FBI questioning dive shop owners in scuba inquiry

By Seth Hettena, Associated Press Writer
Monday June 10, 2002

Authorities worried about amphibious attack after reports of Taliban scuba training 


SAN DIEGO – The FBI is checking to see whether Werner Kurn’s dive shop and hundreds like it across the country hold the key to unraveling the next possible terrorist attack against the United States. 

Agents spent several days last week at Ocean Enterprises, one of the biggest dive shops in the country, checking customer files and sales of special equipment. 

“They want to know if we have seen anything out of the ordinary,” Kurn said. “If you ask me where’s the best place to dive, that’s normal. If you ask me in a limited visibility dive how do you maintain your bearings or how can I dive in the harbor, that’s not.” 

The inquiry stems from debriefings of detainees that found potential members of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network might have taken scuba training, said John A. Sylvester, who heads the counterterrorism office in the FBI’s San Diego bureau. 

Last week, the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, the world’s leading diving organization, gave the FBI a list of 2 million people the Rancho Santa Margarita-based association has certified to dive over the past three years, Vice President Jeff Nadler said. 

Agents also have contacted 1,200 dive shops nationwide to check the names of those who took scuba courses over the past three years, including those who dropped out without getting certified. 

In addition to California, dive shops in the Pacific Northwest, Florida and Ohio say they have been contacted. Dive shops in landlocked states, like Scuba One in Mandan, N.D., also are getting calls. 

“They must have FBI agents around the country calling up little scuba guys like me,” said owner Randy Kraft, who offers trips to the Caribbean for the 50 to 100 customers he certifies each year. 

Also on the checklist are U.S. commercial dive schools that train students in underwater welding and repair work. 

“What we’re looking for is people who just took scuba for scuba’s sake — people who bounce from school to school to school and don’t finish the course,” Sylvester said. 

He said agents also are checking for large sales of highly specialized scuba equipment. 

At Ocean Enterprises, agents are checking the infrequent sales of $5,000 rebreathers, devices that allow Navy SEALs to swim without notice because they don’t produce a trail of bubbles. 

A recent customer, Kurn said, was a wealthy man from Utah who wanted to watch whales without disturbing them. The FBI also has been checking with companies that manufacture the devices. 

Also of interest are sales of underwater propulsion vehicles that can tug a diver long distances and sell for as much as $8,000 each, Kurn said. 

The FBI said San Diego is a crucial part of the investigation. It’s both a dive center and a major tourist destination. The area is home to a host of potential targets, from seaside nuclear power plants to cruise ships and nuclear-powered Navy submarines and aircraft carriers. 

The scuba warning, issued before Memorial Day, was part of a list of alerts about possible suicide bombers, subway and railroad attacks, suicide attacks using small planes, the use of weapons of mass destruction and assaults on nuclear plants and landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty. 

While an underwater terrorist attack might sound more like a James Bond plot than reality, Sylvester said the FBI is taking the threat seriously. 

“Before Sept. 11, flying planes into buildings was far-fetched also,” he said. 

Still, scuba experts are doubtful that a determined diver could do little more than make mischief underwater. 

“Is it feasible? It sure it is,” Nadler said. “Is it likely? It’d be kind of tough.” 

Blowing things up underwater requires far more skill than it does above ground. Navy SEALs, who have the most training of any U.S. special warfare group, must prepare for years before they are certified as combat swimmers skilled in the complexities of underwater demolition. 

“It’s well beyond the skill level of a scuba diver,” said Master Chief William Guild of the Naval Special Warfare Center in Coronado, near San Diego. 

Scuba schools train people to dive in clear conditions with good visibility. But the water around bridges and ports — the location of many potential targets — is turbulent and cloudy. 

Underwater explosives are developed for military use. The Navy trains its SEALs to use limpet mines, which attach to a ship’s hull with powerful magnets and can blast a hole through a 3/4-inch thick steel plate, according to Jane’s Underwater Warfare Systems. 

To use such explosives, a terrorist would likely have to transport several a considerable distance underwater to avoid detection and without sinking. 

Still, San Diego’s scuba shops are happy to help the FBI. 

“I told my staff ‘Whatever we can do, we have to do it,”’ said Kurn, whose shop is only a few blocks away from an apartment complex where two Sept. 11 hijackers lived in 2000.