The boat seized on New Year's Day was the fourth drug-smuggling vessel intercepted by Americans in the past two weeks in or near the Persian Gulf. Pentagon officials say they believe all four boats, which were carrying hashish, heroin and methamphetamines, are part of a drug smuggling operation which funnels money to Osama bin Laden's terrorist network.
An American search of the boat, a wooden vessel called a dhow, found about 2,800 pounds of hashish with an estimated street value of $11 million, according to a statement from the Navy's 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain.
U.S. Navy ships including the USS Port Royal, USS Peleliu and USS Germantown stopped the boat Thursday in the northern Arabian Sea, said Cmdr. James Graybeal, a 5th Fleet spokesman. Searchers found the drugs Friday under blocks of ice and in hidden compartments in the vessel, he said.
Fifteen people aboard the dhow are being held by the Navy on the Peleliu, an amphibious assault ship which carries the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit.
Ten men captured aboard the three vessels seized earlier have been taken to a U.S. prison at a base in Bagram, Afghanistan, for interrogation. Information from those interrogations and documents found on the other three boats led to the latest seizure, the Navy's statement said.
An Australian surveillance plane located the wooden dhow and tracked it until the American ships could intercept it, the U.S. Navy statement said. Forces from Great Britain and New Zealand also helped in the earlier seizures.
American officials have not disclosed what information they have linking the drug shipments to al Qaeda. If confirmed, the seizures would be among the first hard evidence that bin Laden's network benefits directly from the illegal drug trade.
"It is easy to see how al Qaeda could use this moneymaking network to fund their operations," 5th Fleet commander Vice Adm. David C. Nichols Jr. said in the statement.
The American ships involved included the Navy's newest guided-missile cruiser, the Port Royal, and the USS Germantown, a ship which carries Marines, helicopters and smaller landing boats. They are part of Expeditionary Strike Group 1, a new force the Navy created in part to help crack down on smuggling in the Persian Gulf.