October 17, 2006

Passenger ships more vulnerable to terror attacks

Cruise ships are more likely targets of an attack than are cargo container vessels, according to a research group.

Copley News Service

WASHINGTON -- Cruise ships and ferry boats are more likely targets of terrorist attacks than the cargo containers that have been the focus of recent maritime security efforts, a prominent research group said Monday.

But it also concluded that the risk of any type of attack involving maritime targets is relatively low, though other experts disputed that.


Strikes against cruise ships and commuter craft could produce the high numbers of casualties and the publicity that terrorists seek, a study by the RAND Corp.'s Center for Terrorism Risk Management Policy concluded.

The cruise industry is a growing presence in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, with more than a dozen cruise lines now calling in Los Angeles throughout the year.

Precautions already taken at the World Cruise Terminal in San Pedro include the availability of bomb detection dogs.

RAND noted that despite the increased security at cruise ship terminals, however, few passengers are physically searched before boarding and luggage is seldom screened before it is transferred to staterooms. The ships also are vulnerable while anchored in foreign ports that often have little security, the study said.

"The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are a huge gateway for the cruise industry. It's an important market for us," said Christopher Heywood, corporate communications manager for LA Inc. The Convention and Visitors Bureau, which in recent years has launched a promotion titled "Cruise L.A."

"It's definitely an important industry and anything we can do to thwart a terrorist attack would be smart," Heywood said. "We don't want to compromise (passenger) convenience, so it's a delicate balance, and we don't want people scared to go on a cruise. But if I were a passenger on a ship, I'd rather have a little bit of inconvenience if a terrorist threat could be thwarted."

Commercial ferries could be particularly vulnerable because the need for rapid boarding to meet schedules makes it difficult to screen passengers and vehicles for explosives, the study noted.

With some ferries able to carry nearly 1,000 passengers, there is a potential for a high casualty count from a suicide car bomb or other major attack, RAND said.

Ferries in 30 U.S. urban areas carry a total of more than 66 million passengers annually, and the tally is much higher in many other countries, the study said. Cruise ships, many of which can hold several thousand passengers, could be even more attractive targets.

Although those large ships would be less vulnerable to conventional explosives, large numbers of passengers could be affected by a biological attack on a ship's food and water supplies, RAND noted.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, the federal government has poured millions of dollars into upgrading security at the nation's cargo ports and finding ways to make boxcar-size ship cargo containers harder to tamper with.

Security also has been stepped up at cruise ship terminals in San Diego, Los Angeles and elsewhere.

Although a nuclear device smuggled into the country in a shipping container could be the deadliest and most economically devastating form of maritime terrorist attack, the likelihood is low because of the difficulty in obtaining the necessary technology, the RAND study said.

After examining the various risks of maritime terrorism, RAND concluded that based on historic data, all of the threats are less likely than generally perceived. While the fear of such attacks has increased, RAND said, "The assessments of the threat are not empirically grounded."

"Historically, terrorists have avoided maritime attacks," the study said.

Land targets are more accessible and are easier for news media to cover, and operating at sea requires specialized skills and equipment. Less than 2 percent of past terrorist attacks have affected maritime targets, the study said, and most involved hijackings of cruise ships in attempts to gain release of imprisoned terrorists.

Perhaps the best known of these was the 1985 takeover of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro by members of the Palestinian Liberation Front, during which a disabled American, Leon Klinghoffer, was thrown overboard.

But RAND's conclusions and its use of historic data to predict future terrorist actions were dismissed by other terrorism experts.

"I hate that way of looking at things, that takes the status quo as the norm when we're living in revolutionary times," said Michael Ledeen, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute.

"Obviously, they are a target," Ledeen said of cruise ships and ferries. "If they took over one of those large cruise ships, I think they'd get a lot of publicity -- and it's easy."