, possibly uncovering an escape route through Iran.
Two were captured by Canadian sailors last weekend in the Gulf of Oman and the others by a French warship Wednesday in the same general area east of the Arabian Peninsula.
In both cases, the men had sailed from Iran, two defense officials said yesterday on the condition of anonymity.
And the boat or boats used in both cases belonged to the same owner, one official said, declining to name the owner or his type of business.
The similarity of the two captures and the fact that they came after months of no luck in the ship-interdiction program has prompted military officials to question whether there is a pattern.
It was too early to tell until those detained were more clearly identified, one official said, adding it also is possible some of the men were merely pirates or criminals caught up in the terror-war dragnet.
U.S. forces yesterday were holding the four in detention facilities at a U.S. military base in Bagram, Afghanistan, where they had been airlifted for interrogation.
Searching everything from small wooden boats to huge commercial freighters, sailors from a dozen nations have scoured the seas in the hunt for al Qaeda terrorists fleeing Afghanistan or their weapons shipments.
They've questioned captains of more than 15,000 vessels. They've stopped, boarded and searched more than 180 ships and boats in spots stretching from the coast of Pakistan to the Mediterranean Sea to the Strait of Gibraltar.
But until now they have captured no one. And the only discovery of contraband was in February, when a Canadian ship patrolling the Arabian Sea discovered and sank a vessel carrying drugs.
Among other countries in the region, Iran and Iraq have served as corridors for al Qaeda fighters fleeing Afghanistan and going home to countries on the Arabian Peninsula and elsewhere, U.S. officials have said previously.
And Iran has temporarily sheltered some members of the terrorist organization, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has charged.
Iran has rejected accusations that it is tied to al Qaeda fighters fleeing Afghanistan.
The interdiction program began in late November in Afghanistan as the U.S.-led coalition in the war took city after city away from their former Taliban rulers. Officials feared Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders might flee the landlocked country, crossing Pakistan or Iran to the sea. Also, intelligence officials worried about information they had that bin Laden owned or controlled some two dozen ships and might be using them to smuggle drugs or diamonds or otherwise funnel money to terrorist activities.
Weeks later, the hunt for people in the region was expanded north to search vessels in the Mediterranean for weapons or anything that could be used to finance or promote terrorism.
Over the months, nations that have participated also include Australia, Bahrain, Britain, Italy, Germany, Japan and the Netherlands.
In the case of the February drug find, Canadian and U.S. ships sank a wooden vessel after a boarding party found 20 packages of hashish about the size of cement blocks, each wrapped in blue plastic stamped with the words "Freedom for Afghanistan" in English. Investigators have said drug-trafficking profits have been used to finance the al Qaeda network.


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide