In August 1996, Osama bin Laden published his fatwa, or declaration of war, in the London-based newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi. “Bring down their airliners. Prevent safe passage of their ships. Occupy their embassies. Force the closure of their companies and banks,” he wrote.
Five years later, al-Qaeda’s commander had succeed in three areas. In 1998, al Qaeda struck America on land, at two U.S. embassies in East Africa. In 2000, they struck at sea, bombing the USS Cole at a port in Yemen. But it wasn’t until the air attacks on 9/11 that America declared war against al-Qaeda and began to fight back. In the eight years since, there have been many attacks and attempted attacks by al-Qaeda on American soil and aimed at our airliners. But the seas have remained calm (the Somali pirates are not yet an official al-Qaeda proxy). Until now.
Just last month, only days after almost bringing down an airliner over Detroit, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula made a bold threat against the safe passage of America’s ships. A jihadist website posted the message: “The lions of al-Qaeda flirted with the American Navy several years ago when they targeted the destroyer Cole! Now, with the help of God, every American naval vessel in the seas and oceans: aircraft carriers, submarines, and all of its war machines within range of al Qaeda — will be destroyed, God willing.”
An al-Qaeda Web site last week announced that in response to U.S. targeting of al-Qaeda terrorists in Yemen it would launch a campaign against U.S. Navy interests, including seeking data on naval nuclear weapons and Navy personnel and their families.
Navy spokesman Lt. Nate Christensen confirmed the threat and says that the Navy has been put on alert. All Navy personnel and their families have been told not to tell their family members their whereabouts, harking back to the World War II adage “loose lips sinks ships.”
This is in part because the jihadist forum Al-Falluja has called for specific information about Navy ships’ whereabouts, including “name of the particular naval unit to be targeted, its exact location, the number of troops on board the warship and their ranks, familial status, where their families live, the type of weapons the warship carries … and the number of nuclear bombs onboard.”
While the Navy says it always asks its sailors to be vigilant, communications specialist Rick D. West elaborated on the Navy’s website:
“What we say and where we say it has never been more important,” West wrote. “Operational Security [OPSEC] has to be stressed at every level and I’m going to make sure our Sailors understand that very clearly. … If you have to wonder whether what you’re about to type could be used against you or your shipmates and your family, you probably shouldn’t say it.
While the Navy appears to be playing defense in this matter, it has also been playing offense elsewhere. Earlier this month, the Navy accepted delivery on its newest ship, the USS Independence. This is a ship unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. It is “small and stealthy; fast and agile … packed full of advanced technology sensors and communications systems, manned and unmanned vehicles and weapons systems,” writes Richard S. Lowry of OpFor. One look at it and you realize this ship is no easy target for a band of religious zealots in a skiff.
The USS Independence is what the Navy is calling a “new breed” of ships designed to play offense with terrorists and pirates. Classified a “littoral combat ship,” it has been designed to operate in the shallow waters of the world’s coastlines and built to fight conflicts that will mark the 21st century. “More often than not, our Navy will need to operate in dealing with cruise missile sites along the Iranian coast, chasing pirates off the lawless Somali coastline and weaving their way through the island nations of Indonesia and the Philippines,” writes Lowry, predicting that great naval battles of the 20th century are most likely a thing of the past.
In 2003, U.S. intelligence officials told Congress they believed that al-Qaeda controlled at least 15 cargo ships. “There were ships associated with bin Laden’s organization [that moved] weapons, and also people,” a defense official said. The fear was that al-Qaeda would use one of these ships to transport a dirty bomb into an American port. To date that has not happened. Instead, it seems al-Qaeda has been relegated to making threats around the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf.
Come February, they will have a formidable new nemesis in the USS Independence.