September 17, 2007

The Vanishing Al Hamed

A North Korean ship that purportedly reflagged itself as South Korean to evade Western investigators has disappeared from view after the Israeli strike on Syria last week. The Al Hamed delivered what the Syrians classified as cement in the days before the strike, and an Israeli tracer says the ship has not been seen since:

A suspicious North Korean freighter that re-flagged itself as South Korean before off-loading an unknown cargo at the Syrian port of Tartous is at the centre of efforts today to investigate Israel's recent airstrike on Syria.

An Israeli on-line data analyst, Ronen Solomon, found an internet trace for the 1,700-tonne cargo ship, Al Hamed, which showed the vessel started to off-load what Syrian officials categorised as "cement" on Sept 3.

This was three days before Israeli jets attacked a site in the north eastern desert of Syria, not far from its border with Iraq.

Since leaving Tartous, one of Syria's main ports on the Mediterranean, the ship's trace has disappeared and it is not known whether western intelligence agencies are tracking the vessel.

The Al Hamed does not make frequent trips to the Mediterranean. In fact, Solomon only found one other listing for its transit, and that occurred in June of this year. In both cases, it flagged itself as South Korean for its deliveries to Syria, even though the DPRK owned the ship until this summer.

Now, however, the ownership appears as murky as its present whereabouts. Solomon discovered that the ship got sold to new interests, but could not discover any information about the new owners. That seems rather coincidental, given its correlation to the Israeli attack. And unfortunately, Solomon can't find the ship after its delivery at Tartous two weeks ago today.

One would suppose that intel agencies for the US and Israel have started scanning the seas for the Al Hamed. If they can find the ship and inspect it, they could determine exactly what it delivered to the Syrians, and the identity of the new owners. It's entirely possible, though, that the ship will never sail into any port again after the Israelis uncovered its mission.


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Comments (32)

Posted by coldwarrior415 | September 17, 2007 12:37 PM

A quick glance at the international ships registry shows the Al-Hamed has been registered as North Korean since circa 2004.

What is also on the registry (just under "A" )are about a dozen other ships, all "general cargo carriers" with Arabic sounding names such as the Al-Hamd, Al-Hossein, and others which are listed as North Korean owned. The Al-Hamed, for example docked at Damietta Port in Egypt on the Med in late July, before making a stop in Lebanon and later at Tartus, Syria, in early September. The Russians over the past two years have established their first overseas naval base since the fall of the Soviet Union at Tartus, and have made major improvements to the harbor and facilities for Russian and Syrian naval use. If you wanted secrecy to offload a cargo, doing it within a military port facility seems logical.

Ten years ago, the North Koreans used only North- Korean-flagged and Korean-named ships for their military cargoes - the Teadongaeguk-ho, the Mupo, and others which were openly were registered out of Nampo or Wonsan. As these were exposed, and in some cases boarded in various transit ports and their cargoes identified, North Korea started using Cypriot vessels, among others, with a panoply of names, obtained from a wide range of ships brokers across South Asia. It took time, but most were able to be tracked to and from Nampo, or Wonsan port, or other North Korean ports of embarkation. Cargoes being loaded and off-loaded, along with support equipment and personnel at wharfside were tip-offs that the ship was or was not carrying bags of mullet or rolls of tar paper. Most were legit. But watching cargoes being loaded at port, and the transit ports being likewise monitored showed a distinct pattern for arms carriers versus regular cargo carriers.

Why the North Koreans would now use Arabic named ships doesn't take a whole lot of genius to figure out. They don't stand out in transit papers or while in port throughout South Asia and even within the Med. Considering the international ships registry uses "Korea" and North or South in parens can and does lead to in-port shorthand overlooking whether a ship is North Korean or South Korea. As to the flags flown on the stern, many ships change flags while in transit, in many cases perfectly legally, too. Of the hundreds or thousands of general cargo carriers afloat, the mere presence or lack of presence of a DPRK flag on the stern is essentially meaningless.

Posted by Dan Collins | September 17, 2007 12:44 PM


Posted by Carol Herman | September 17, 2007 2:07 PM

Try the bottom of the ocean.

What was done by AIR, we now know about it.

What was done by ground troops? Your guess is as good as mine; because nothing is confirmed.

And, what was done at sea? Doesn't even leave an oil slick.

So, either some insurance company, ahead, sheds some of its profits into "pockets." Or the ship went buh bye, in very deep waters.

And, no. The MSM lost its grip on these stories long ago. All they really handle are "rage boy" photos. And, the litte Green Helmet Man running amok.

You don't even have photos of those "grocers" who toodled into gazoo on a donkey cart. While the hamas groupies all carry AK-47's. But didn't consider the grocers a threat.

Too good to be true?

No. We know the truth.

But it's too good to get reported, with any accuracy.

Meanwhile, to save his neck, Assad denies all.

Which is about as close as you get to come to "confirmation."

You really think Ehud Barak, the most decorated Navy veteran in Israeli history; is a newcomer to these parts?

You didn't see him swinging in Ami Ayalon into a government portfolio? Okay. Here's news for you, too: Ayalon is also Israeli NAVY.

You think the ship got away?

Perhaps, it's circling in orbit with the lone bullet that took out Kennedy, and hit Connelly, in Dallas. Yeah. It's still "up in the air" for troofers, and believers.

Posted by Sue | September 17, 2007 2:32 PM

Hear! Hear! Live the line: doesn't even leave an oil slick!!! Better for us with the no reporting bit by the MSM, that way we can say: "What?" "Who?" "When?"'re sure? Well I can't find anything!"

Now is only we could "take care of business" where we need to without any "reporting".

Posted by Mikey NTH | September 17, 2007 2:44 PM

1,700 tonnes? That's a pretty small ship by today's standards.

Posted by Otter | September 17, 2007 4:19 PM

1700 tons is a small ship, but why advertise any more than you had to?

And it still carries a Lot of goodies for terrorists.

Posted by Scott Malensek | September 17, 2007 5:01 PM

I'm reminded of the DPRK ship intercepted before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Stored under tons and tons of bags of cement were multiple North Korean SCUD missiles. Other contents remained classified, but the intercept was tied to the infiltration of the AQ Khan network and cited as part of the trigger that led to Libya's surrender of its program.

Wanna have some fun, look at Google Earth's pic of the Syrian port.

Posted by Carol Herman | September 17, 2007 8:02 PM

I remember when Israel caught the Karina-A, loaded with munitions for arafat. At that time? The decision Arik Sharon made was to EXPOSE the transfer; instead of just "sinking das boat."

Right then and there I understood. Israel has a navy. She has full intelligence resources at all the ports that ship crap out into international waters. (And, she basivally doesn't interfere with the drug shippers.) Keeps her nose clean for the important stuff.

Here? There was a ship. WIth a "flag switcher-oo." But that's not new! Every ship carries flags! They hoist them up. And, they hoist them down. They do what they need to do to get through "foreign waters."

Just as Ehud Barak, in Beirut, Lebanon, on a mission, in 1973 ... put on a woman's dress. And, a brunette wig ... and sauntered in to kill some terrorists. You know what? I bet those dead dudes got the surprises of their lives, when he pulled his gun out. Did it register? He's quicker than a rope.

I'd bet Israel "let" this shipment through to syria ... because it could have been destroyed at sea. But it wanted to fool Assad. So, there ya go. Every 90 minutes the Israeli spy satelite is overhead. Taking pictures. Nope. No need to depend on Google.

And, that's the story of one ship.

That is either sailing around, now, as a DIsney cruiser, or it's gone. Be my guest. You choose.

Posted by Carol Herman | September 17, 2007 8:36 PM

Applying a little human psychology to this event.

I suspect that the ship's captain was nervous, enough, knowing what cargo he was hauling. Then? He must have been very alert. And, the Israelis showed no hand. Quiet.

The next time the captain has to steady his nerves, is when he hoists down the North Korean identification; and hoists up the South Korean flags.

Getting close to the syrian port, positively had to be done under duress. Perhaps, some excitement rising? Because the ship doesn't seem to have attracted much attention.

Ah, the relief when the ship's unloaded. Word gets to Assad. Assad is a very happy man.

As you know, 3 days later ...

And, now you add, "the ship's missing." How so? I bet the captain, so relieved he deposited his cargo, that he was absolutely elated.

Which means no signals went out. Nothing transpired. Except? Well, the sea is huge. We've got more water than land mass. And, some parts are so deep, they never, ever, see daylight.

Just the calm, calm sea.

Special Ops training, today. Here, in the USA. And, in Israel. Is just spectacular. The men are young. The assignments dangerous. But they never have to wear uniforms. Or be part of a large parade.

Just going from assignment to assignment. And, when they do talk? I bet ya there isn't a single journalist in site. Enemies are never made privvy.

Posted by Carol Herman | September 17, 2007 8:53 PM

Ah, so what's the skinny on the money payoff?

This wasn't just a "delivery." It had to come with a huge payment. But it also needed to be "covered up." Just couldn't cut your big check to the Ill guy. Besides, he might be dead.

So, add another chapter. While we're here.

As I said, the Israelis KNEW. They knew the ship. They knew the cargo. They knew the "manifest."

Ship arrives on time.

wouldn't you think the syrians forked over money?

How much? Oh, feel free to use zero's.

I'd also guess it wasn't taken on board da' ship; for the captain to take home. It went from "A" bank. To a "B" bank. From syria ... to? Switzerland, perhaps?

What if this is a very big job, here; beyond just what you're guessing.

Let's say the Israelis were intercepting information, while lying low? At some point? NUMBERS. And, if you KNOW THE NUMBERS, the Swiss bankers don't ask you for much more than that.

They've got quite the banking system.

This captain? He doesn't collect. He's as dead as Castro. As dead as Osama. He's been buried at sea.

How do I know that?

Hell, I don't know.

I'm just guessing.

Just like I guessed that letting the delivery get in, relaxed a lot of people. Who were thrilled at their mischief.

Until the lights went out.

In Israel, these things are called "calling cards."

Beats having to invade. Because these people are beyond hope. You can't bridge the "infrastructure," giving them more now than what they got. Which is scratch.

Yes, the arabs know there's no way they can take on the IDF.

But they thought that if they had a nuke, they'd take out Tel Aviv. ANd, then they'd be able to run in and slaughter anyone left. While the UN watched.

In my view, Irak's the last arab country that will see our boots on the ground.

Doesn't mean you can't beat the crap out of the despots.

And, it doesn't even matter if the Green Helmet Man runs amok.

But I do miss Baghdad Bob. Be nice if someday, ahead, he can get the gig to be reporting from Damascus.

Posted by dhunter | September 17, 2007 9:14 PM

I wonder how quietly a submarine could take out a cargo ship that just unloaded its' wares and just how much noise it would make?

Posted by Eric | September 17, 2007 10:11 PM

dhunter said:

I wonder how quietly a submarine could take out a cargo ship that just unloaded its' wares and just how much noise it would make?

Eric said:
I wondered the exact same thing.

Posted by Carol Herman | September 18, 2007 12:08 AM

Eric: And, a tree falls in the forest. No humans in sight. So, you don't hear it. Doesn't mean it doesn't make a noise when it smacks down. To say nothing of a mess; if there were birds nests in it.

As to a ship at sea. If you were on a big, big ship. Even if all you're doing is cruising on Disney; what happens if you decide to give "a big yell." You think you'll wake anyone up? While you're out at sea?

We don't know what happened.

All we do know is that Assad denies there was a nuke facility in the syrian desert. And, he's given the order to torture anyone who speaks about this to any source. So, it's like the ship at sea.

Whatever happens, stays where it happens.

And, I'm betting BIG BUCKS changed hands as soon as the delivery was unloaded. Of what? How the hell should I know? I wasn't there. But it was very expensive "cement."

And, depending on when the Israelis "knew about it" ... I'd bet it wasn't just limited to the ship. Lot'sa details. Lots of intelligence on the ground.

Oh, and it matches another piece of news we know. Syrians were IN North Korea, when there was a train "derailment." Such a loud BOOM, a lot of trees fell, too.

Which brings me to the observation that I didn't hear a single one of those trees, falling. (But the damage showed up on satellite.)

Hmm? If the ship's just "missing." And, the money was put into a Swiss Bank Account; wouldn't it make an excellent movie plot? To think that somebody goes up, in nautical wear; and produces the "deposit slip?"

You don't know the Swiss. Their whole banking system works on secrecy.

ANd, there sure seems to be a lot of secrecy, here.

Ah, the one thing about the missing ship; every ship at sea is supposed to answer "distress" calls. But what if the end came at the height of the celebrations? Who knows? NO SIGNALS.

So, you start with the lights going out in syria. You hear JAM PROOF is not quite as adertised. You see syria, going to the UN. But no "arab brother state" condemns Israel's "accidental" over-flight.

You hear "nobody wants war."

And, you could, buy a clue.

Posted by docjim505 | September 18, 2007 6:17 AM

Maybe the ship accidentally bumped into a Mk-48 torpedo out in the middle of the ocean somewhere. Accidents will happen...

Posted by km | September 18, 2007 9:31 AM

I would not be the least bit surprised to learn that thae ship had some sort of significant "accident" and sank. Or that it was captured quietly.

Posted by The Yell | September 18, 2007 11:17 AM

"Maybe the ship accidentally bumped into a Mk-48 torpedo out in the middle of the ocean somewhere. Accidents will happen..."

That's what Israel STILL says about the USS Liberty. I hope they don't attempt anything of the sort.

Posted by coldwarrior415 | September 18, 2007 11:44 AM

Sink the Al-Hamed? Why?

A number of years ago the U.S. Navy was one radio message away from firing a torpedo at a North Korean ship in the Indian Ocean, a ship allegedly carrying SCUD missiles to Iran. There was a lot of conferencing among senior U.S. officials in D.C., and a lot of essentially jingoistic talk among a lot of senior members of the Administration that we had to show North Korea who was boss. I was in the loop at the time. As plans were carried forward, and the U.S. sub responsible for the projected event was identified and prepped for a single torpedo run, one small item became apparent in its not being in the loop. Seems USFK (U..S. Commander of U.S. Forces in Korea, Gen. Riscassi, if I recall) had not been brought onboard...yet. There had been a good deal of world press and news coverage of this ship after it left Chittagong, a lot of public pronouncements from Administrations, a few demarches passed to the North Korea rep at the UN, but up to that point, USFK was not told how close we were to sinking the "Mupo." Not a smart move. After all the public clammor, we were about to commit an act of war against North Korea on the high seas. P'yongyang's reaction would be? Easy. It would be a cassus belli and USFK would become heavily involved within minutes. Would have been nice to have a bit of forewarning if I were commander of USFK.

Fortunately, NOSIC and a few other entitites in D.C. and overseas "lost" the "Mupo" for about 48 hours. No torpedo. No sinking. We were able to get the ship inspected when it made a port call prior to its going on to Iran. No SCUD's. While all this was going on, the North Koreans were able to pull into port in Libya with another cargo carrier and that ship did have SCUD's among other equipment. There was even a Washington Post editorial cartoon at the time showing an Admiral in a bath tub surrounded by toy ships and one rubber ducky (the "Mupo") and most of Washington under the previous Administration were hopping mad that we did not show them North Koreans a thing or two about how we felt about them sending SCUD's to Iran. [To this day I believe the North Koreans played us all the way from Nampo to Bushehr, encouraging us to focus on one ship while another carried a real arms cargo.]

Point to be made: There is no way to "accidently" sink a ship on the high seas, especially after its country of origin and cargo had been made a matter of public record and a news item. One could perhaps do it IF one had prior access to the ship before leaving its initial port, but a torpedo? The ramifications of such, outside of a state of war, are enormous.

There are other ways, and successful ways to monitor the transit of North Korean ships, and to thwart their delivery of cargoes we, the UN or other countries deem dangerous. It is a matter of systems and manpower, and a willingness to do a lot of homework, drudge work, really. Long boring hours pouring over ships registries, transit schedules, overhead imagery, and all sorts of other inpouts. Rather than devote billions to an already over-inflated Office of Director of National Intelligence, perhaps we could better spend taxpayer money on furhter development of a working-level professional ship watching program without all the high-overhead, inflated GS pay structure and massive new buildings cropping up all over Northern Virginia. It takes drudge work, boring drudge work, lots of it, not nice offices, and flashy titles and super-grade GS employees and political appointees.

Posted by Carol Herman | September 18, 2007 12:38 PM

Wasn't a thwarted delivery.

BILLIONS changed hands.

And, a north korean ship that hoisted up another country's flag (even though they're cousins), isn't exactly a ship that has a manifest now that you could follow.

I give the Israelis LOTS of credit.

I don't give the dunderheads in our State Department any credit at all.

Yahoo-ing over the wires; asking for "permission," in the English language means: "Find our lawyer, fast. And, kabosh this."

Happy sailing. We're not out of the woods, yet, when it comes to DC's swamp.

Posted by Sabba Hillel | September 18, 2007 12:39 PM

Another possibility would be that the ship is still sailing and being used, but the "new ownership" mentioned in the article is still in control, just flying its actual new flag - the Star of David.

Just consider the best way to know exactly what is being shipped to Syria and when as well as getting full access to the money the terrorists are trying to pay the garbage man. Just be the middle man yourself.

Posted by coldwarrior415 | September 18, 2007 1:10 PM

The problem with "a north korean ship that hoisted up another country's flag" is that just doing so effects insurance, for starters.

Sounds mundane, but the world maritime insurance and re-insurance market can cause a nation to find that NONE of its ships can sail, or call at ports along the way, carry cargoes without excessive bonds needing to be posted, and can just plain screw up a country's ability to have access to maritime markets. Even North Korea generally abides by standard maritme law.

As for changing flags, and legally, a ship can have many owners between port calls, and depending on where the owner is located, and where the registry is transferred, that is the flag that is hoisted on the stern.

It is more than a mere technicality. And, this array of transactions are listed several times daily across the globe, both in ships or maritime registries but also in the insurance/re-insurance markets. Generally the smaller the ship (such as the Al-Hamed) the easier it is to change owners enroute, even many times. The Al-Hamed did not change owners enroute to Tartus. it may have, after Tartus. But I haven't found anything on the most recent registry entries to reflect this.

Cost is a major factor. One just doesn't change a ship's name and country of registry without posting bonds or proferring cash for insurance. Was a time when a million dollar bond on an oil carrier was pretty common, now a million won't cover scratch.

LLoyd's of London is not the only maritime insurer. There is a large market out there. You don't have it, you don't pull into port in most countries of the world. Matter of fact, a ship can be seized by a port if there are questions about registry and insurance. Ship's papers have to be "in order" for a ship to enter a port. Seems a simple thing, but this is at the heart of ship tracking (outside of imagery and a few other tools).

Changing flags illegally can be construed under certain provisions of maritime law as akin to piracy. Not something a country that needs foreign trade would do willy-nilly. Not to say it isn't done, but if done and detected it can lead to numerous problems. In an open mercantile economy country with many players, the effect can be minimal, but for a country that has complete government control over its maritime assets, the effect of playing the change-the-flag game can have reprecussions that can stifle completely a country's ability to have its ships sail to other ports.

Commie to Commmie ports, as back in the Cold War, the socialist countries were afforded a lot more options in playing flag games, but limited to socialist ports and often precluded from calling at Western or non-Commie (for want of a better term) ports. One of the few areas of world commerce where screwing around can cost a country big time is excessive reflagging if the ship is government owned.

The point is, the Al-Hamed delivered a cargo and sailed away.

Hopefully port watchers made note of the displacement of the Al-Hamed when leaving Egypt or Lebanon and again before it left Tartus. If the displacement change is obvious, then the Al-Hamed may be carrying nothing at all, empty, and thus a prime candidate for re-sale at sea.

Besides, apparently pulling in to Tartus and not Latakia is a key component, and says up front a good deal about the cargo delivered.

The Al-Hamed becomes of less interest after the Tartus port call.

Take into consideration how many North Korean owned ship there are on the high seas, and the number of flags of convenience used by North Korea [I am not privy to the current number anymore] and again, the Al-Hamed is now moot as a target.

Essentially closing the barn door after the horse got out is something that is counter-productive even in the maritime trade.

Posted by Carol Herman | September 18, 2007 1:48 PM

Coldwarrior 415. I just read that north korea just pulled out of the 6-way-talk. So something's up.

I also think that whatever the mysterious cargo was; and Israel's not talking. But it is on alert. No Rosh Hashannah, Yom Kipper time off for soldiers, or sailors. And, there are ships that quietly sailed out to sea. Leaving their births, empty.

What kinds of insurance would their be, if the ILLEGAL TRADE zoomed into the billions in profits?

Where's the ship?


But, yes, given my suspicions that "something happened." ANd, it was well monitored ... way better monitored that the bad guys assumed ... Whose to say there weren't BILLIONS okayed for the payoff?

All in secret. All you'd need to know are the numbers? After that? Silence. It's in the silence, out there somewhere, that Lloyds of London isn't being asked to fork over any dough.

Israel just launched, per today's DEBKA, a spy satellite with India ... that does "radar." The lets the viewers know the difference between stuff that's hidden. And, the rocks on the ground. It can spot the difference.

As to the bad guys? How can they complain?

Seems to me, syria's been very shy even about approaching the UN.

What do you think really happened?

Could this have "happened" without an exchange of money?

And, do you really think you'll find a money trail, ahead? Because I don't.

And, as far as the "electronics" go ... The "incident" IF it happened, happened on September 6th.

No need to wait for the post office, any longer, to deliver the envelope.

I think the unknown parts of this story, here, reflects on BRILLIANCE. Just what Special Ops can do. And, not get caught.

Heck, I've got to label my stuff as FICTION. There's not a shred of evidence.

But I will agree with you; ships don't just disappear from radar; switch a flag, and become a custom cruiser for tourists.

Posted by Joseph Kempton | September 18, 2007 3:09 PM

If that ship truly smuggled illicit materials it would be worth more to Israel or the US apprehended. If there were any motive to sink her it would have been from Syria or the North Koreans.

Joseph Kempton

Posted by coldwarrior415 | September 18, 2007 3:18 PM

Apprehended now? To what end?

By maritime standards this Al-Hamed is a lightweight pretty common general cargo carrier. Carries break-bulk cargo mostly, not containerized, nor good for much at all except to handle small consignments from port to port. In essence a tramp steamer of old. Could be abandoned, or been sold by now if its profile became too high for the North Koreans. Could be on its way to Ghadani Beach in Pakistan, too, for breakup.

I suppose having it boarded at the next port of call, under a hygiene inspection formula (looking for rats and vermin, checking the health of the crew) may provide access to any residual radioactivity if there is any on board that was not removed by a good sea-water hosing down.

Getting on board PRIOR to its arrival in Tartus would heve been the real coup. Like we did with that Libyan cargo plane in Brazil on its way to Grenada and Nicaragua a good number of years ago.

Posted by Carol Herman | September 18, 2007 3:30 PM

There is a God. And, it isn't allah.

Tuesday, September 18th. The Jerusalem Post just put this up ON LINE. (So I hope this thread's not dead, yet). It comes from a REPORT FROM JANE'S. AND? MORE INFORMATION SURFACES, TOO.

The Jerusalem Post Internet Edition

'Dozens died in Syrian-Iranian chemical weapons experiment' Staff , THE JERUSALEM POST Sep. 18, 2007

Proof of cooperation between Iran and Syria in the proliferation and development of weapons of mass destruction was brought to light Monday in a Jane's Magazine report that dozens of Iranian engineers and 15 Syrian officers were killed in a July 23 accident in Syria.

According to the report, cited by Channel 10, the joint Syrian-Iranian team was attempting to mount a chemical warhead on a scud missile when the explosion occurred, spreading lethal chemical agents, including sarin nerve gas and VX gas.

The factory was created specifically for the purposes of altering ballistic missiles to carry chemical payloads, the magazine report claimed.

Reports of the accident were circulated at the time, however, no details were released by the Syrian government, and there were no hints of an Iranian connection.

The report comes on the heels of criticism leveled by the Syrains at the United States, accusing it of spreading "false" claims of Syrian nuclear activity and cooperation with North Korea to excuse an alleged Israeli air incursion over the country this month.

According to Global, Syria is not a signatory of either the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), - an international agreement banning the production, stockpiling or use of chemical weapons, or the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

Syria began developing chemical weapons in 1973, just before the Yom Kipper War. Global cites the country as having one of the most advanced chemical weapons programs in the Middle East.

Posted by Carol Herman | September 18, 2007 3:35 PM


According to "poster #3" at Lucianne; there are orders to Assad, that he "does something militarily" to save his honor. Or, he's kaput.

The beauty is that there was a summer-full of operations; because I don't believe the July 23rd "accident," was just a work accident. EITHER.

Of course, it's a the Mideast.

We will never know. As Saddam "never had" WMD's. Non such thing, not ever.

Look how many asses bought that lie!

Posted by Carol Herman | September 18, 2007 3:41 PM

Coldwarrior 415: Your way, nobody gets ahold of the BILLIONS that flew by in money transfers.

Wouldn't have flown if the shipment didn't arrive.

And, what else? Jane's reported that on July 23rd, the syrians had a "sarin, VX gas, "accident." Killing those that were "in attendance."

I trust Janes.

I trust the Jerusalem Post, now, will settle for anything that sheds light on what the hell was going on in the syrian desert!

Wow. To let the shipment IN, as nothing was noticed; could be one of the best "secret" ploys since WW2. When "dummies" were set up to fool hitler, about D-Day. Well, he got fooled, didn't he?

Why think this couldn't be pulled off?

By the way, ALL the sailors that partook of this adventure? They're dead meat. Because the syrians will kill them. Hoping to keep inflamatory information "contained.'

Is the ship down, now, at the bottom of the sea, keeping Charlie Tuna company? I have no idea.

If I were writing a novel, though, I'd have a black ops operation. Where the crew went missing. And, the boat just lists. On a vety big ocean.

We just don't know. But I'd bet BIG. BIGGER THAN BIG. And, a total disgrace to iran, north korea, and syria. Spokes missing from the Axis of Evil.

Maybe, a movie?

Posted by coldwarrior415 | September 18, 2007 4:01 PM

Intercepting electronic bank transfers is old hat. Intercepting North Korean military officers carrying three-suiter Samsonite luggage, hoping those dollars were not printed at the Pyongsong Research Institute, gets a bit trickier, but it has been done, and hopefully the kids in my old office are still doing it.

Not billions, really. Smaller amounts, actually.

Posted by Carol Herman | September 18, 2007 5:20 PM

Coldwarrior 415; this is a much bigger story than we've been privileged to see.

And, since this ship touched port in Eygpt, I believe; there was a lot of "transferring of goods" going on.

And, still? The Mossad just sat on it. Like a chicken, waiting for her egg to hatch.

Once that shipment, or two, made it into syria, though; the "electronic transfers" had to begin.

You want to take some zero's off my BILLIONS? Okey Dokey. It's still gonna be a of money!

Some of it? As you write, so eloquently, carried by personnel (not flying out right away), inside three-suiter Samsonite luggage.

Whose to say "actions" didn't happen, elsewhere?

You've got 3 days of free movement, about. ANd, then WHAM.

Oh, and the ship that either did, or did not, disappear.

SOmeone had suggested a quiet sub. Underneath.

But why not a "visit?" You think, after the shipment's off-loaded, and the ship sails free, that the captain would begin to get nervous? That's not human nature.

And, whatever else syria can do, or cannot do; electronic transfers aren't on the list. When major players get pissed off! Iran's in a rampage, too.

Just another deal that went awry?

We just don't know.

But what would you do if this was a movie script?

What if you wanted to shoot it as a comedy?

Besides, with the "perverbial" hitting the fan; what's the life expectancy, now; of anyone who sailed on board that ship?

Where's safe harbor, ahead, now? Flags for a Disney cruiser? This is so big. And, so spectacular, that the best part is the SECRECY.

Shows ya, there are no journalists to trust; even with a scoop.

SILENCE PAYS. While "loose lips sinks ships."

Coldwarrior 415, are you enjoying the story that's visible, so far? Not mine! But what you suspect.

Posted by coldwarrior415 | September 18, 2007 5:48 PM

Of the several hundred North Korean ships plying the oceans, and many of which have delivered lethal cargoes in the past, seems the crews survive well, and the ships last a bit longer than those of other fleets simply because the North Koreans tend generally to run them until the bottoms fall out, or in the case of adverse publicity offer them for sale at rock bottom prices to other ships brokers or ships breakers.

If the North Koreans are following procedures, the decks and holds have already been power washed with sea water.

Yes, there is on-going monitoring of North Korean ships and cargoes worldwide. Just not enough manpower available to do the work from gathering to analysis to developing actionable intelligence.

North Korea is a hard target. Harder to get heads up notices when they are about to do something of interest. Not impossible, but nevertheless dificult.

But, it is not just the ships themselves. There are a number of indications and warnings of the North Koreans about to ship something of note. Sometimes we get a lucky break or have the right people in the right places at the right times.

Once North Korean waters are far astern and these ships pull into other ports all along the China coast and across South Asia and East Africa and into the Med there are several ports where getting on board is a simple matter of being there. In other ports a friendly government or two or a friendly harbor master or two will suffice. In others, getting on board is just too expensive and complicated an operation to make it something to be done routinely.

But, the Al-Hamed appears to be past history.

What can and should be learned, and I certainly hope the kids are doing this, is to continuously marry up offical visits into North Korea with North Korean visits abroad, to look at commonality of interests, to look at the potentials for certain items North Korea needs from countries that has the need for things North Korean, pay attention to technical means and overhead, and proceed from there.

Yes, we will miss a few, as seems the case in the voyage of the Al-Hamed, but with the proper trained manpower, and writ from above declaring this ship watching is an operational priority for worldwide Stations and Bases, perhaps we can bag more than we have been or had been in the past.

This is not the stuff of movie scripts, not even close.

It is long, dull, mundane, boring scut work. Few promotions for most. Long hours for all. When the ODNI gives away money in droves for other programs the impetus for those who have the skills is to follow the money and new programs, and eschew the mundane.

We need a lot fewer Rambo's, James Bond's and Captain America's, and a lot more George Smiley's.

Posted by Carol Herman | September 18, 2007 9:03 PM

Coldwarrior 415, I don't agree.

The "Al Hamed" was not an American Special Ops. This was strictly Israel's. And, now knowing that on July 23rd, the syrians had an "accident" loading a Scud with poison gases; which killed DOZENS of iranians. AND, Syrian officers. Plus, perhaps? North Koreans.

Something BIG, in fact, was planned.

Sure the nut-in-a-dinner-jacket was claiming "Israel would be wiped off the map."

Could'a been.

But the plan fell apart.

And, I think the ship. It's contents. And, a lot of other stuff was KNOWN.

WIthin a much smaller intelligence community; than the one we have, here. Israel's a very small country. (Well, that's obvious.)

What's "different" is that Israel made no complaints to the UN. Pelosi on her visit to Assad, was not tipped off. This whole thing was played extremely close to the vest.

And, for the Mossad? Gee, people are starving in North Korea! I think they've got ways to get access. And, I think their spy operations are like none other.

Can't prove a thing.

Can't even prove they had the confidence "to wait."

Can't even prove that BILLIONS went POOF.

Nor will the secrets ever, ever come out!

Sometimes, when the Mossad has a disaster; other countries force the truth. But the Israelis learn from bad experience. They're not apt to repeat those mistakes.

I think it's like "grabbing Eichmann." An enormous amount of planning. But no leaks. And, then? Well, Eichmann was brought to trial. Because there was a political decision this would help Holocaust victims "heal." Otherwise? You wouldn't know a thing.

Anyway, I'll add the news that what was being said in iran was actually, once connected to plans. That didn't pan out.

Worse for the syrians, now. SINCE THE SHIP FELL OFF THE OCEAN. It's gone. With humans alive who know the cargo's manifest.

I'm sure this could be a super-duper thriller, in the hands of someone experienced at making movies.

Other than that? You seem to be talking to Americans in DC. In the swamp. With congress and it's porksters part of anyone's campaign. What do they know?

Notice I put the zero's back. BILLIONS.

And, a very fluid operation. Plus, no alarm bells were set off on July 23rd, when there was an accident loading up a SCUD. Did Assad just write this off as "his learning curve?"

Bunch of stinking character are loose in our morality play. I still think the dialogue would surprise ya!

Posted by coldwarrior415 | September 18, 2007 10:04 PM

Based on what, Carol?

The Israeli "Institute for Intelligence and Special Tasks" is not the same as it was 20 or 30 years ago. They are good, very good, but are becoming more and more prone to bureaucratic inertia as witnessed by their poor showing in Lebanon last year. The "Metsada" also has come under a lot of close Knesset scrutiny over the past year or so as well. Israel has limited personnel and a limited budget, and ius losing a large number of experienced trained old school officers as well, and thus limits its targetting. They can and do perform some spectacular ops, nonetheless. But playing around directly with North Korea unless the North Koreans are within hailing distance of Israel and pose a direct threat to Israel is not something on either outfit's agenda. The idea that Mossad or Metseda would scuttle a ship on the high seas in the present environment and having the publicity about this ship already blasting all across all sorts of news outlets would cause the Israelis too much of a problem than the end results would warrant. There would be nothing to be gained, actually. Risk life and call in markers to go after an empty 1200DWT cargo ship AFTER it had already finished its business? Prior perhaps. After? Why?

No, I don't get all my info from from Americans in the "swamp" as you call it. A much broader range of inputs. But I do rely on a lifetime of experience in the field, and that of colleagues from both sides of the former Iron Curtain, to keep current on things North Korean. Was once a career field, now merely a hobby for me. Having talked at length into the wee hours of the morning with active, serving members of the North Korean foreign service and military posted overseas, over the years, whose lives would be cut short had it become known they were spending time with me, and having aided in the defection of a few senior members of North Korean government over the years, I got a pretty good and renaissance education on things North Korean.

Again, the process is laborious, but results are often quite good, and we have shut down a lot of operations long before they got too far from Korean waters over the years. It is when speculation and hyperbole enter the picture that we lose advantage. Such extends into the highest ranks of government. Briefing members of Congress, or dealing with members of State and DoD, it often came down to the North Koreans being seen as an almost comical throwback to "The Mouse That Roared." Even today, few members of Congress and fewer members of the previous and current Administration cared or care to dwell on things North Korean save for their "exporting" weapons all over the place, or failed missile tests or trying to publicly force North Korea back to the table in Beijing, whatever it took for themn to get a line or two in the Washington Post or Washington Times, depending on which side of the aisle they were on.

As for arms and SCUD's, and more recently probably nuclear materiels, these are the only real cash commodities they have to export that cannot be gotten elsewhere often more cheaply, Hence the strawman of shipping cement to Tartus. Interest in the day to day drudge of keeping track of North Korea and North Koreans abroad still flags behind other more exciting ventures, within not only our intel service but most of those overseas services as well. [The ROK being a notable exception.] Therein lies another major problem in our ability to deal with North Korea. We cannot do it all, and our allies and those liaison services with which we deal have little interest at all.

I can jot down on one side of a school tablet in a single column the names of those within the USG (outside of US Forces Korea) who have any real interest at all in North Korea. And this a nation with which we have been at war for over half a century.

I prefer the reality of it all, in all its plain drudgery than to try to escape into flights of fancy when dealing with things North Korean. Understanding the mindset of Kim Chong-il and those closest to him lends to a better understanding of the Hermit Kingdom more than anything else. Understanding what North Korea's capabilites are and what they are not also lends to a more sensible approach.

Dangerous? Yes, they are. Impregnable? Not at all. And more can be done to thwart their ambitions keeping it simple and quiet than by staging wonderous "ops" and movie magic.

By the way, if you want to see a picture of the Al-Hamed, go here:

Should give a bit more perspective on how easy or difficult it may be to track a ship of this size among thousands of others of the same type.

As for the Israeli claims that the ship had been reflagged from North Korean to South Korean and back again, I'd suggest that harbormaster shorthand is at fault more than anything else. I've seen transit logs of the type kept at Damietta, Egypt, and elsewhere all through South Asia, and most are written quickly in the local language, and translated best as possible into English at a later time/date for inclusion into various international ships registries, insurance and other maritime tracking servikces. Since a lot of "Korean" ships travel to nations in that part of the world that recognize one or the other Korea, but not both, in order to simplify things, and prevent a steady stream of demarches chasing or following vessels all across the globe, in all major ships registries, "Korea" is used as country of origin, and in parens, normally, North or South is added, but not always. It seems a simple thing. It is. But both Koreas have been willing to raise their swords over far less.

Posted by coldwarrior415 | September 18, 2007 10:11 PM

For anyone interested, there are several photos of the Al-Hamed posted here:

Gives a bit of perspective to the art of ship tracking. 1200 DWT is a tramp steamer, and there are thousands of them out there.

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