Security experts are concerned about a variety of terrorist threat scenarios at U.S. ports. Among other things, they are concerned that terrorists could:
•use commercial cargo containers to smuggle terrorists, nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons, components thereof, or other dangerous materials into the United States;
•seize control of a large commercial cargo ship and use it as a collision weapon for destroying a bridge or refinery located on the waterfront;
•sink a large commercial cargo ship in a major shipping channel, thereby blocking all traffic to and from the port;
•attack a large ship carrying a volatile fuel (such as liquefied natural gas) and detonate the fuel so as to cause a massive in-port explosion;
•Attack an oil tanker in a port or at an offshore discharge facility19 so as to disrupt the world oil trade and cause large-scale environmental damage. seize control of a ferry (which can carry hundreds of passengers) or a cruise ship (which can carry more than 3,000 passengers, of whom about 90% are usually U.S. citizens) and threaten the deaths of the passengers if a demand is not met;
• Attack U.S. Navy ships in an attempt to kill U.S. military personnel, damage or destroy a valuable U.S. military asset, and (in the case of nuclear-powered ships) cause a radiological release.
•Use land around a port to stage attacks on bridges, refineries located on the waterfront, or other port facilities.
Some of these scenarios (or similar ones) have already come to pass elsewhere.
For example, in October 2002, the French oil tanker Limberg appears to have been attacked by a bomb-laden boat off the coast of Yemen, killing one crewman aboard the tanker, damaging the ship, and causing an oil spill. In October 2001, Italian authorities arrested on terrorism charges an Egyptian-born Canadian citizen found with high-tech equipment (including a satellite phone and a computer) and other personal possessions in a cargo container in an Italian port. In October 2000, the
U.S. Navy destroyer Cole was attacked by a bomb-laden boat during a refueling stop in the harbor of Aden, Yemen, killing 17 sailors, injuring 39 others, and causing damage to the ship that cost about $250 million to repair. In 1985, terrorists seized the cruise ship Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean and held its passengers hostage, killing one of them.
Much concern has focused on the threat that a sea container could be used to smuggle a nuclear weapon into the United States. Experts are concerned that if a nuclear weapon in a container aboard a ship in port is detonated, it could not only kill tens of thousands of people and cause massive destruction, but could also paralyze the movement of cargo containers globally, thereby shutting down world trade.
Although most attacks occur in Southeast Asian waters on foreign-flag freighters,
U.S. shippers are likely to be among the owners of cargo onboard. It can also be noted that some experts believe there is a link between piracy and terrorism that the goal of some acts of piracy may be to raise money to finance terrorist operations.
The Financial Times has reported an incident where a chemical tanker in the south
Pacific was boarded by pirates who practiced steering the vessel at varying speeds for several hours.
The lack of transparency in ship registration has been a longstanding concern.
An Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) study on the ownership and control of ships reports that: Not only does perfect transparency not exist, but in fact anonymity seems to be the rule rather than the exception, and not only is it permitted, but in many cases positively encouraged. This enables terrorists and would be terrorists to remain intimately involved in the operation of their vessels, while maintaining totally hidden, through the use of relatively simple mechanisms that are readily available and legally tolerated in almost all jurisdictions.
Unscrupulous ship owners are known to mask their identity by re-registering their vessels under fictitious corporate names and renaming and repainting their ships. Ship owners can register their vessels in “flag of convenience” countries which may have lax regulations and require little information from the applicants.
According to press reports, U.S. intelligence officials believe they have identified 15 cargo ships that have links to al Qaeda.
The complexity of the process for completing containerized shipments makes it more difficult to ensure the integrity of this type of cargo. Unlike other cargo ships whose loading process occurs at the port and whose cargo is often owned by a single company, container ships carry cargo from hundreds of companies and the containers are loaded away from the port at individual company warehouses. A typical single container shipment may involve a multitude of parties and generate 30 to 40 documents. A single container could also carry cargo for several customers, thus multiplying the number of parties and documents involved. The parties involved in a shipment usually include the exporter, the importer, a freight forwarder, a customs broker, a customs inspector, inland transportation provider(s) (which may include more than one trucker or railroad), the port operators, possibly a feeder ship, and the ocean carrier. Each transfer of the container from one party to the next is a point of vulnerability in the supply chain. The security of each transfer facility and the trustworthiness of each company are therefore critical in the overall security of the shipment. It is also important to keep in mind that not all U.S. bound containers arrive at U.S. ports. Half of the containers discharged at the Port of Montreal, for instance, move by truck or rail for cities in the northeastern or Midwestern United States. Also, many containers that enter U.S. waters are bound for other nations.
Security experts warn that terrorists attempting to use a container to smuggle a weapon of mass destruction or components thereof into the United States could purchase a known exporter with a long and trustworthy shipping record. Drug smugglers have been known to employ this strategy to disguise their contraband in otherwise legitimate cargo. While both the Coast Guard and CBP are experienced in the marine environment with the “war on drugs,” they recognize that terrorism is a different kind of threat. Among other things, drug smugglers are often interested in finding a smuggling method that can be used over and over to make multiple shipments. This permits the Coast Guard and CBP to look for certain patterns of operation among drug smugglers. Terrorists, on the other hand, are more likely to be interested in using a particular method of attack only once, to carry out a particular terrorist operation. This makes the tactic of looking for patterns of operation potentially much less useful. Another difference concerns the potential consequences of failure to detect and intercept. Given the tremendous amount of cargo arriving at seaports, the mission of interdicting illegal drugs or a weapon of mass destruction is often described as searching for the needle in the haystack. In the case of the weapon of mass destruction, however, the potential consequence of not finding the so called needle is much greater.
The incidence of other shipping-related crimes also attests to the challenges faced in improving port security. The National Cargo Security Council estimates that cargo theft domestically ranges between $10 billion and $15 billion annually. The
FBI believes much of this theft occurs in or near seaports. Identifying where cargo theft occurs in the transportation system may help identify where terrorist infiltration could occur.
Recent Efforts and Proposed Legislation May Assist Port Security Improvements
Since the September 11 attacks, the Coast Guard and other agencies at ports have made efforts to improve risk management and security measures. The Coast Guard, traditionally a multimission organization, has made a significant shift in operational focus toward seaport security. In so doing, the Coast Guard, in the months immediately following September 2001, diverted resources from other missions such as drug interdiction but has since restored some of its effort in those areas.
Examples of additional recent efforts by the Coast Guard and other agencies include
• formation of Coast Guard maritime safety and security teams based at selected ports to assist in providing port security personnel and equipment;
• Coast Guard escorts or boarding of high-risk ships, including cruise ships, in ports;
• Coast Guard escorts for naval vessels;
• Establishment and enforcement of new security zones and increased harbor security patrols and
• Port authority cost estimates for improving facility security and interim security improvement measures.