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RESPONSE TO TERROR

U.S. Navy Keeping an Eye on Possible Escape Route

Manhunt: Ships, planes monitor Arabian Sea for signs of Al Qaeda leaders.

January 01, 2002|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ABOARD A NAVY SURVEILLANCE PLANE OVER THE ARABIAN SEA — While American soldiers search for Osama bin Laden and others in the caves and mountains of Afghanistan, the U.S. Navy is scouring the vast stretches of the Arabian Sea in a manhunt of immense scope and intensity.

P-3C Orion surveillance planes linked to a regional operations center and U.S. and allied ships are guarding against an attempt by Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders to escape by boat to Yemen, Somalia or some other country.

The patch on the flight suit of Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Adam Stewart tells the story.

"9/11. Terror Cannot Hide. Tracking America's Most Wanted. Operation Enduring Freedom 2001," the patch reads. It is done up like the logo of the popular "America's Most Wanted" TV show, complete with a menacing eagle in the background.

"We're tightening the noose," said Cmdr. Doug Yancey, 48, of Lancaster, Calif., commanding officer of the "Skinny Dragons" Navy squadron from Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. "We know the terrorists are trying to rally around their leaders and find a new place to spread their terrorism. If we can catch them, maybe we can prevent another" incident like the assaults on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

It is a daunting task. Visibility is good on most days, but the Arabian Sea is one of the most heavily traveled merchant marine lanes in the world.

The U.S. intelligence network provides a constantly updated list of ships the Taliban and Al Qaeda could possibly use to make their escape via Pakistan into the open sea.

It has become a kind of cat-and-mouse game, with many ships changing their appearance regularly for reasons that are unclear, officials say.

"Some are getting very tricky," said Lt. Cmdr. Brett Bonifay, 35, of Norman, Okla. "They repaint their hulls, they paint over their numbers, they change things on their deck to look different. Sometimes we look closer and see the paint on the numbers is still running."

More than 1,000 "bridge-to-bridge" radio contacts have been made since November between foreign ships at sea and a network of U.S. planes and ships. The foreign ships are asked a series of questions about their cargo, route, destination, home port and other matters the U.S. can check against its intelligence files. Sometimes the same ship is quizzed multiple times.

Five ships have been boarded and searched by heavily armed U.S. sailors equipped with a rogues' gallery of mug shots, including that of Bin Laden. There have been no incidents but also no arrests.

As the Orion 012, one of 10 Orions in the region, spent Monday on an eight-hour mission to check out dozens of ships below, the mood was mostly upbeat. "I can feel it. He's out there," said Lt. Kelly Hinderer, 30, of Jackson, Mich. "It's only a matter of time."

Timing has favored the Orion. Just weeks before Sept. 11, the planes underwent an extensive upgrade to increase the range and clarity of their surveillance cameras and the ability of their computers to transmit real-time photos to onshore analysts.

The P-3C Orion--a variant of the plane that gained international attention after it collided with a Chinese fighter jet on April 1--is one of the older planes in the U.S. military, with many of the craft dating from the 1970s. This makes them older than some of the crew members, such as Stewart, 22, of Phoenix, an electronics technician.

"They're not going to get past us," Stewart said. "We're looking at everything from the littlest boat to the biggest."

Whether Bin Laden and his top Al Qaeda cronies are dead, hunkered down or seeking to flee is the big mystery of the Afghan campaign. One theory taken seriously by U.S. military planners is that the head of the terrorist network has always counted on an escape by sea.

Al Qaeda is known to have a small flotilla. It has airplanes too, but with the U.S. military superiority in the skies, an escape by air would seem foolhardy.

Miles of porous coastline and the prospect of supporters in nearby countries make a sea escape seem plausible, analysts believe. For that reason, the U.S. put together what it calls the "leadership interdiction operation" in early November.

Many of the searching techniques used by the Orion squadron were honed during anti-drug surveillance off the West Coast of the U.S. "We like to put away bad guys," said Bonifay, officer in charge of one of three detachments in the squadron.

On Monday, the Orion 012's crew of nine men and two women was given a section of the sea spreading 120 miles by 60 miles; other Orions were responsible for other sections. Patrolling continues day and night; night patrols are aided by new infrared technology.

When the plane spots a possible "high-interest target," images are flashed back to the operations center and then to U.S. ships in the area. On Monday, the plane was working with ships attached to the John C. Stennis carrier battle group.

Like any manhunt, the secret lies in endurance. "We checked out a lot [of targets], but nothing panned out," said Hinderer, the plane's senior navigator. "It can get frustrating."

The Orions, once used primarily to hunt Soviet submarines during the Cold War, have been retrofitted for other missions. The planes, built by Lockheed-Martin, can carry a variety of weapons, including missiles, to provide cover for ground troops, though the craft is not being used in this capacity in the current mission.

It cheers the crew members of the Orions that Bin Laden's agony may be increased by the possibility of being spotted from the air.

"I noticed that our friend Bin Laden doesn't look so good anymore," said Petty Officer 2nd Class Ron Williams, 37, of Baton Rouge, La., a flight engineer. "He used to look chubby and healthy. Now he looks drawn and stressed out. I like to think we're contributing to that."

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