recreational fishing vessel near maersk ship containership

Terrorism, Pirates, and Blowing the Whistle on Commercial Fishing Before it Causes the Next Big Attack, Part 1

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December 5, 2011

momps By Jeffrey J. Milstein, Moran Office of Maritime and Port Security (MOMPS) 

There are many different types of possible terrorists, but the simplest definition for the successful “terrorist” is: one supported by an organization capable of significant funding, providing training and with the foresight to plot scenarios dedicated to causing mass casualties and impact.  That being said, if someone is dedicated enough to give their life for a cause, they want one hundred percent confirmation of a target or as close to that as possible.  Every terrorist wants to be the next Bin Laden and not to be some fool who showed up at the wrong spot and blew himself up.  Because of this, a terrorist may spend as many as five to ten years planning for an attack.  However, if they arrive on site for a dry run before the big day and find the attack might not be successful, then it’s back to square one and on to planning for the next identified weak target.

recreational fishing vessel near maersk ship containership
Recreational vessels operate in close proximity to a docked containership, photo by Jeffrey Milstein

People often forget that what makes a threat is not just the idea; it’s the possibility of a proven vector of threat (i.e. method, path or tool that utilizes the threat to perpetrate an attack).  Anyone can come up with the good idea, just look at the thriller section in Netflix and you will see that.  What makes a threat vector realistic is the idea itself and the probability of success.  If the probability of success is high and can be proven, the idea holds water and we have a problem.  For example, anyone screaming “Nuclear attack!” needs to take into consideration that nuclear weapons are not so easy to obtain and smuggle, and they’re even harder to make, maintain and ensure they work.  Furthermore, there needs to be validity as to where purported weapons of mass destruction have come from.  For example, even though a Nuke would cause ninety billion dollars in destruction the probability of this type of attack is so low that it creates a vector value below the benchmark needed to consider it a daily threat.  However, something that could be made much easier like a dirty bomb, which could still cause considerable destruction, is more of a realistic threat once divided by the probability.

So, with this said, why aren’t most gaps or weaknesses identified as a threat vector?

The real answer is there isn’t enough time in the day to tackle the unbelievable quantity of gaps and weakness we face in our ports, and then check them against the chances of probability or possibility.  The truly dedicated, overworked men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) are the most underfunded branch of the U.S. Military and can’t do the job on their own.  In a perfect world, the best way to test probability of a possible threat is via covert operations as Richard Marcinko did in 1984 with the establishment of the Naval Security Coordination Team OP-06D, or more commonly known as “Red Cell”.  Lack of funding however, and an embarrassing lack of understanding from our legislators and regulators of how the maritime industry operates means these types of operations are rarely conducted, and when they are, they’re usually in a vacuum.  Because of this, Congress opts to try and tackle the low-hanging fruit and the topics that will generate the most publicity.  More often than not, they do not consist of things that we need the most protection from, just those things that might not kill a bill before Congress or in some cases need to be attached to something to make it more “interesting” in order to help to get support and be passed.

A perfect example of this is the “Security and Accountability for Every Port Act of 2006 or more commonly known as the “Safe Port Act,” which was an act of Congress in which an online gambling measure was added at the last moment.  You may be asking yourself, what does internet gambling have to do with port security for the entire nation? -It doesn’t. It was added because the bill could not get enough support and was going to be killed on the floor until this measure was added.

Fortunately the bill passed, however it’s  an embarrassing example that a bill that includes things like the creation of the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC), establishment of interagency operational centers for port security, the Port Security Grant Program (PSGP), Container Security Initiative (CSI), requirements for foreign port assessments, the Customs Trade Partnership against Terrorism (CT-PAT) and possibly the most important the creation of a new agency within the DHS called the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) wasn’t important enough for Congress until someone decided that they wanted to stop internet gambling.

In a time of great economic uncertainty, it may be controversial to point out that a profitable industry is affecting their own sustainability by blatantly overfishing our oceans while at the same time exposing us to great risk, but everyone has a right to know.  The fishing industries, both recreational and commercial, not only pose one of the greatest threats to the maritime industry, but they provide the single most realistic proven threat vector to our nation and citizens.  Before we get too far into this, let’s start with a brief history on port security, terrorism, piracy and how it relates to the U.S. maritime industry.

The first possible example of a maritime attack that impacted the US was on September 13, 1814 when the British fleet staged an attack on the Port of Baltimore (they identified this as the most strategic attack point in the country).  However, they were stopped at Fort McHenry by a much smaller weaker force that used the Port as a defensive position and created their own security protocols to protect it, thus providing the first real example of Port Security in our nation’s history.  Unfortunately, this is indicative of how we will address future maritime security issues: reactively, not proactively.

Next came the following:

  • Achille Lauro

Achille Lauro: Attack on a Cruise ship on October 7th, 1985 that resulted in the death of an American Passenger Leon Klinghoffer who was pushed in his wheel chair off the side to his death by hijackers.  The impact of this incident marked the beginning of Port Security regulations and requirements on the cruise industry and the first set of regulations of its kind to affect the maritime industry in general.

  • USS COLE: Attack on a US Navy Vessel on October 12th, 2000 in the Port of Yemen.  A fishing vessel laden with explosives rammed the US Naval vessel in the Port of Aden killing 17 and injuring 39 US sailors.
  • 9/11: Caused the total closure of the Port of NY/NJ as well as full scale waterborne evacuations and port recovery operations in order to bring the port back on line and resume the flow of commerce in the U.S.
  • Oil Tanker Limburg: small boat attack on a VLCC on October 6th, 2002.  It should be noted that this attack did not take place on a U.S. vessel or in a U.S. port, but that it was intended to disrupt the global oil trade and flow of commerce in the U.S.  While the impact state side was minimal it caused considerable consternation among tanker operators.  Although the bombing killed only one member of the Limburg’s crew, it caused insurance rates among shippers to rise 300% and reduced Yemeni port shipping volumes by 50% in the next month after the attack.
  • Mumbai attack: November 26, 2008.   Terrorist hijacked and murdered crew on the Indian flagged fishing vessel “MV Kuber” from a Mother vessel “MV Al-Husseni” a fishing vessel in order to enter India by sea and perpetrate a three day long attack at over 10 highly populated, land-based locations in the Indian city of Mumbai, terrorizing the country and killing over 170 people.  Again, this was not an attack on the U.S., but it is clearly a blueprint for possible attacks on U.S. soil.
  • Piracy off the coast of Somalia:  A total lack of government and stability in the region compounded by toxic dumping and foreign overfishing off the coast of Somalia were the main contributing factors that pushed many Somalis to take part in piracy.  Piracy in the Gulf of Aden began as fishermen sought to force out commercial fishing vessels that were illegally decimating the eco-system in Somali waters. The Gulf of Aden was at one point one of the most fertile fishing grounds in the world.  Boats mainly from Europe and Asia illegally reaped over $350 million worth of fish per year from the region, depriving the local fishermen of the career that supported and fed their families and destroying the marine life that thrived since the beginning of time.  As fishing in this area was not monitored or controlled, fishermen utilized invasive and illegal methods which included such things as drift nets and undersized tight nets, which were designed to catch everything in their path including very young fish, thereby ensuring no hope for a future marine ecosystem.  Without regulation and enforcement, fish populations were totally decimated, painting a picture that easily shows how this could start in other impoverished coastal countries with limited governments.  Any place where too many individuals fish the same waters, the ecosystem collapses, and in this particular case Somalis who could have once made their living fishing turn to piracy as an alternative.
  • In most cases piracy doesn’t relate to terrorism, but as terrorist see the value of piracy and how it can raise funds towards extremism, piracy becomes a viable market for them to either invest in or exploit.  Piracy is no longer just plain robbery.  It has become an elaborate network of operations designed to extract enormous quantities of ransom. “Ransom amounts have increased to an average of $5.4 million per ship from just $150,000 five years ago” as stated by Navy chief Admiral Nirmal Verma at an international symposium in New Port, Rhode Island.  The admiral went on to explain that there is a distinct nexus between piracy and terrorism.  Al-Qaeda linked militants Al-Shabaab and pirate gangs are increasing their cooperation as they become more in need of funding.  Up until now, pirates have used the ships they hijack to collect ransoms.  If terrorists continue to find their way in to this industry we may see ships used as weapons or as threats to countries by opening manifolds and dumping product into ports, waterways or marine rich coastal environments.

    There is a reason why you probably haven’t heard about this before and why many politicians have no interest in resolving the issue. Recreational fishing supports a million jobs, pays $45 billion in wages and has an overall economic impact of $125 billion in the United States annually.  NOAA reports state that the international trade in coastal and marine commercial fisheries contributes 70 billion annually to our nation’s economy.  One million jobs are associated with the U.S. commercial fishing industry yielding over 32 billion in income.  An example is that over two billion pounds of Alaskan Pollock alone are caught in the U.S. EEZ yearly, that’s just one species of thousands of different species that are caught on a daily basis.

    Recreational fishing is seldom thought of as a major industry, but clearly it accounts for good paying jobs and contributes millions to the economy, not to mention 40 million fisherman buying fishing gear, gasoline, licenses, hotel rooms and boat equipment.  This also has quite an impact on the nation’s economy.

    To understand the magnitude of the challenge of determining and resolving the threat vectors we need to look at the physical environment.  The United States has more than 95,000 miles of maritime coastline; 361 ports, including eight of the world’s 50 largest by volume; and 10,000 miles of navigable waterways on which approximately 15 million small craft operate routinely.  The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reports there are 13 million registered US recreational vessels, 110,000 fishing vessels and over 100,000 other commercial small vessels.  The rest are many more which are unregistered.

    As you can imagine, it is impossible to keep an eye on this group of small vessels.  DHS estimates there are approximately 68,000 foreign vessel arrivals a year, all of which are monitored through a system called AIS (Automated Identification System) which is similar to the FAA’s air traffic control.

    Recreational vessels are not required to carry AIS and the majority of commercial fishing vessels just happen to fall below the size requirement for AIS.  As a result, there is currently no way to add them to the system.  We are currently having a difficult time handling inspections on the 68,000 vessels a year that require inspection, how can we even consider understanding how to manage over 13 million vessels that may come and go every weekend?

    Foreign recreational vessels calling on the US are covered by the “Pleasure Boat Reporting System” (PBRS) which is based on boater self-reporting.  During fiscal year 2006, only 70,000 boater foreign arrivals were recorded in this US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) controlled system.  CBP states that “Conservative estimates suggest that these reporting figures represent only a fraction of the actual international boater traffic, especially given the ease with which boaters operate in these waters.”

    So what is the threat vector from these small vessels? 

    Well, it’s easy; Terrorists could exploit the maritime domain via small boats in many different ways. The most serious and likely threat is the already common Waterborne Improvised Explosive Device (WBIED) attack, used in the USS Cole and Limburg attacks.  Second, vessels could transport terrorists onto American shores at locations where they will not be inspected or checked.  Third, small vessels could be used to smuggle weapons of mass destruction into the United States.  Fourth, small vessels could be used for a strategic attack to gain access to our shores for small arms attacks in populated regions as is what happened in the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

    oil terminal storage tanks small boat
    Public boat ramp 600 ft from major oil terminal, photo by Jeffrey Milstein

    What is the impact of a maritime terrorist attack? 

    The ability to use the maritime domain for mass casualty is very clear; just look at any of the major ports in the US and how they are situated in comparison to the local community and major assets in their particular region.  In New Jersey alone, there is what is considered to be the most dangerous two mile stretch in America from Newark Airport to Port Elizabeth.  New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the country and on this particular two miles of land there are hundreds of potential terrorist targets including chemical plants, chlorine gas plants, rail yards, rail lines, refineries, an international airport, and the third largest port in the country.   An attack in these two miles could bring lethal harm to more than 12 million people within in a 14-mile radius, not to mention shut down the entire transportation system.  These areas are open to attack and small recreational vessels are allowed within, and are able to dock at, locations within this two mile stretch.  In addition, people are permitted to fish off of public piers somehow mixed within the commercial infrastructure of this area.  So it’s not an oddity or even seen as suspicious to see small boats and random persons in and around this area.  To make matters worse, just a few miles away from the “most dangerous two miles” there are public boat ramps right in the middle of the channel within 100′ to 500 feet’- of some of the largest petroleum facilities and vessels on the eastern seaboard.

    Stay tuned for part 2 “Overfishing ourselves out of the Maritime industry and defense of the Homeland” where the dots are connected and you understand why they have to be written in blood to work.

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