The Strange Case of the “Palermo Senator”

The searches that Geiger counter-packing FBI agents conducted on the Liberian-registered freighter Palermo Senator in New York on Monday, September 9 and Tuesday, September 10, left no doubt that the United States has strong suspicions or credible information – that either Iraq or the al Qaeda terrorist organization – or both – have nuclear weapons. Only recently have US port authorities taken to examining incoming merchant vessels for radiation.

As we write, members of the US Nuclear Emergency Security Team – NEST and Navy SEALS clamber over the decks and holds of the Palermo Senator, which has been marooned off-shore, south of Long Island, cordoned off by bobbing buoys and surrounded by Coast Guard vessels and US Navy warships.

The Palermo Senator saga began with unexplained noises coming out of several cargo holds when it docked in New York. Coast Guard agents were suspicious enough to order the ship to Port Newark, New Jersey, to be checked for stowaways. At Newark, the vessel, which is operated by the German company DSR/Senator Lines, was escorted six miles (10 kilometers) out to sea for further examination, after low traces of radiation were detected on board.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terrorism and maritime sources report that US authorities became alarmed when they learned that the ship had recently docked at the Italian hub port of Gioia Tauro on August 25 to take on a container cargo destined for the United States.

This port, situated on the southern Italian coast near the Straits of Messina, has long been on the “high risk” watch list of US counter-terrorism agencies and the US Coast Guard. Small container ships from the Black Sea, Mediterranean, Middle East, North Africa and Italy use the port, which has the distinction of having been revealed as the preferred transit point for al Qaeda fighters, senior commanders, weapons and nuclear, chemical — and possibly biological – materials on the move.

On November 30, 2001, DEBKA-Net-Weekly broke the story that, a month earlier, a 43-year-old Egyptian stowaway named Rigk Amid Farid had been caught at Gioia Touro port aboard the German vessel Ipex Emperor. He was ensconced in a container that had been converted into a luxurious suite complete with a comfortable bed, small kitchen, cellular telephones and enough food, water and batteries for three weeks. Canadian passports and entry permits for security men and mechanics to New York’s Kennedy airport, Newark airport and O’Hare airport in Chicago were also discovered in his suite. The Egyptian stowaway and his plush living quarters were exposed after dockworkers heard strange noises and alerted the Italian police.

An investigation showed the container-suite had been loaded on the Ipex Emperor at Egypt’s Port Said. It carried the serial number and was painted the color of the original container, 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 the identities and modus operandi of the planners of the al Qaeda human cargo container scheme, aside from that first glimpse.

According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terrorism sources, unexplained noises also emitted from several containers on Palermo Senator on September 9, recalling the case of the Ipex Emperor at Gioia Tauro. The Coast Guard alerted the FBI. The agents’ first thought was that they had finally found the 40-man al Qaeda terrorist squad, which the FBI learned last May was heading by ship for Los Angeles and which has never been traced.

The International Maritime Bureau in its last Piracy Report:

The FBI, along with the US Coast Guard, is urgently searching for a merchant ship believed to be heading for Los Angeles with a cargo of 40 al Qaeda terrorists and a cache of arms on board. The un-named ship is thought to have left the Middle East in May with the intention of landing its deadly cargo at Santa Catalina Island, about 20 miles south of Los Angeles, but so far has remained undetected. The threat is being taken seriously following earlier reports that two dozen al Qaeda fighters have already successfully managed to enter the US by pretending to be seafarers working on a containership.

(On June 14, DEBKA-Net-Weekly was the first to reveal that al Qaeda operatives were stealing into America disguised as seamen.)

The decision to order the ship to Port Newark and call up NEST was taken to ward off any risk of a mega-terror attack on New York during the 9/11 commemoration ceremonies. Special FBI and CIA units surrounded the Palermo Senator at Port Newark and embarked on the painstaking search that is still going on.

The searchers understand that any suspicion of al Qaeda operatives lurking in the containers presents US counter-intelligence agencies with a nightmare scenario come true, signifying that it was possible for a container ship carrying a large group of terrorists to dock at a large American city port. The US authorities therefore face the option of blowing up the vessel and sinking it – or unloading all 2,600 20-ft-long containers, one by one, to check their contents. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terrorism sources say this procedure would be extremely hazardous, in view of the little discovered by US counter-intelligence circles about the al Qaeda container route.

They now know that, with the apparent connivance of accomplices in shipping companies and ports, Bin Laden’s agents are able to arrange for containers to be loaded so that the smuggled terrorists can cut passageways through their walls – sideways, allowing them to move about at will, or upwards, enabling them to climb out at night for fresh air. By the same token, these armed, desperate men may well attack investigating teams and take them unawares during the searches of their man-made warrens.

If this wasn’t dangerous enough, radiation traces were detected on the Palermo Senator late Tuesday, September 9, a discovery that was passed on to the White House. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report two radioactive hot points – one in the container area of the forward deck, where the noises were heard, the other near the freighter’s passenger quarters. (The Palermo Senator has two spacious passenger cabins for four to six occupants. The cost of a New York-New York round-the-world voyage on the ship is $6,370 for a couple and $5,005 for a single passage.)

American security authorities are confronted with the need to determine:

— Whether a stowaway is on board the suspect vessel – al Qaeda or innocent.

— If al Qaeda, then how many men? What weapons are they carrying? And what are their orders in case of discovery?

— The source of the radiation and the degree of danger it poses.

— Was nuclear material still on board, or was it offloaded at one of the vessel’s port of calls together with a smuggled terrorist?

— Do those traces of contamination indicate that nuclear material was imported to the United States on a previous voyage?

Our intelligence and counter-terrorism sources estimate that finding answers to even some of those questions and making the right decisions will take several days. The first decision taken was to find out more about the container cargo. A search is therefore underway, its first stage expected to take until early next week. Meanwhile, the Palermo Senator remains under tight guard at a safe distance from American shores.

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