Passenger aboad Seabourn Spirit took video of attackers (courtesy: Sky News)

A U.S. cruise liner attacked with machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades off the coast of Somalia may have been the target of a terrorist high-sea assault, says Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer.

The Seabourn Spirit, carrying 312 people including passengers and crew, is nearing a port in the Seychelles, but arrival may be delayed because an unexploded missile is embedded in the vessel, said the official, who is monitoring the ship’s progress because about 19 Australians are on board.

Passengers on the ship were awakened Saturday at dawn by the sound of machine-gun fire and the impact of the missile. The attack occurred about 100 miles off the coast of Somalia.

“We’re not sure whether in the early stages the ship will be able to tie up at the wharf there because of concern about an unexploded rocket that is embedded in some of the passenger accommodation of the ship,” Downer told Australia’s Nine Network. “American officials are going to board it initially to deal with that problem, and once that problem’s dealt with then our consular officer will be able to go on board as well.”

Initial reports identified the attackers as pirates. The area is notorious for piracy. But Downer said it may have been a terrorist attack.

“The whole thing is an extraordinary story, that it would be attacked by, we’re not quite sure who at this stage, but it’s possible the people who attacked the ship were terrorists,” he said.

Downer based his assessment on the methodology of the attack.

The ship was on its way from Alexandria, Egypt, to the Kenyan port of Mombasa where it was due to pick up more passengers.

Passengers reported the attackers were close enough to be seen.

“It was a frightening experience to see the flash of a rocket launcher and you just wonder what’s about to happen to you in the next couple of seconds,” one passenger recounted to the Australian Seven Network.

She reported the captain stayed calm, warning passengers: “We have people shooting at us, we are going to try to outrun them.”

Reports said the attackers approached the cruise ship in inflatable boats and fired as their occupants attempted to get on board the liner.

The attackers were not able to board the vessel as the cruise ship sped up and changed course to avoid them. A photo taken by one of the passenger shows what appears to be a wooden vessel.

One member of the crew was slightly injured before the attackers were outrun, the cruise ship company reported. The crew member was reportedly hit by flying debris.

The ship has 161 crew members and 151 passengers, mostly Americans. The passengers gathered in a lounge for safety and none were injured, the company said.

The 440-foot-long, 10,000-ton cruise ship, which is registered in the Bahamas, sustained minor damage, the cruise company said. The liner, which had its maiden voyage in 1989, can carry 208 guests.

In March of this year, a Philippine military report based on interrogations of captured terrorists said two al-Qaida-linked groups were training members in scuba diving in preparation for seaborne attacks. Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network had one of its first major successes in Somalia, the ambush of U.S. peacekeeping forces that resulted in the slaughter of 19 American troops in 1993 in the famous “Blackhawk Down” Mogadishu raid.

The report pointed to increasing collaboration among the Muslim terrorists in other areas, including financing and explosives.

As WND first reported based on information gathered by the premium online intelligence newsletter Joseph Farah’s G2 Bulletin, the threat of Islamist terrorism on the high seas is worldwide – not limited to one region.

WND also exclusively reported that al-Qaida had purchased at least 15 ships, creating a veritable terror armada.

U.S. intelligence services believe scores of acoustic sea-mines, found to have disappeared from a naval base in North Korea by a U2 spy plane, could be aboard these bin Laden “terror ships” and that Western luxury liners and aircraft carriers were the targets of this sea jihad.

WND reported in June 2004 on evidence terrorists were learning about diving, with a view to attacking ships from below. The Abu Sayyaf group in the Philippines kidnapped a maintenance engineer in a Sabah holiday resort in 2000. On his release in June this year, the engineer said his kidnappers knew he was a diving instructor – they wanted instruction.

The owner of a diving school near Kuala Lumpur reported a number of ethnic Malays wanting to learn about diving, but being strangely uninterested in learning about decompression.

G2 Bulletin pointed out this was reminiscent of reports that Sept. 11 hijackers who attended U.S. flight schools were only interested in learning how to fly planes, not land.

The new Philippine report said Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah has given Abu Sayyaf at least $18,500 for explosives training alone in the past year.

In April, the AP reported, the U.S. Coast Guard announced it wanted to upgrade protection of the nation’s ports from terrorist attacks by scuba divers.

The Coast Guard is seeking development of a new sonar system that can distinguish human swimmers from dolphins.

The FBI announced three years ago it was probing al-Qaida’s alleged training of scuba divers to blow up waterfront targets, including ships and power plants.

The Philippine report stated Abu Sayyaf member Gamal Baharan – a suspect in a deadly Manila bus bombing Feb. 14 – told of being trained with other terrorists for scuba-diver strikes.

Baharan said Abu Sayyaf leaders Khaddafy Janjalani and Abu Sulaiman initiated the training in preparation for a Jemaah Islamiyah bombing plot on unspecified targets outside the Philippines.

Previous stories:

Next for terrorists: Seaborne attacks

Terror threat swells at sea

Al-Qaida plans high-sea terror

New al-Qaida threat: 15-ship mystery navy

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