President Barack Obama in his Jan. 20 Inaugural address promised that “for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.”
Can terrorism be vanquished during the Obama administration? The short answer, tragically, is no, as terrorism is a tactic used by our enemies, and thus something nearly impossible to eradicate completely. Nevertheless, terrorism can certainly be dealt with more effectively by the United States and its allies and thereby bringing it to a manageable level.
Indeed, a “perfect storm” of both conventional and unconventional challenges perpetrated by state and nonstate actors will continue to threaten the United States and its friends and allies for the remainder of the 21st century.
One such challenge, that deserves much greater attention because of its serious national and global implications, is terror in the maritime environment.
Consider the vulnerability of the United States that consists of the following realities:
More than 95 percent of overseas trade enters through U.S. seaports; which account for 2 billion tons of cargo, $800 billion of domestic and international freight and 3.3 billion barrels of oil annually. Each year, about 9 million cargo containers enter the United States via 361 U.S. seaports along 26,000 miles of commercially navigable waterways.
Moreover, 78 million Americans engage in recreational boating; 6 million cruise ship passengers travel each year from U.S. ports; the ferry system transports 180 million passengers and our waterways support 110,000 commercial fishing vessels, contributing $111 billion to state economies. All the while, 8,100 foreign vessels make 50,000 U.S. port calls each year.
Against the backdrop of this maritime security quagmire, existing smuggling networks can facilitate the illicit movement of people and equipment into the United States, particularly as legal points of entry on land are hardened.
Though, thus far at least, no major maritime attack has been mounted within the United States, it is critical to recall there is no end to the imagination and evil intentions of al Qaeda, the most dangerous international network that perpetrated Sept. 11, 2001.
In fact, one of its important components is a maritime capability consisting of a fleet ranging from an estimated 15 to 300 vessels. Al Qaeda’s tactical methods include shipment of weapons and deployment of ships as bombs directed against naval targets, critical infrastructure, port cities and straits. In October 2000, for instance, a spectacular al Qaeda suicide attack by a small boat against the USS Cole in the port of Aden killed 17 American sailors. Also, in June 2002, Moroccan authorities arrested three operatives planning attacks on U.S., British and Israeli ships in the Strait of Gibraltar. And, in October that year, a French-flagged oil tanker, the Limburg, was attacked by al Qaeda members in the Gulf of Aden. Moreover, it has been reported that Abd al-Rahim al-Nahiri, identified as al Qaeda’s maritime operations chief, who was arrested in November 2002, planned to attack U.S. ships in the Strait of Hormuz.
The latest stark reminder of exploiting maritime vulnerability is the spectacular attack on Mumbai undertaken by al Qaeda’s affiliate Lashkar-e-Taiba (a movement dedicated to “liberating Kashmir from India’s rule”) last Nov. 27-29. In this case, the terrorists hijacked a fishing trawler at sea that was used to launch their assault. Apparently, the attackers planned to return to their Pakistani base with the same boat.
Another recent maritime security concern is the proliferation of piracy in the oil-trade routes of the Gulf of Aden, the littoral waters of Saudi Arabia, and the Horn of Africa. In 2008 alone, some 100 ships were attacked, several dozen vessels were hijacked, and hundreds of crew members were held hostage. The capture by Somali pirates of a Saudi supertanker, the Sirius Star, with a cargo of 2 million barrels of oil worth more than $100 million is one of the most dramatic illustrations of the nature of the maritime threat to freedom of the seas.
In the face of the foregoing dangers, it behooves the Obama administration to consider two essential recommendations:
- First and foremost, whenever there is a security threat in the maritime domain, whether related to shipping container security or piracy, the immediate demand from politicians is more funding, more customs officials, more security personnel and more troops. The reality is that more of everything does not drastically reduce the risk of falling prey to an asymmetrical threat. What the United States and its allies need to combat maritime terrorism is increased and timely communication of pertinent intelligence information. Those ships that have red-flag characteristics (suspicious crew, cargo or port of departure) need to be accounted for and that information shared with allies who may be at risk of these ships entering their respective ports.
- Second, an international maritime response force similar to the Coast Guard in the United States must be established, which has the legal right to intercept and combat pirates and smugglers. Our Coast Guard, as part of the Homeland Security Department, is not limited by Posse Comitatus like our other military branches, and therefore has the right to board a foreign vessel without it being considered an act of war. In this gray maritime area of law enforcement and military conflict, the creation of an international equivalent to our Coast Guard with the right to operate in international waters without violating international maritime laws is essential. Unfortunately, without this, lawless pirates and terrorist operatives will continue to get away with murder and extortion by exploiting loopholes in international maritime law.
Yonah Alexander is director of the Inter-University Center for Terrorism Studies. Tyler Richardson served as research coordinator at the Inter-University Center for Terrorism Studies. He currently is an analyst in North Carolina. Their new book “Terror on the High Seas: From Piracy to Strategic Challenge” will be released in 2009 (Praeger Publishers).