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U.S., Jordan Hunt for Ships' Attackers

August 21, 2005|Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — U.S. counter-terrorism authorities said Saturday that they were working closely with the Jordanian government to determine who fired crude but powerful missiles at two U.S. Navy ships in the port city of Aqaba, but they said it was too soon to tell whether Al Qaeda was responsible.

The FBI was dispatching a team of investigators to Jordan to help investigate Friday's attack, in which militants fired three rockets from a warehouse hide-out, killing a Jordanian soldier and barely missing the Ashland, a dock landing ship with a U.S. expeditionary strike group. One rocket landed in the Israeli city of Eilat. Other American counter-terrorism agencies also mobilized rapidly to support the Jordanian government's investigation into the attack.

No U.S. personnel were injured and there was no damage to the Ashland or the Kearsarge, the command ship, both of which left Aqaba shortly after the attack. About 2,000 members of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit were aboard the ships.

But two U.S. officials said Washington was treating the incident as an act of international terrorism, warranting the FBI investigation. The two officials described the attack as the most serious attempt by militants to kill U.S. naval personnel since the destroyer Cole was bombed in a Yemeni port in 2000, killing 17 sailors.

"You can be sure there is involvement [in the investigation] by the U.S.G.," said one American official, referring to the U.S. government. Like others interviewed Saturday, the official spoke on the condition that his name and agency not be disclosed because he was not authorized to discuss ongoing counter-terrorism operations.

The official also said U.S. participation in the investigation was especially sensitive because authorities believe the militants chose Aqaba for their attack because of the close relationship between the U.S. and Jordan in the U.S.-declared campaign against terrorism.

Jordanian sources said four non-Jordanian Arabs, including Iraqis and at least one Egyptian, had rented the commercial warehouse in Aqaba last week. Local news reports said that a Syrian also was involved, and that some of the men might have fled in a car with Kuwaiti plates.

After the attacks, a group loyal to the Al Qaeda terrorist network claimed responsibility, adding that its "warriors returned safe to their headquarters." The U.S. official said that although the authenticity of the statement could not be verified immediately, Washington and Amman were assuming the group was responsible and were pursuing links between the organization and recent terrorist attacks in Egypt, for which it also claimed responsibility.

The official cautioned that the group might also be linked to Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab Zarqawi, who heads Al Qaeda in Iraq and whose followers have been responsible for other attacks in the region.

But the official also noted that Al Qaeda had not been known to launch the relatively crude Katyusha rockets, which have often been used by militant groups such as Hezbollah.

The official added that local militants with no formal ties to international terrorism could have been responsible. Those rockets "are pretty common in that part of the world.... They could have been something someone picked up in a bazaar or something along those lines."

Amos N. Guiora, director of the Institute for Global Security Law and Policy at Case Western Reserve School of Law in Cleveland, said that even though the missiles missed their apparent targets, the attack represented a serious new threat for Israel, Jordan and the United States.

"It is a clear message to these three countries -- and a very clear message to Jordan in particular -- that Al Qaeda has penetrated one of the United States' closest allies in the counter-terrorism campaign," Guiora said.

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