WASHINGTON, United States (AFP, Reuters, Jan. 3) – U.S. intelligence agencies are tracking about 15 freighters believed linked to the al-Qaeda terrorist network as the agencies develop the capability to sort through the world's 120,000 merchant ships for signs of terrorist activity, according to a report yesterday.

The freighters continuously change identity and in a cat-and-mouse game, U.S. spy networks rely on satellites, surveillance planes, allied navies and informants in overseas ports to stay on top of the their movements, U.S. officials told The Washington Post.

Since the terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard intelligence have maintained a list of alleged al-Qaeda mystery ships that has fluctuated between 12 and 50, the officials said.

Some of the vessels are as long as 122 meters and can go for extended periods without refueling, making them less likely to draw scrutiny, they added.

The United States fears the ships could be used to ferry al-Qaeda operatives, bombs, money or commodities around the world, and has been engaging in an exhaustive scrutiny of the cargo and crews aboard ships entering U.S. waters.

Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his aides have owned ships for years, some of which transported commodities such as cement and sesame seeds. But U.S. officials said one vessel delivered the explosives that al-Qaeda operatives used to bomb two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998, the Post reported.

Navy officials say al-Qaeda has used a shipping fleet called Nova, flagged in the Pacific island of Tonga, to ferry its operatives around the Mediterranean Sea. The ships frequently change names and country of registry.

U.S. intelligence agencies have set up large databases to track cargo ships and their crews and check them for "anomalies" that could indicate terrorist plots, said Frances Townsend, chief of Coast Guard intelligence.

"If all you do is wait for ships to come to you, you're not doing your job," she said.

"The idea is to push the borders out."

U.S. intelligence is also poring over the student lists of hundreds of seamen's academies worldwide that issue diplomas needed to work on most merchant ships. In many ports there is a brisk trade in fake certificates, U.S. officials said.

The task at hand is formidable, they said, because many merchant ships are notorious for hiding their ownership under layers of corporate subterfuge.

January 3, 2003

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