The American-Israeli falling-out over the destination of the Karine-A arms vessel lasted less than a week. After all, it was the United States who first let Israel know about the suspect freighter sailing from the Middle East to the Persian Gulf and reported it as docking at the Iranian pleasure island of Kish to take on its 50-ton cargo of weapons, ammunition and explosives. The Americans then began to worry that Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon might overplay his hand and use the gunrunning shocker and Yasser Arafats complicity to discredit him once and for all as a political leader and negotiating partner.
The Karine-A was not the only arms smuggling ship plying the Iran-Gulf-Middle East route; it was preceded by two or three vessels with similar cargoes of munitions, which made US officials question Sharons motives in regard to the Karine-A. To reassure Washington, the Israeli prime minister climbed down fast from the level of hype thrown round the ships seizure. He dispatched a high-ranking military intelligence delegation to Washington, headed by military intelligence research chief Brigadier General Yossi Kuperwasser, with proofs for US officials tying in Arafats inner circle with the arms smuggling operation.
At the same time, Sharon placed urgent telephone calls to US secretary of state Colin Powell and White House officials to reiterate the pledges he made, under the agreements and understandings he reached with President George W Bush over the past six months, to coordinate his every move in relation to Yasser Arafat with Washington.
As evidence of his good faith, Sharon ordered the Palestinian attack on the Israeli side of the Gaza Strip border (Wednesday, January 9) to be met with a low-profile reprisal even though the Palestinian assailants shot dead four Israeli Bedouin troops and disarmed the Israeli electronic border protecting its Negev from Gaza-based terrorism.
The Israeli prime minister may have smoothed away his rough passage with Washington, but the central problems exposed by the discovery of the Karine-A remain wide open.
1. A regular arms-smuggling route, consisting of between five and eight small 4,000-ton to 6,000-ton freighters like the Karine-A, is known to be operating between the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean via the Red Sea since late October 2001. Detected, according to DEBKA-Net-Weeklys intelligence sources, by US spy satellites and Israel reconnaissance planes, those ships habitually carry large loads of munitions. This route was exposed by the interception of the Karine-A, but other vessels may be plying other routes too.
The ships registered owners are private individuals, rather than the usual maritime companies, which makes the sources of financing hard to trace. The initial purchasing cost of these freighters can be estimated at between $3 and $4 million in all a small part of the huge investment required to keep a regular gun-running route running on this scale.
Not only money, but complex organization is needed. Six to eight crews numbering 150 seamen have to be hired, paid and flown between ports; fuel, port charges and repairs organized and paid for.
Assuming the ships were purchased in August or September, intelligence officials estimate additional capital of $2.5 million to $3.5 million must have been sunk thus far in the enterprise.
2. The second problem is the provenance of the smuggled arms: Iran.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weeklys American and Israeli intelligence sources, the clandestine route does not start on Kish Island, where the Karine-A was loaded, but in the military port of Bandar Abbas, home to the Iranian Republican Guards.
A well-guarded facility there, surrounded by an electronic fence, contains eight workshops and, at the southern end, an underground bunker, where arms, mines and explosives are stored and prepared for shipping out. Satellite photos recording the hundreds of closed Iranian supply trucks moving in and out of the giant base every day, report that three or four head regularly to the workshop area at night and unload behind tarpaulins. Some of the workshops prepare automatic assault rifles and machine guns for shipment; others handle mortars and Katyusha rockets. They also maintain in good repair light artillery such as was not found aboard the Karine-A but has been sighted on other vessels on the clandestine route.
Once the weapons are inspected and pronounced in good working order, they go for packaging to another workshop, where they are sealed in a bottom layer of waterproof tarpaper and sheathed in an elastic rubber casing that absorbs the bumps and jolts of a sea voyage. German-made machines stretch and hermetically seal the rubber sheaths in a separate workshop.
Occasionally, big semi-trailer trucks unload submersible containers, dozens of which were found on the Karine-A, and are apparently manufactured elsewhere in Iran. Through primitive in design, they are efficient enough, equipped with rings by which they can be hauled aboard a ship from any angle and a mechanism that keeps them submerged to depths of between half a meter and 10 meters while their operators are outside.
Operators can also preset their diving depth from inside the containers, which have a pipe-periscope that can suck in air and also release a locator buoy. This means that a man can wait several days in the container under water without discovery, until a ship arrives to pick him up.
Naval and terror experts with access to these submersible containers told DEBKA-Net-Weeklys sources that they recall the experimental craft that Republican Guard naval experts tried building in the early and mid-1980s as prototypes for an Iranian mini-submarine. In the late 1980s, the Iranian navy had developed and was operating small submarines.
The experts estimated from the condition of the metal painted green to blend with the sea - and their mechanical components that they had been assembled in the past six to 10 months.
The experts also expressed the view that a manufacturing plant much larger than the Bandas Abbas workshop facility was required to produce the submersible containers, ie.a factory employing some 50 hands. This would raise to 120 the complement of personnel for preparing a typical arms shipment.
It is now clear that Kish Island was not chosen at random for loading the weapons cargoes aboard the smuggler craft. Kish is a favorite resort for top Iranian officials and entry to parts of the island is closely restricted. It is therefore a perfect Persian Gulf location for this kind of clandestine operation.
The Iranian government is trying hard to disassociate itself from the Karine-A. Its spokesmen contradict the televised admission by its Palestinian captain, Omar Akawi, of how his boat was loaded at Kish Island. But the Iranians cannot brush off the existence of a unique and vast arms smuggling facility at Bandar Abbas.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weeklys intelligence sources in the Gulf, the capture of the Karine-A also brought to light the identity of the man directing the arms smuggling route, none other than Imad Mughniyeh, terror operations director for Irans hard line spiritual leader Ali Khamenei and one of Osama bin Ladens top operatives.
Last year, Mughniyeh placed the extensive marine logistical enterprise he developed from bases in Dubai and Abu Dhabi at the disposal of international terrorist organizations. In the last two or three weeks, it has served as a link in the escape route for al Qaeda fighters on the run from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Last week, DEBKA-Net-Weekly referred to part of that escape route running the South Teheran.
Irans complicity in the rescue of al Qaeda fugitives was touched upon by President George W. Bush, when he talked to newsmen in the Oval Office on Thursday, January 10:
Iran must be a contributor in the war against terror, he stressed. Iran, which gave the United States positive signals of cooperation early on, must not allow al Qaeda murderers to hide in their country. The US president went on to urge Teheran to hand over any who have already slipped across the Iranian border.
3. Imad Mughniyeh and his sinister associations at the heart of the international terror web is a third problem bared by the Karine-A incident.
The former Hizballah operations officer is connected personally and operationally with every group across the Middle East terror board, as well as with the intelligence service of every Arab and Muslim country in the region. He has bid successfully for active cooperation from Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian, Yemeni, Sudanese and Palestinian military and naval intelligence. He has hitchhiked on the back of the Hizballahs intelligence, drug and weapons smuggling infrastructure in Lebanon and drawn on the services of factions of Egyptian military and naval intelligence who align themselves with Ayman Zuweiris Egyptian Islamic Jihad.
Each of Mughniyehs helpers has his own axe to grind. Iran has used Mugniyehs operation to ferry arms to Hizballah in Lebanon. Iraq ran arms to and from the Gulf and to its intelligence and terrorist cells across the Middle East and Europe. The Palestinians are obtaining smuggled weapons through Mughniyehs outfit to escalate their uprising against Israel.
America believes that Mughniyehs shipping line serves an even more sinister purpose. Intelligence experts, talking to DEBKA-Net-Weekly, do not believe for a moment that he built his powerful clandestine marine enterprise merely to benefit others. It was created above all, they are sure, to serve al-Qaeda and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad.
Leaving Washington to ponder over how to build on the intelligence and military ties it developed with Iran in the first month of the war in Afghanistan, how to handle Yasser Arafat and whether to attack Iraq, Mughniyeh has pulled all these wild threads together in a cooperative effort on behalf of the al-Qaeda and Islamic Jihad network.
For the Americans, Sharons attempt to pin the Karine-A affair on Arafat was a sideshow. The Bush teams primary preoccupation now is to find out how many clandestine arms ships set sail from Kish Island since last year and how many munitions containers are now bobbing under the waters of the Mediterranean, Red Sea, Indian Ocean, Adriatic Sea and Aegean Sea. Washington needs to know badly for whom those cargoes are destined. The Karine-A was but the tip of that iceberg.
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