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D I S P A T C H E S

+ "On Board the Algonquin"


from Martin Smith

click here for a larger map The commodore explains the mission as deterrence. Thus far, he says, the four ships under his command, which he runs from aboard the Algonquin, have contacted -- or as they put it, "hailed" -- 17,600 vessels, most often by the ship's radio. And depending on a set of ever-changing tripwires, they have boarded and inspected a few hundred of those. Admittedly, the commodore tells us during an interview in his comfortable cabin, it's all more of an art than a science.

He says he thinks they are successful. "The word gets back to the bad guys that we're out here, and they stay in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We've closed the back door. This puts a lot of pressure on them." But it's hard to know exactly what is happening out here. In only a couple of instances have the Canadians actually arrested suspected Al Qaeda fighters. And, the commodore admits, there are boats that get through the net -- never hailed and never stopped.

Cameraman Scott Anger and Marcela Gaviria pose with crew members. (photo by Scott Anger)
The big tankers, the fishing trawlers, and dhows are easy. The captains and crews accept the presence of the war ships and their search parties. In fact, there is talk out here that their insurance carriers have lowered their premiums since the inspections began. In other words, the international war on terror is doing a great service for the oilmen. This should certainly make the U.S. president happy.

It's what they call the "go-fasts" where all the action seems to be. Long before Sept. 11, jobless Pakistanis, Afghanis, and Iranians, economic refugees, have paid smugglers to bring them safely across the Gulf of Oman to the beaches near Muscat, Oman. After a grueling 18-hour crossing in high heat without much food or water, they stagger ashore and, if not caught, eventually make their way to jobs in either Oman, the U.A.E., or Saudi Arabia.

Most all of the smugglers, says the commodore, operate out of Jask, Iran -- a port city we've now put on our itinerary. They move out in fleets of three boats -- each packed to the gunwales with 25 to 30 illegal migrants. Few travel with radios, fewer still with GPS.

It was on July 13th when the Algonquin came across three go-fast boats. Most often, they are too small to be picked up by the ship's radar. Instead, the go-fasts are usually identified visually with two powerful binoculars called "big eyes" mounted on balconies on either side of the ship's bridge. In hot, hazy weather -- which seems to be the only kind of weather here -- this is difficult work.

The commodore, a wiry little man with a high-pitched voice and a sharp mind, explains that on July 13th it was a French ship that first identified the three go-fasts. But he is confused. In fact, the ship's record will show that it was the Canadians that first spotted and gave chase to the boats. In most cases, the boats will routinely stop when they see the ships moving at them out of the haze. The sailors are not there to bust them for smuggling, and will bring the passengers fruit and water. If no fighters are on board, they'll be on their way after only a short rest break. In the months since November 2001, when these patrols began, the boarding teams have gotten to know most of the smugglers, and they are cooperative.

Traffic on the Gulf of Oman. (photo by Marcela Gaviria)
But after running names of the passengers of these three boats past American intelligence officers aboard the USS Washington, an aircraft carrier sitting a few hundred miles north (in the Persian Gulf) two passengers attract their attention. "They have some kind of list," says Sean Gillis, who leads boarding parties. "And if you're on it, I guess you're a bad guy. We radioed the names and waited." A few hours later, bingo. "On board the go-fasts, the passengers looked weak and sick, several were retching over the side. But when we went back out in the RHIB to gather more information on our suspects, the three boats scrammed." The Algonquin gave chase. By that evening, the Algonquin had pulled two brothers on board the ship, and in a few hours they were handed over to the Americans.

Although they stopped another go-fast only a few weeks later and detained another couple of men, the view of most of the sailors I talked to on the Algonquin was that only the July 13th arrests were really significant. By means that I can't divulge, I am able to get the name of one of the men -- I don't know if it's the older or younger brother. We hope to follow up in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran to see if we can learn more about him.

Meanwhile, we wait aboard the Algonquin for another go-fast interdiction. But the weekend passes quietly. No more boardings. We film goings-on around the ship, interview the commodore, the captain, and some sailors. We watch "Monsters Ball" and "Meet the Parents."


< previous dispatch  +  next dispatch >

London
(Aug. 13-14)

Zubaydah Is Dead
13 August, London

Armchair Jihadists
14 August, London

Gulf of Oman
(Aug. 15-21)

Faces at a Dubai Mall
15 August, Dubai, U.A.E.

HMCS Algonquin
16 August, somewhere in the Gulf of Oman

+ On Board the Algonquin
17-18 August, somewhere in the Gulf of Oman

Like an Elephant Chasing a Mouse
17-18 August, Gulf of Oman

Dubai to Karachi
20 August

A Firehose of Information
20-21 August, Dubai - Muscat - Chennai

Pakistan
(Aug. 22-29)

Old Hash
22 August, Islamabad

Nuclear Neighbors
22-23 August, Islamabad

We Believe in God
24 August, Islamabad

Paranoid in Peshawar
27 August, Peshawar

Bombs or Dust Devils
27-28 August, Peshawar

Rumors and Half Truths
28 August, Peshawar

Pakistan Border Lands
(Aug. 30-Sept. 4)

On the Road to Chitral
30 August, Dir Khas

Prisoners' Dilemma
31 August, Dir

In the Northwest Frontier
30-31 August, Dir

Border Town
2 September, Chitral to Arandu

Don't Go to Timargarha
1-2 September, Drosh to Timargarha

An American Informer
3-4 September, Peshawar

Pakistan
(Sept. 5-23)

Road to Nowhere
7 September, Islamabad to Faisalabad

Faisal Town
7 September, Faisalabad

Frustrations
9 September, Faisalabad

The Plight of Women
10 September, Faisalabad

A Little Noticed Gun Battle
10-13 September, Lahore-Karachi

The Madrassa
14 September, Akora Khattak

The Next Big Get
20 September, Karachi - Islamabad

A Circle of Trust
21 September, Islamabad

Indomitable
23 September, Islamabad

Saudi Arabia
(Sept. 24-Oct. 2)

Inside the Kingdom
24-25 September, Riyadh

My Baffling Question
27 September, Unizah-Buraydah

An Obedient Dissident
27 September, Buraydah

An Audience with the Crown Prince
2 October, Riyadh

Yemen
(Sept. 25-Oct. 10)

Arriving in Yemen
25-26 September, Sana'a

The Wedding Party
27 September, Sana'a

A Talking Drug
28 September, Sana'a

The World's Most Ancient Skyscrapers
3 October, Sana'a

Americans Are Vampires
7 October, Sana'a

Waiting for Rahma
9 October, Sana'a

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