By Alan W. Dowd 

The War at Sea

Counterterrorism specialists are concerned that al Qaeda and their partners are preparing to take their war back to the sea, according to a recent investigation by The New York Daily News.  

One of the main worries is that a terrorist group could use a ship or tanker to close one of several ocean “chokepoints,” such as the Strait of Gibraltar or the Strait of Malacca, which hugs the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Others warn that terror groups could strike America’s poorly protected ports.  

As a result, NATO nations and other US allies are beefing up security near these sensitive areas, monitoring dozens of suspicious ships, and boarding others. In fact, the United States, Poland, Spain, other key NATO allies and Australia have formed the Proliferation Security Initiative to strengthen their capacity to secure the seas and intercept weapons of mass destruction and their precursors while in transit. “Over time,” according to the president, “we will extend this partnership as broadly as possible to keep the world’s most destructive weapons away from our shores and out of the hands of our common enemies.” 

It’s not a new threat, actually, as Navy historian Robert Johnson observed in Guardians of the Sea. In 1947, a port explosion claimed 500 lives in Texas City, Tex. Although terrorism was not to blame, the tragedy was a wake-up call for America.  “With the Cold War intensifying,” according to Johnson, “it seemed quite possible that Russian nuclear devices might be brought into American harbors surreptitiously, for detonation at some subsequent time.”  

The enemy may have changed but some of the dangers have not. 


Still other dangers are relatively new. Cyber-security experts are sounding the alarm over the vulnerability of America’s interconnected computer networks.  As Richard Clarke, a former computer-security advisor to the White House, explained in a Washington Post interview, “a great deal of damage to our economy and disruption to our way of life can be done without anything exploding or anybody being killed.” 

It’s easy to see why: Given the amorphous, open, and ever-expanding nature of cyber-space, it is extremely difficult territory to secure and defend; and given America’s primacy in traditional fields of conflict, cyber-space is increasingly where America’s enemies pick their fights.  

In fact, the first cyber-salvos have already been fired. During NATO’s air war over Serbia, the Chinese hacked into websites run by the Departments of Energy and Interior, forcing the White House and other government sites to shut down out of self-protection. Other attacks came in the form of countless emails, which were sent to slow down and overload government servers.  

In response to the rising cyber-threat, Bush has unveiled a “National Security Strategy to Secure Cyberspace.” Among other things, the strategy is pushing the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies to develop redundancies, conduct cyber-drills, build cyber-warning systems, harden government computer networks, and develop recovery plans in the event of an attack in cyber-space.  

In addition, the Pentagon’s new Joint Task Force on Computer Network Operations is helping US military forces incorporate cyber-weapons into traditional war fighting. Pentagon spending on programs to manipulate and master information technology jumped by 125 percent in 2003. The Department of Defense is also updating all of its new Internet-related equipment and software to meet the latest Internet security protocols.  

Closing Ranks?

After flirting with the “Axis of Evil” for the past 18 months, Moscow is teaming up with Washington to isolate Kim Jong-Il, rebuild Iraq and rein in Iran. It couldn’t have come at a better time.  

The first signs of Russia’s westward tilt came on the Korean peninsula, as a recent analysis by the Washington Post concluded. Echoing what Washington has been saying since the first Bush administration, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov has definitively declared that “The Korean peninsula should be free from nuclear arms.” However, Moscow also sent messages with its military. In late summer and early fall, Russia held a large-scale military exercise in its easternmost territories. The stated aim of the exercises was to prepare for a refugee crisis sparked by war or the toppling of Kim Jong-Il. Needless to say, Pyongyang did not appreciate Moscow’s rationale. 

In Iraq, after a season of hedging, Moscow is serving as a bridge-builder between the pro- and anti-war blocs inside the UN Security Council. And as the Post’s review found, “Russian officials have abandoned talk of expanding their nuclear assistance to Iran.” Moscow has even joined the EU and Washington in exerting pressure on Iran. 

What triggered the conversion? In an interview with the Post, Rep Curt Weldon offered an answer: “Russia wants to be respected and seen as a country that could and should play a significant role in world issues.” In other words, after being on the wrong side of history for much of the 20th century, perhaps Moscow concluded it was time to spend some time on the right side. 

French Friends

Even as their leaders wrangle over postwar Iraq, the US and French militaries are conducting important joint counterterrorism training missions in and around Djibouti, the strategically pivotal piece of land on the Horn of Africa.

As detailed in a recent report from the Armed Forces Information Service, the French-run Commando Training Center in Djibouti is helping to acclimate key US Marine units to the tough terrain they will encounter in future battles of the War on Terror. As Lt. James Moran told Sgt. Bradley Shaver of AFIS, “A lot of our Marines haven’t been out of the country before, so being here gives them firsthand experience in a new environment with a completely new force.”

The US-French “cross-training” is said to be intense and demanding—not unlike the diplomatic back-and-forth between Washington and Paris.

Published monthly in the American Legion Magazine, Under the Radar provides a snapshot of current challenges in international politics, U.S. foreign policy and national security.