Terrorist’s threats against the U.S. Navy are nothing new. The latest threat declared on Dec. 31 that al Qaeda plans to target areas of naval interests, including ship movements and logistic support services by other countries. Data on possible weapons aboard as well as information on crews and their families does add a new dimension. As a result, the U.S. Navy stated that the Naval Criminal Investigation Service is aware of the threat and has heightened its alert posture in the Middle East. However, let’s be clear: This is not a law enforcement issue. It requires all the elements of our national intelligence agencies working with those of our allies to defeat the threats.
With known al Qaeda “sleeper cells” here in the United States, we need to broaden our area of concern to include not only our domestic naval facilities but our broader maritime environment. This should include our liquified natural gas terminals, major commercial ports and facilities. The closure of a major seaport shipping channel such as at Long Beach due to a terrorist attack could have a devastating impact.
The guided missile destroyer USS Cole was subjected to a terrorist attack in October 2000, during a brief fuel stop in Aden, Yemen. Part of the problem was that the Cole has fallen into a predictable pattern of operations for fueling our ships in Aden once they had transited the Suez Canal. Approximately, 25 routine naval fueling stops had been made to Aden over the previous few years. Further, 12 days advanced notice was required by the government of Yemen for these brief fuel stops. It is clear that all local port authorities, including the terrorists, had precise information on the Cole’s movements.
This was despite a heightened security alert in Yemen at the time of the Cole’s scheduled stop. The alert was sufficiently serious to cause the U.S. Embassy to be closed, but the Cole was never alerted. The brief fuel stop was looked upon as “business as usual,” resulting in the tragic loss of 17 American sailors.
Clearly, we must assume that al Qaeda and their U.S. based “sleeper cells” have been studying our port and facilities. This is more than an issue for the Naval Criminal Investigation Service. We need to review our current pattern of operations both here in the United States and for our deployed forces. For example, how are we rotating our ships to carry out their anti-piracy patrols; and where and how these ships are being provided logistic support?
When our ships are in a foreign port, no local barges should be permitted to approach a ship, whether at anchor or alongside a pier without first being inspected. In effect, an “exclusion zone” must be established around our ships. To enforce such a zone, our ships or the host country will have to provide a well-armed boat in the water to prevent any unauthorized craft from approaching our ships. We know this is a firm requirement established as a result of one of the first “Red Cell” exercises we conducted after the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, Lebanon in 1983.
In the Cole bombing, after the second fuel stop, our ships were prevented from putting their boats in the water by the government of Yemen because they claimed it was in infringement on their sovereignty, and our Embassy agreed. What nonsense.
Our Rules of Engagement (ROEs) should also be reviewed. “Don’t shoot until shot at” is the terrorist formula for success. We must assume that al Qaeda has information on our current ROEs and how we react to high-speed craft - for example, Iranian Revolutionary Guard naval boats aggressively maneuvering in the direction of our ships with their guns unmasked. The Iranians paid no attention to warnings issued by our ships. These aggressive actions cannot be accepted. The decision on whether actions by an approaching craft or boat are threatening must be left with the on-the-scene commander. He must not be bound by a rigid set of rules that he must go through before he can open fire. It must be his call and he must be confident that he will have the backing of his superiors in the chain of command.
For our domestic ports and facilities, the U.S. Coast Guard is charged with the responsibility for the security of our ports. With their limited resources, they do an excellent job; however, they are stretched thin and additional resources to counter a serious terrorist threat are required. In the near term, consideration should be given to augmenting existing U.S. Coast Guard resources with civilian professional security assistance personnel (former SEAL and Special Forces personnel) and additional armed patrol craft. We must remain proactive if we are to be successful in defeating the al Qaeda threat.
Retired Navy Adm. James A. Lyons was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations.