The U.S. Navy says it is on heightened alert after receiving what it calls "credible" al-Qaida threats against American warships and commercial vessels in the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea, and the Persian Gulf. The latest threat from Osama bin Laden's terror network calls on followers to gather intelligence about ships and their sailors so that they can be targeted for attacks.
The threat, made on December 31 in a message posted on an extremist Internet Web site, prompted the Naval Criminal Investigative Service to elevate the risk for all U.S. military and commercial ships sailing through an area stretching from Somalia to the Persian Gulf.
The message contained detailed instructions, particularly on what type of intelligence should be collected from each U.S. warship. The unnamed author says al-Qaida will use the information to target American vessels, including aircraft carriers, submarines, and all naval equipment deployed in the region. He urges potential informants not to underestimate the importance of any piece of information they can gather.
Navy spokesman Lieutenant Nathan Christiansen tells VOA that sailors and their families have been warned to be careful not to reveal any information that could be used against them.
"It is important that Navy families remain vigilant in not sharing potentially sensitive or secure information by any non-secure means, and that includes letters, e-mails, phone conversations, or social media including Facebook," he said.
Fifth Fleet would not comment on what additional security measures are being taken to protect its ships and personnel.
The U.S. Navy has a significant presence in the region, especially in the Gulf of Aden - a busy commercial shipping lane off the northern coast of Somalia. The U.S. Navy and the navies of dozens of other countries are patrolling the narrow waterway to deter ship hijackings-for-ransom by pirate gangs.
Reports that al-Qaida-trained operatives may be poised to attack American commercial and passenger vessels in the Arabian Sea are being widely circulated in Arab-speaking Gulf states, including Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and United Arab Emirates. Western intelligence officials have reportedly urged each country to boost security measures and to provide better protection for ships, especially oil and gas tankers.
On Thursday, a Kuwaiti newspaper, al-Qabas, said unnamed Kuwaiti security sources confirmed that al-Qaida has regrouped in the region in recent months, thanks largely to the deteriorating security in Somalia and Yemen.
Both countries are home to militant anti-West insurgent groups that have publicly claimed allegiance to al-Qaida. The group in Yemen, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, is believed to have ties with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian man accused of trying to blow up a U.S. passenger jet on December 25.
Al-Qaida has targeted the U.S. Navy in the past. In 2001, al-Qaida boasted that it had carried out the October 2000 bombing of USS Cole while the destroyer was refueling at a port in southern Yemen. The blast killed 17 sailors and wounded 39 others.