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Thursday, 4 October, 2001, 11:36 GMT 12:36 UK
BBC Middle East correspondent Frank Gardner
The BBC's Middle East correspondent Frank Gardner is in Oman where 24 British Royal Navy warships as well as 23,000 British troops are gathering. He answered a selection of your questions on the military build-up in the gulf.

To watch coverage of the forum, select a link below:

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In the Gulf region there is now the largest mobilisation of Royal Navy ships in foreign seas since the Falklands conflict of 1982.

The British ships - including the nuclear submarine, HMS Triumph - are taking part in the long-planned series of war games.

It's thought that some of the 23,000 British troops gathering in Oman could be part of US-led military action against Afghanistan.

The BBC's Middle East correspondent Frank Gardner is in Oman. He answered your questions in a live forum on Thursday 4th October.



Eileen Taylor, Saudi Arabia asks: What is the feeling among British troops at the moment? Are they concerned about the possibility of an imminent war?

Frank Gardner:

Morale is pretty high. We spent quite a lot of time with the British troops up at the desert training camp. At the moment this is still only an exercise so they not worried - concerned is perhaps the wrong word - they are intensely interested in what's going on, on the diplomatic level. They are trying to get access to any information they can because as far as they know they've been sent out here for about month and they think they are going home at the end of it. Whatever happens in Afghanistan, the vast majority of these British forces out here will go home as planned long before the holy month of Ramadan which starts in November.

But morale is good. Those who know that they are perhaps short-listed to go to Afghanistan or nearby if the balloon goes up, as it were, they are quite excited about it. This is what they are trained for so they are not afraid - or if they are, they are not saying it.


Daniel McGrogan, Barcelona, Spain asks: Have these military exercises here in Oman been overshadowed by the prospect of a real war?

Frank Gardner:

I would say that they have. There is enormous media interest in this exercise because this is frankly the only place that the media can get access to seeing British troops training in desert environments. Of course, everyone is putting two and two together and making five. They are saying - well , these are the kind of troops that could be sent to Afghanistan. The exercise bosses, the senior British officers both naval and army, they are trying to play this down. They are saying - look at the moment this remains an exercise.

But let's face it, everybody knows that if America carries out military action, Britain is going to take part. The sort of assets, as military people like to call it, that could be used are things like the HMS Illustrious, the aircraft carrier, which is steaming off the coast of Oman just behind me here on the Indian Ocean. Possibly some of the Royal Marine Commandoes could be used as sort of shock troops in some kind of operation in Afghanistan. But it is important to distinguish between these two words - exercise and operation. This at the moment remains an exercise, it is not yet an operation - it will become that if America decides to go in, Britain will help her and almost certainly some specialised troops and units deployed here in Oman may well assist them. But I think it is important to say, Oman is unlikely to be used as a springboard for military action.


Alan Jackson, Fort Lauderdale, USA asks: Since information indicates that a large number of Islamic extremists live in Oman, UAE, and Yemen, what steps have the military taken to assure the security of allied troops? I would also like to ask what the local governments of Oman, UAE and Yemen are doing to eliminate terrorist organisations in those nations?

Frank Gardner:

It is a good question except that I would dispute his notion that there are a lot of Islamic extremists, as he puts it, here in Oman - there are not. Oman is a very peaceful country, as is the UAE. The country that has the problem with militant Islamists is Saudi Arabia and Yemen, both those two countries. Both those countries in the last five years have experienced bomb attacks on American forces. A year ago, the USS Cole - a billion dollar US Navy warship was bombed in Aden Harbour. A bunch of suicide bombers drew up alongside and blew a hole in it killing 17 sailors. So the British military is acutely aware of the danger.

Let me just deal with the Navy first all. As far as the HMS Illustrious is concerned - Britain's aircraft carrier - it has taken security precautions when it came into Salalah Harbour just behind me here. They won't disclose exactly what those precautions are. But one thing, for example, that it's done is - when it is sailing at night, it has rigged up its lights in such a way that it looks like a cargo vessel rather than an aircraft carrier. When it steamed into port and when it steamed out, it moved extremely quickly, flanked by other British warships.

On land, there is local force protection provided by, what's called the RAF regiment. Their job is to patrol the airfields. There are also guards out on the desert camp where the British are. So quite difficult for anybody to get through - but of course, who knows.

Now in terms of local governments, what are they doing to deal with the Islamists? The Yemenis have rounded up dozens of suspected sympathisers of Osama Bin Laden. Yemen has a problem with law and order - there is no question about that. There are an estimated 1,000 sympathisers of Osama Bin Laden - perhaps more - in Yemen, many of whom are activists. You may remember that about 3 years ago, some Islamist extremist kidnapped 16 Western tourists in Yemen and four of those tourists were then killed in a shoot-out. Yemen is very keen to try and stop that kind of thing happening again. So it basically rounded up loads of people and it is investigating various others.

Saudi Arabia has done the same thing - they are very secretive about it. In the UAE and Oman - they don't have such a violent problem - they've been looking into bank accounts, and possible sources of funding for organisations such as Osama Bin Laden's al Qaeda network. They may well be closing down some of those sources - choking off possibly even charitable foundations who might be channelling money to organisations such as his.


Giles Bradley, Exeter UK asks: Being entirely honest, does the UK's contribution matter at all to the United States in military terms? Also, why is it often so much smaller (in terms of numbers of troops and military hardware) than our relative population or GNP might suggest that we could contribute?

Frank Gardner:

Britain's contribution, as I understand it, does matter to the United States. It matters politically, of course. It's very important that America is not just going to go this alone. But in military terms it does matter because Britain has certain specialist techniques which America really needs. The most obvious example is its special forces - the special air service and special boat squadron - army and navy respectively. There has been speculation that they are already operating in Afghanistan. Britain has built up an expertise in this region. The Royal Marines, for example, have a special cadre - the Mountain and Arctic warfare cadre - who are trained to operate in mountains independently. They can survive for weeks on end with very small rations, hiding out in mountain caves, simply observing. It is something that the British Army has built up over a long period of time. So that's one thing they would like.

Britain has also got a lot of reconnaissance aircraft. It's got maritime reconnaissance that perhaps isn't so relevant at the moment. But if there were to be repercussions and some kind of problem in the Gulf States then British Forces would perhaps need to keep an eye on what's going on here. So in military terms - yes, it does matter. Of course the sizes are small - Britain is a small country - it's tried to punch above its weight. It's got a seat on the UN - some people think that it's perhaps too small to have that seat. But Britain does have a military contribution to play in the military fight against terrorism.


Colin Sweetman, London, UK asks: What is your view on the potential risk of compromise to operations caused by public speculation on military operations by "media pundits"?

Frank Gardner:

There is quite a high risk. The Gulf States are normally very secretive. In the case of Saudi Arabia where there are thousands of US Airmen and British service people based in Saudi Arabia with their squadrons of warplanes. These bases are now way out in the desert - middle of nowhere - very hard to see them or get close to them. So they don't really have a problem there. But here in Oman, which is a rather more relaxed country, we have been able to go up to the airbase. In fact the British Army has even taken us up to the airbase to see what is there - they have been very open about it.

There is the risk here that if there is so much speculation in the media about what support these Gulf States are going to give logistically to America and Britain in their military campaign to flush out or crush the Taleban or al Qaeda or whoever, then it is possible that these Gulf States here could be so embarrassed by this that they say - ok enough, we don't like the way this is going, our own population is getting restless, time to close it all down, you are not going to be able to do anything here. There is that risk and the British military are acutely aware of that. They have tried to give the Press a free hand but there could well come a stage where they will say - you are going too far guys, you're reading too much into this, you're messing it up for the governments concerned.


Peter Rayner, Rushden, England asks: Notwithstanding all the talk of a "Coalition against Terror", the only forces ever mentioned are those of the US and the UK. Where do the forces of other European nations, France, for instance, come into the picture?

Frank Gardner:

The French do have a lot to offer this but they tend to sit on the fence in these things. They haven't done that quite as much as they did during the Gulf War. The French Government has committed its airspace to being used by Western warplanes. We don't yet know what, if anything, they are going to commit on the ground.

Other Nato nations in Europe will probably be called upon on an individual basis to provide specialist units. If, for example, there is a perceived threat of chemical weapons involved in this - don't forget we are not talking about something that's going to be just next week - if it is next week - we are talking about a campaign on many levels, not just military, diplomatic, financial, intelligence gathering - this could go on for years. Those individual European nations will be asked to provide specialist support - for example, mobile decontamination units - if there is perceived to be a poison gas attack or something like that.

There are reports that Australian special forces are operating alongside Britain and the US in Afghanistan. I can't confirm that but it doesn't surprise me if that's true.


Paul Maynard, London asks: It is must be both heartening and a little worrying to witness such a mass gathering of British Navy ships. Worrying because they present such a large target. To what extent have our battleships improved their defence systems since the days of the Falklands conflict when they became victims to the awesome peril posed by the Exocet missiles?

Frank Gardner:

Just to be pedantic here - Britain doesn't have any battleships any longer so you probably mean warships. But they have done a lot. The Royal Navy has gone to great lengths in the last 20 years to learn from the lessons of the Falklands War. The biggest danger they had there as from fire spreading right throughout the ships. They found - as a colleague of mine pointed out - the fire would spread faster than sailors were able to get off the ship. That's a problem which they believe they've now dealt with - they have put in a lot of firewalls, they are also using different materials. Aluminium which was used a lot in ships during the Falklands War is largely being replaced by steel.

Now in terms of fending off immediate threats from incoming missiles - you rightly point out, the threat from Exocets. One of the things that both the Royal Navy in Britain and the US Navy has installed are these bizarre looking cones - with this huge six-barrelled machine gun coming out of it. This is like an incredibly fast high-powered machine gun that fires a stream - like a wall - of bullets against an incoming missile. It's a last ditch defence - it fires something incredible like 100 rounds a second to obliterate an incoming missile. But long before that missile gets close to any of Britain's warships they would hope that their airborne reconnaissance aircraft, their submarines, their helicopters, the various warships surrounding the flagship carrier say - they would hope that those warships were able to give them advance warning and deal with any threat.

It is interesting that the US Navy prides itself on being able to surround and protect its warships and yet a simple dingy a year ago in Aden Harbour in Yemen was able to draw up alongside a billion dollar warship, blow a hole in its side and kill 17 sailors. That was a salutary lesson to the Americans and its one that is terrifying the British to.


Prerna Kumar, Missouri, USA asks: How much is Britain risking in terms of security for its own people by actively engaging in military action against the Arab world. The attacks on US are after all result of this country's meddlesome and Big Brother attitude.

Frank Gardner:

I have to say Prerna, there are a lot of thinks that I would dispute there. First of all, Britain in not, nor America for that matter, preparing to attack the Arab world unless anything changes. Yes, it's true there are many Right-wingers in the United States who would like to use this as an excuse to attack Iraq. Moderate Arab leaders - pro-West leaders like President Mubarak in Egypt have made it crystal clear that they will not allow any attack on an Arab nation. America knows that. If America attacks an Arab nation like Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Libya - anybody like that - they will at a stroke lose the entire support of the Arab world and they need that support for intelligence gathering.

So America would be very ill-advised to attack an Arab nation at the moment. The nation in question is Afghanistan, which is not an Arab nation - they are mainly Pashtu speaking. Yes, in a way the West is taking a risk but it feels that the massive casualty toll from the attacks on September 11th mean that they are now prepared to take risks far more than they were before that and they will take whatever flak is coming to, as they put it, root out the evil of terrorism.

But I have to say I am quite impressed - I have been following events in the Middle East for years - and a lot of American policy in the Middle East is quite insensitive to Arab and Muslim feelings. I will go on record for saying that - they tend to listen and then ignore. This time, the US administration seems to be getting it right - you have President Bush standing up and quoting from the Quoran and visiting a Muslim centre. Colin Powell is being very sensitive to Arab and Muslim sensitivities. They are not going to force the Saudis, for example, to take part in any military action that would embarrass the Saudi Government. So both the US and Britain are trying to minimise any possible backlash. Of course, all of that could go upside down if an attack on Afghanistan results in large numbers of Muslim casualties.

See also:

03 Oct 01 | Middle East
Gaza violence clouds Rumsfeld mission
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