Terrorism: July 22, 2002


: The ghost of Teddy Roosevelt must be smiling, as Allied naval units have recently caught some Al Qaeda terrorist on the high seas. The Canadians were the first to capture suspected terrorists with a coalition warship since the start of the war in Afghanistan. Three 25 foot (8 meter) aluminum high-speed boats suspected of smuggling migrants in the Gulf of Oman were spotted by a Canadian surveillance aircraft shortly before noon on 13 July.

Canadian Navy Commodore Eric Lerhe then directed the French ship "Guepratte" to inspect the boats. After Lerhe learned that one of the speedboats was carrying 10 Afghans, the destroyer HMCS "Algonquin" was brought alongside to verify the identities of the people on board. The names and pictures of the Afghans were sent them to intelligence services for verification.

By 21:30, two of the Afghans had been identified as possible terrorists but haze and fog had descended, allowing the three speedboats to flee into the night. A Dutch patrol plane tracked them and guided "Algonquin" to within 300 yards of the speedboat with the suspects. When the "Algonquin"'s Captain Gary Paulson could see them, they used flares, zenon lighting and white lighting to finally pinpoint the terrorists.

Paulson sent a rigid-inflatable boat with an eight-strong boarding party to the suspects. Expecting trouble, they found the men hostile and outspoken, but unarmed. What followed sounds like one of the politest naval actions in history. The Captain told his boarding party to give them some water and fruit, then start talking to them until the crew got their final orders to detain the two suspects.

Sub-Lieutenant Cam Tkachuk was then able to convince the Afghans that they wanted to question them for a bit more, and to please embark in their boat. The prisoners were fed and given medical attention, but locked in separate cells aboard the "Algonquin" until picked up the next morning by a US helicopter. Lerhe would not say how the Navy was so certain that the men were Al Qaeda, only that they had been tipped off.

The French ship "Guepratte" caught two suspects on 17 July, although fewer details are available about this incident. The two spent the night aboard the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy and were transferred to the carrier USS George Washington the next day, then flown to the US detention facility at Bagram, Afghanistan. 

The 13 July incident was also the first time that Canadians handed over prisoners to U.S. forces, since the controversial capture of Al Qaeda suspects by special forces in January. Canadian vessels have contacted thousands of fishing and merchant ships in and around the Gulf of Arabia. Since September, coalition warships have boarded more than 180 ships and questioned operators of more than 15,000 vessels, as part of the effort to find fleeing Al Qaeda members. - Adam Geibel


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