And now, over to terror by ship’s containers.
Even after more than three and-a-half years of escalating violence, the Ashdod Port double suicide attack Sunday, March 14, in which 10 port workers lost their lives, set up a landmark in the annals of Palestinian terror.
For it could only have been carried out in one of three ways. Either the Palestinians copycatted an al Qaeda method of operation, or the Palestinians entered into a direct operational partnership with al Qaeda in the US and the Middle East, or Al Qaeda operatives are ensconced in the Gaza Strip to orchestrate and upgrade Palestinian terrorist operations against Israel.
A hurriedly-sought Israeli court gag order prevented too many embarrassing details from leaking out before Israeli security officials had fully sized up the shock finding made early Wednesday by a port worker, who pulled a ring fixed to the wall of an incoming container and to his astonishment a secret compartment opened out.
The container had already passed inspection at the Karni crossing for transiting bulk merchandize to and from the Gaza Strip. Israeli security experts’ initial conclusion is that al Qaeda devised the Palestinians’ clever Trojan horse use of a shipping container to smuggle the two the suicide bombers into the heavily secured strategic Ashdod Port area on Sunday. Since the Madrid train bombings and the failure of Western intelligence agencies to prevent them, Israeli security agencies are as acutely concerned as any fellow services about al Qaeda tactics. (See News Box on this page under Headlines)
debkafile reported on March 15: “The episode laid bare a glaring hole recently opened up in Israeli intelligence in the Gaza Strip and not yet overcome. This hole was also evinced Saturday, March 6, when the first mixed Fatah al Aqsa-Hamas-Jihad Islami gang, using jeeps painted in Israeli military colors and sporting Hebrew signs” (albeit with the wrong Hebrew letter prefacing the numerals), surprised the Israeli military guard post at Gaza’s Erez crossing between Israel and the northern Gaza Strip.
“Their technical preparations and the jeeps driving towards Erez were not picked up by Israeli surveillance drones and aircraft patrolling Gaza’s skies who failed to alert the IDF troops at the crossing.”
Some Palestinian sources say they were transported there inside container trucks.
The container used at Ashdod had a concealed compartment with a cot and food for the teenage terrorists, who were apparently outfitted with Israeli army uniforms.
Al Qaeda has used lavishly appointed secret containers in the past to smuggle terrorists into and out of ports around the world. The Ashdod container had transited another port before arriving in Israel, raising the possibility that al Qaeda experts had carried out the conversion before it reached the Gaza Strip.
Israel would have reason to be even more alarmed should it transpire that the work was done in the Gaza Strip. It would mean an al Qaeda cell or headquarters has set up a base in the territory and is orchestrating a terrorist offensive through a Palestinian proxy.
Back on November 30, 2001, DEBKA-Net-Weekly, followed later by DEBKA file, were the first media outlets to draw attention to the danger of ship containers being used by terrorist groups, and especially by al Qaeda. In its follow-up story, DEBKA-Net-Weekly 39 reported on October 18, 2001 that a 43-year-old Egyptian stowaway named Rigk Amid Farid had been caught at Italy’s Gioia Touro port aboard the German vessel Ipex Emperor. He was comfortably installed in a container converted into a luxurious suite complete with soft bed, small kitchen, cellular telephones and enough food, water and batteries to last him three weeks.
He was armed with Canadian passports and permits that gained security men and mechanics entry to New York’s Kennedy airport, Newark airport and O’Hare airport in Chicago. An investigation showed the container-suite had been loaded on the Ipex Emperor at Egypt’s Port Said and painted over with signs labeling it as the property of the giant Danish Maersk Sealand container company, which it replaced.
With Europe still asleep at the wheel five weeks after the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, an Italian court ordered the stowaway released on bail. He disappeared without a trace, denying authorities a golden opportunity to discover how al Qaeda’s human cargo container scheme worked.
In DEBKA-Net-Weekly 64, on June 14, 2002, we disclosed that between 75 and125 al Qaeda operatives were known to have illegally penetrated the United States over a period of two months, mostly through American ports as stowaways in commercial sea containers. US port authority sources believed infiltrations occurred at New York, New Jersey, Long Beach, Miami and Savannah, Georgia, as well as Port Everglades, Florida. In Miami and Savanna, containers with clandestine human freight were unloaded from incoming vessels. Anti-terror squads shifted the boxes to a quiet corner of the harbor, drilled holes in their sides and filled them with gas and smoke bombs.
But the paper trail connected to the terrorist smuggling machine mysteriously disappeared along with the reports of insurance companies that issued policies for the containers.
Like its commercial counterparts, “al Qaeda lines” believed in class travel.
Inferior ranks of terrorists, usually Pakistanis, went “cattle class” – in containers with little food and water. Sometimes air holes were covered by other containers and they suffocated to death.
“Operational containers” were provided for terrorists fully armed with combat gear and weapons. Their bunks could qualify as “business class” with good sleeping arrangements, chemical toilets, medicine and lots of ventilation.
And finally, the al Qaeda elite went first class all the way, treating themselves to private compartments with air conditioning, purified water and de luxe food. A crew member-accomplice usually let them out at night for a stroll on the deck.
In some of the stowaway containers, US counter-terror authorities were dismayed to find uniforms of American dockworkers and even US Coast Guards, along with the correct tags and ID for providing holders with free access to port facilities, including off-limits sections.
On September 15, 2002, debkafile reported the strange case of the Palermo Senator, a Liberian-registered freighter that steamed into New York six days earlier. After unexplained sounds issued from several holds, the ship was diverted to Port Newark, New Jersey, to be checked for stowaways. But when low radiation traces were detected, it was escorted six miles (10 kilometers) out to sea for further examination by the US Nuclear Emergency Security Team – NEST — and Navy SEALS.
It transpired that the ship had docked in the United States after taking on its container cargo at Gioia Touro on August 25. US authorities had been alerted before its arrival. Thorough searches failed to turn up the 40 terrorists reportedly aboard. But what was found was an extraordinarily sophisticated honeycomb structure whereby once the ship was out in the open sea, the stowed away terrorists, helped by accomplices among the crew, cut passageways between the containers, and paid each other visits after dark.
The Bush administration is in the process of setting up a global security system to screen containers reaching all US ports and merchant shipping in dozens of major ports in Europe, the Far East and Canada, before they set sail for American shores.
And now, over to terror by ship’s containers.