U.S. ships, tourists abroad are targets

Attack in Jordan shows terrorist focus on Red Sea

August 20, 2005|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The failed rocket attack on a U.S. Navy ship at Aqaba, Jordan, reflects the vulnerability of a well-armed warship sitting in a foreign port and the focus by terrorists on tourist-rich destinations on the Red Sea, military officers and defense analysts said yesterday.

Navy officials said one rocket sailed over the Norfolk, Va.-based USS Ashland, which was in the Jordanian port supporting a military exercise involving U.S. Marines and Jordanian forces.

The rocket slammed into a warehouse on the same pier, leaving an eight-foot hole in the building and killing a Jordanian soldier.

Jordanian and Israeli authorities said militants fired the rockets from a warehouse in the Jordanian Red Sea port of Aqaba, according to the Associated Press. A group linked to al-Qaida claimed responsibility in an Internet statement. The statement, purportedly from the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, could not immediately be verified.

There were no injuries to U.S. personnel, and both the Ashland and the USS Kearsarge quickly sailed from Aqaba. It was the most serious attack on a Navy ship since the USS Cole was struck by a suicide boat in Yemen in 2000, when 17 U.S. sailors were killed and more than 40 wounded.

After that attack, the Navy ordered beefed-up security. Ships have additional sensors and armaments to ward off attacks; small, armed boats are employed to circle warships and prevent a boat-borne bomb.

Last year, two U.S. sailors and a Coast Guardsman were killed when a dhow approached an Iraqi oil platform in the Persian Gulf. A Coast Guard patrol vessel, the USS Firebolt, launched a small boat to intercept it. When the U.S. craft approached, the dhow exploded.

Now, U.S. government officials - from CIA analysts and Navy criminal investigators to State Department country experts - also devise intricate security plans with their foreign hosts before an American ship arrives, officials said.

Navy Cmdr. Danny Hernandez said U.S. and Jordanian officials came up with a "robust force protection plan" for the two American warships, which had arrived at the Jordanian port last week.

But Navy officials and security experts point out that even the best plans cannot prevent an attack on a sitting warship, hundreds of feet long, with a rocket fired from miles away. The unidentified rocket was a "long-range standoff weapon," according to Navy officials.

Some reports said it was a Katyusha, a favorite weapon once used by Hezbollah forces in Lebanon to attack Israel. It has a range of 12 miles or so.

"What are you going to do, throw a net around the entire town?" asks John Pike, a defense analyst at GlobalSecur ity.org.

"There's no way you can sweep that far," agreed Harlan K. Ullman, a national security analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Some Navy ships - including the Ashland - are armed with Phalanx Close-In Weapons Systems, rapid-fire 20 mm guns that can be programmed to shoot down missiles or aircraft automatically.

But the risks outweigh the benefits in a busy port, where such high-tech weaponry could mistakenly strike civilian aircraft or accidentally kill civilians on the ground, said officials.

"If they were at sea, certainly" the weapons would be used, said Norman Polmar, a naval consultant and author.

Despite the tightened security in place since the Cole attack, Polmar said that when a U.S. ship sails into a foreign port, "You're at the mercy of the local security people."

Concluded a senior Navy officer at the Pentagon: "You're never going to be 100 percent secure. You still have to do the mission, in this case offloading Marines."

Recently, the Red Sea region has been a lightning rod for terrorists, offering what the military calls "soft targets" - tourist destinations that are extremely difficult to secure. Repeated attacks in this area could also threaten Egypt's lucrative commerce and shipping business through the Suez Canal and into the Red Sea.

Officials pointed out that the Red Sea region does not have the security buildup of more urban areas and provides potential terrorists with additional freedom of movement. It also affords terrorists something of a geographic bonus - an ability to strike nearly simultaneously at Israel and two Arab governments detested by Islamic extremists, Egypt and Jordan.

Last month, a series of explosions in the Egyptian tourist resort of Sharm el-Sheik, on the Red Sea, killed dozens. In October, 34 tourists were killed at Taba, another Egyptian beach resort on the Red Sea. Yesterday in a nearby Israeli Red Sea tourist destination, Eilat, about nine miles from Aqaba, one of the missiles slammed into a taxi traveling near the city's airport, but it did not explode.

Shibley Telhami, a University of Maryland professor who studies Middle East issues, agreed that terrorists see the Red Sea tourist destinations as a new theater of operations. Aqaba is also in the midst of a building boom, with plans for additional resorts, Telhami said.

What he found most concerning was that the attack occurred in Jordan, known for its tight security. There is strong support for Islamic militants in the kingdom, a "huge challenge" for Jordanian leaders, he said.

Navy Lt. Leslie Hull-Ryde, a spokesman for the 5th Fleet in Bahrain, said that although the two Norfolk-based ships had left the port, exercises are continuing with the Jordanian military.

She would not say when Navy ships would return to Aqaba: "We don't discuss future operations or ship movements."

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