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Elite troops train for terror from sea
JTF2 has used oil rigs and ports on both coasts for counter-terrorism exercises
David Pugliese
The Ottawa Citizen

Canada's special forces say they are prepared for maritime terrorism as defence analysts warn that al-Qaeda could shift its tactics from bombings on land to attacks from the sea.

Joint Task Force 2 has been using Victoria, B.C., and Halifax, N.S., as well as offshore oil rigs, as areas for honing its skills to defend the country against a maritime assault. The Ottawa-based unit conducted a number of classified training operations in the two port cities last year, according to newly released documents obtained by the Citizen. But almost all of the details of the missions were censored for national security reasons.

Defence analysts say it appears that JTF2 has been putting emphasis on how to deal with hijacked ships and oil rigs as concerns grow about what new targets terrorists might strike. Some security experts had been predicting that with increased vigilance over the world's air transportation system after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S., groups such as al-Qaeda would shift their attention to ground and maritime transportation.

Al-Qaeda is alleged to have been behind the recent attack on the Spanish rail system that killed more than 200 people.

The Senate has warned in several reports over the years that Canadian waterways and ports are vulnerable to attack as various government agencies, such as the RCMP, coast guard and navy, do not have the funding or, in some cases, the needed equipment and personnel to keep watch on the country's coasts.

Navy Lieut. Kent Penney, spokesman for the military's Counter-terrorism and Special Operations branch, said that JTF2 had already developed capabilities in dealing with maritime incidents well before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

He noted that the unit has not placed emphasis on one type of threat but is instead preparing to deal with a range of potential incidents. "That said, MCT (maritime counter-terrorism) is an important capability for the unit," said Lt. Penney.

JTF2 is using some of the $119 million it has been given by the government for its expansion to further develop skills in the area of maritime counter-terrorism, he added. "It's allowed us to speed up the evolution process that was already under way and move on to the next stage of development much quicker," said Lieut. Penney.

Included in that is more interaction with other government agencies as well as units in the Canadian military and allied forces, he noted

The missions in Victoria and Halifax last year were not the first time the commandos have been in those port cities. In July 2002, JTF2 was in Halifax conducting joint training with other government departments.

It has also established links with allied special forces, namely Britain's Special Boat Service and the U.S. Navy SEALs. In August 1999, members from JTF2's dive team joined forces with the Special Boat Service to practise raids on a Hibernia oil rig for an eight-day period. In November 2000, the unit again teamed up with the British for Exercise Hydra, a maritime counter-terrorism training mission.

JTF2 officers have acknowledged the unit must further develop such skills if it's to deal with a nightmare scenario involving terrorists seizing a ship or outfitting a vessel with a weapon of mass destruction and detonating such a device on Canadian territory.

In such a case, the unit would be used to wrest control of the vessel from terrorists while another specialized military team would deal with the weapon.

Concerns about the maritime terrorism threat increased last month in England after a warning was issued that al-Qaeda was planning to sail a ship, packed with either chemicals or radioactive material, into a harbour and blow up the vessel.

Intelligence analysts have also been alarmed about a flurry of temporary ship hijackings in the Pacific. Some have suggested the incidents could be training exercises for terrorists. In one case intruders took over a chemical tanker and practiced operating the vessel before leaving the ship an hour later.

Although casualties from such a floating bomb might not be extensive, the ripple effect such an attack would have on a country's economy could be devastating.

A war game conducted in 2003 by Pentagon contractor Booz Allen Hamilton involved the discovery of radiological "dirty" bombs in shipping containers at U.S. ports and on board trucks.

The exercise determined that such an incident would partially paralyse the U.S. transportation system for weeks. The loss to the economy was estimated to be around $60 billion U.S.

Slipping a nuclear weapon or radiological "dirty bomb" into a sea container on a freighter is the likeliest way terrorists would try to get such devices into North America, according to a May 2002 report prepared by the Defence Science Advisory Board.

Such a scenario involving the delivery of the weapon "directly to port, but intended for use prior to any inspection is perhaps the highest probability," concludes the study, obtained by the Citizen. "This makes ports the highest probability targets in North America for certain types of WMD (weapons of mass destruction) should they be acquired by terrorists," it notes.

Originally formed in 1993 to deal with terrorism, JTF2 is being slowly expanded by the Canadian military into a special forces unit. JTF2 soldiers are currently serving in Afghanistan and Haiti. Unit members have also become a fixture on most peacekeeping operations.

Based at the Dwyer Hill Training Centre, JTF2's ranks stood at around 300 in 2001. But the government has ordered a doubling in size of the unit's capacity.

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On the Web for seven-day subscribers: Joint Task Force 2 is the sharp edge of Canada's military. Read an excerpt from David Pugliese's book on "Canada's Men in Black."

© The Ottawa Citizen 2004

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