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Expert: Al Qaeda Planning Seaborne Attack

The Al Qaeda terror network likely is planning an unprecedented maritime attack, hitting targets on land with ships carrying chemical, biological or dirty bomb weapons, a defense analyst said Wednesday.

The terrorist network could easily exploit weaknesses in shipping companies' crew selection procedures by planting sleeper agents on vessels to eventually seize them, said Michael Richardson, a senior researcher at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (search) who writes extensively on Asian security issues.

"The Al Qaeda network has serious maritime terrorism plans," Richardson told diplomats, academics and defense officials at the institute.

Singapore's Coordinating Security Minister Tony Tan (search) has warned repeatedly since November that there is a "very serious" risk of terrorists using ships to attack the city-state.

Such an attack could have come sooner if it wasn't so difficult to procure a nuclear device and if Al Qaeda's operations chief, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (search), and its head of naval operations, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri hadn't been arrested, Richardson said.

"Sooner or later, Al Qaeda or one of its affiliates will make and detonate a radiological bomb, whether it's in a ship or a shipping container," he said.

"If you look at how relatively easy it is to get the materials, put them together and make them go bang, and look at the motivation, terrorism is going to get bigger and it's going to get worse," he added.

A prime target would be Singapore — or any of the world's 40 largest port cities — or key international shipping straits and canals, Richardson said.

Al Qaeda operatives could easily get jobs on ships by buying fake seafarer credentials, which are widely available, he said.

But Al Qaeda's past pattern of disciplined, coordinated attacks makes it unlikely that the network will risk hijacking a ship, or seek help from pirates outside of its circle of zealots, he said.

The network has already demonstrated its willingness to attack sea targets with suicide attacks on the destroyer USS Cole in 2000 and the French oil tanker Limburg in 2002, Richardson said. In both attacks, suicide bombers detonated small explosive-laden boats next to vessels off the coast of Yemen.

Singapore, a close Washington ally, also claims to have foiled a plot by the Al Qaeda linked Jemaah Islamiyah (search) terror group to blow up, among other Western targets, a U.S. Naval facility in the island nation. The city-state has detained 37 terror suspects since 2001.

Jemaah Islamiyah is also blamed for the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 and an August 2003 suicide bombing at the J.W. Marriott Hotel in Jakarta that killed 12.