Order Code RL33787
Potential Terrorist Attacks
and Protection Priorities
Updated May 14, 2007
Paul W. Parfomak and John Frittelli
Resources, Science, and Industry Division
Maritime Security: Potential Terrorist Attacks and
A key challenge for U.S. policy makers is prioritizing the nation’s maritime
security activities among a virtually unlimited number of potential attack scenarios.
While individual scenarios have distinct features, they may be characterized along
five common dimensions: perpetrators, objectives, locations, targets, and tactics. In
many cases, such scenarios have been identified as part of security preparedness
exercises, security assessments, security grant administration, and policy debate.
There are far more potential attack scenarios than likely ones, and far more than
could be meaningfully addressed with limited counter-terrorism resources.
There are a number of logical approaches to prioritizing maritime security
activities. One approach is to emphasize diversity, devoting available counterterrorism resources to a broadly representative sample of credible scenarios. Another
approach is to focus counter-terrorism resources on only the scenarios of greatest
concern based on overall risk, potential consequence, likelihood, or related metrics.
U.S. maritime security agencies appear to have followed policies consistent with one
or the other of these approaches in federally-supported port security exercises and
grant programs. Legislators often appear to focus attention on a small number of
potentially catastrophic scenarios.
Clear perspectives on the nature and likelihood of specific types of maritime
terrorist attacks are essential for prioritizing the nation’s maritime anti-terrorism
activities. In practice, however, there has been considerable public debate about the
likelihood of scenarios frequently given high priority by federal policy makers, such
as nuclear or “dirty” bombs smuggled in shipping containers, liquefied natural gas
(LNG) tanker attacks, and attacks on passenger ferries. Differing priorities set by port
officials, grant officials, and legislators lead to differing allocations of port security
resources and levels of protection against specific types of attacks. How they
ultimately relate to one another under a national maritime security strategy remains
to be seen.
Maritime terrorist threats to the United States are varied, and so are the nation’s
efforts to combat them. As oversight of the federal role in maritime security
continues, Congress may raise questions concerning the relationship among the
nation’s various maritime security activities, and the implications of differing
protection priorities among them. Improved gathering and sharing of maritime
terrorism intelligence may enhance consistency of policy and increase efficient
deployment of maritime security resources. In addition, Congress may assess how
the various elements of U.S. maritime security fit together in the nation's overall
strategy to protect the public from terrorist attacks.
Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
Characterizing Potential Maritime Terrorist Attacks . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2
Perpetrators . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2
Objectives . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
Locations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4
Targets . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
Tactics . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
Unlimited Scenarios . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
U.S. Maritime Security Activities . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8
Maritime Security Exercises . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8
PortSTEP Scenarios . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8
AMSTEP Scenarios . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9
Asymmetric Warfare Initiative . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9
Other U.S. Attack Scenarios . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10
Overseas Exercises . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11
Emphasizing Scenario Diversity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11
DHS Port Security Grants . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12
Emphasizing High Priority Scenarios . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14
Likelihood of U.S. Maritime Terrorist Attacks . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15
The “Bomb in a Box” Scenario . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15
Type of Bomb . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15
Method of Delivery . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18
Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) Tanker Attacks . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 20
Passenger Ferry Attacks . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 22
Overall Likelihood of Maritime Terrorism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 23
Policy Issues for Congress . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25
Consistency of Terrorism Scenario Assessment . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25
Intelligence Gathering . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 26
Responding to New Intelligence . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 26
Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 27
List of Tables
Table 1. Example Maritime Attack Characteristics . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7
Maritime Security: Potential Terrorist Attacks
and Protection Priorities
Maritime security is a principal protective element of United States’ global war
on terrorism. The Bush Administrations’ National Strategy for Maritime Security
states that “the infrastructure and systems that span the maritime domain ... have
increasingly become both targets of and potential conveyances for dangerous and
illicit activities.”1 Widely reported maritime attacks against the United States and its
allies, such as the bombings of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000 and the French oil tanker
Limburg in 2002, have focused Congressional attention on maritime threats.2 In
2006, debate over the failed attempt by Dubai Ports World to operate marine
terminals at some U.S. ports raised additional Congressional concerns about U.S.
maritime security activities.3 Questions have emerged regarding both the nation’s
overall strategy for maritime security and its level of commitment to specific
components of that strategy.
As debate about U.S. maritime security continues, policy makers seek a better
understanding of the nature and likelihood of potential terrorist attacks against the
United States, and how federal programs prioritize their efforts to prevent such
attacks. This report outlines the key dimensions of maritime terrorism and how these
dimensions may characterize specific attacks in the global maritime domain. The
report illustrates credible maritime attack scenarios based on actual past attacks or
potential attacks developed for maritime security exercises or other U.S. counter
terrorism activities. It discusses the challenge to maritime security planners of facing
a virtually unlimited number of potential attack scenarios and how certain federal
programs address this challenge. It also reviews various perspectives on the overall
likelihood of maritime terror attacks on the United States. Finally the report
discusses implications for homeland security policy.4
U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security (DHS) and U.S. Dept. of Defense (DOD). The National
Strategy for Maritime Security. September 2005. p. 2.
“Ships as Terrorist Targets.” American Shipper. November, 2002. p. 59; The Limburg,
under French registry, was attacked on October 6, 2002 in the Gulf of Aden while carrying
approximately 400,000 barrels of crude oil from Iran to Malaysia.
For more information see CRS Report RL33383, Terminal Operators and Their Role in
U.S. Port and Maritime Security, by John Frittelli and Jennifer E. Lake.
Information in this report is based solely on publicly available information. In this report,
attacks on the United States are broadly defined to include attacks on U.S. maritime assets
(globally), military allies, and commercial partners if motivated by their relationship with
Characterizing Potential Maritime Terrorist Attacks
Maritime terrorism encompasses a wide range of potential attack scenarios.
While individual scenarios have distinct features, for purposes of this report they may
be characterized along five common dimensions: perpetrators, objectives, locations,
targets, and tactics. These dimensions are useful for discussing both historical
instances of maritime terrorism and potential scenarios for future maritime attacks.
Identifying potential perpetrators is important in evaluating maritime attacks
because perpetrator capabilities vary widely and, therefore, bear on the types of
attacks they might attempt. Disgruntled shipping workers, for example, may exploit
privileged port access to circumvent security safeguards and mount an “insider”
attack on maritime infrastructure. An Al Qaeda cell, on the other hand, may mount
an entirely different type of attack on the same type of infrastructure, exploiting
sophisticated training in terrorist tactics and privileged access to weapons and
explosives, especially overseas. Although many terrorist groups may pose a credible
threat to the United States, not all may pose a maritime threat.
Al Qaeda and its affiliates have been a primary focus of U.S. maritime security
policy given the terror network’s hostility to U.S. interests and its record of past
attacks. Al Qaeda or its operatives, for example, appear to have been responsible for
both the Cole and Limburg bombings.5 Likewise the Abu Sayyaf Group, Islamist
separatists based in the Philippines and tied to Al Qaeda, appears to have been behind
the bombing of the Philippine vessel Superferry 14 in 2004.6 Groups or individuals
not necessarily affiliated with Al Qaeda may also attack the United States, however.
It is noteworthy that the only sustained international terrorist campaign in U.S. waters
over the last 40 years was carried out by anti-Castro Cuban groups between 1968 and
1976.7 Independent Islamist terrorist cells may also emerge as Al Qaeda is disrupted
or disaggregated by the U.S. war on terror. According to a State Department review
of Al Qaeda activity in 2005, “what was once a relatively structured network
appeared to be a more diffuse worldwide movement of like-minded individuals and
small groups, sharing grievances and objectives, but not necessarily organized
formally.”8 Given this evolution among terrorist groups, maritime terrorism
scenarios increasingly require consideration of a broad spectrum of potential
the United States.
National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism (MIPT). Terrorism Incident
Database. Incident profiles. July 20, 2006. [http://www.tkb.org/Home.jsp].
Council on Foreign Relations. “Backgrounder: Abu Sayyaf Group.” November 2005.
MIPT. July 20, 2006.
U.S. Dept. of State. Country Reports on Terrorism. p. 13. April 28, 2006.
Acts of maritime terrorism may have many objectives. They may seek to cause
human casualties, economic losses, environmental damage, or other negative
impacts, alone or in combination, of minor or major consequence.9 If human
casualties are the principal objective, passenger vessels such as cruise ships and
ferries, which together account for less than 4% of U.S. commercial vessel inventory,
may be more attractive terrorist targets than cargo and other vessels.10 Consistent
with this reasoning, federal agencies reportedly concluded in 2004 that the
Washington state ferry system had been under surveillance as a possible terrorism
target.11 A weapon of mass destruction (WMD) attack on a heavily populated U.S.
port could inflict the greatest number of human casualties. The Defense
Department’s Joint Task Force–Civil Support developed such a scenario in a 2005
exercise involving the smuggling and detonation of a 10-kiloton nuclear device in the
port of Charleston, SC.12
If economic loss is the primary objective, terrorists may seek to carry out
different types of attacks, with potentially few human casualties but significant
impacts to critical infrastructure or commerce. The Limburg bombing may have been
an attack of this type, threatening to disrupt the global oil trade and causing
considerable consternation among tanker operators.13 Although the bombing killed
only one member of the Limburg’s crew, it caused insurance rates among Yemeni
shippers to rise 300% and reduced Yemeni port shipping volumes by 50% in the
month after the attack.14 The bombing also caused significant environmental
damage, spilling 90,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf of Aden.15 Other types of
maritime attacks could disrupt more directly the shipping operations of key
commercial ports. For example, in a 2005 Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
exercise, terrorists hypothetically destroyed the International Bridge in Sault Ste.
For further discussion, see Enders, Walter and Sandler, Todd. The Political Economy of
Terrorism. Cambridge University Press. Chap. 1. November 2005; Lutz, James M. and
Lutz, Brenda J. "Terrorism as Economic Warfare." Global Economy Journal. Vol. 6. No.
2. 2006; U.S. Army, Training and Doctrine Command. A Military Guide to Terrorism in the
Twenty-First Century. October 12, 2004. pp. 6.3-6.5.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Waterborne Transportation Lines of the United States,
Calendar Year 2004, Volume 1 – National Summaries. Tab. 4 and Fig. 14. December 15,
Carter, Mike. “Why Feds Believe Terrorists are Probing Ferry System.” Seattle Times.
October 12, 2004.
Hodges, James. “An Exercise in Disaster: Preparing for the Worst” Daily Press. Newport
News, VA. August 19, 2005.
Vieth, Warren. “Owners of Oil Tankers Jittery.” Los Angeles Times. November 25, 2003.
U.S. Dept. of State. “Yemen's Economy Suffering Due to October Terrorist Attack.”
November 8, 2002. [http://usinfo.state.gov/is/Archive/2004/Apr/01-745388.html]
Hendawi, Hamza. “Yemen Acknowledges Terror Attack.” Associated Press. October 17,
Marie, MI, blocking the shipping channel below with debris, by exploding a fuel
tanker truck on the bridge.16
The potential consequences of a terror attack are also an important consideration
in evaluating terrorist objectives. Terrorists groups such as Al Qaeda appear to
choose the scale (and timing) of their attacks in order to maximize media coverage,
and hence, public awareness and psychological impact. As one academic study
To make it into the news, terrorists operating in Western countries can commit
some minor terror incident with few fatalities, whereas terrorists in developing
countries need to “produce” a lot of blood to attract the attention of Western
Accordingly, attack scenarios must consider consequences, and how such
consequences would align with the objectives of potential perpetrators. The study
cited above suggests that terrorists attacking the United States may achieve their
media objectives even with relatively minor attacks.
Where a potential maritime attack could occur is also essential to defining a
terrorism scenario. Examples above have already illustrated that maritime attacks
targeting U.S. interests may occur in U.S. ports (of which there are over 360)18 or
among the ports of the nation’s 165 maritime trading partners.19 Specific types of
attacks, such as the smuggling of WMDs in ship-borne cargo containers, may involve
both a foreign port of departure and a U.S. port of entry. Maritime terror attacks may
also occur at sea in areas of concentrated shipping like the Straits of Gibraltar where,
in 2002, Al-Qaeda operatives reportedly plotted to attack U.S. and British warships,
and possibly commercial vessels.20 The Straits of Malacca in southeast Asia is
another location frequently identified by security analysts as a potential locus of
maritime terrorism activity. In 2001, Jemaah Islamiyah terrorists reportedly had
plans to attack U.S. navy vessels visiting the region.21 The Organization for
Purvis, Michael. “Bridge Out: Forces Plan for Terrorist Attack.” Sault Star. Sault Sainte
Marie, Ontario. May 4, 2005.
Frey, Bruno S. and Rohner, Dominik. “Blood and Ink! The Common-Interest-Game
Between Terrorists and the Media.” Center for Research in Economics, Management, and
the Arts. Basel, Switzerland. Working Paper No. 2006-8. p. 18
American Association of Port Authorities. “U.S. Public Port Facts.” Internet page.
Alexandria, VA. July 18, 2006. [http://www.aapa-ports.org
U.S. Maritime Administration. “U.S. Waterborne Trade by Trading Partners, 1997-2005.”
Online database. July 18, 2006. [http://www.iwr.usace.army.mil/ndc/usforeign/index.htm]
Sawer, Patrick. “Terror Plot to Blow Up Navy Warships is Foiled.” The Evening
Standard. London. June 11, 2002. p.4.
Raymond, Catherine Z. “The Threat of Maritime Terrorism in the Malacca Straits.”
Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has identified nine similar
shipping bottlenecks around the world where potential terrorist activities are a
Terrorist attacks in U.S. waters may have the greatest potential to injure U.S.
citizens if they occur in populated areas. They may also have the greatest potential
for economic impact in the event of the closure of a major U.S. port. Nonetheless,
future attacks on U.S. interests in foreign ports, or on vessels at sea in transit to the
United States, may be easier for terrorists to execute than attacks in U.S. waters.
Another key aspect of maritime terrorism scenarios is identifying potential
targets. There are numerous possibilities, especially in and around ports. As a U.S.
Government Accountability Office (GAO) analyst testified before Congress in 2006,
Ports contain a number of specific facilities that could be targeted by terrorists,
including military vessels and bases, cruise ships, passenger ferries, terminals,
dams and locks, factories, office buildings, power plants, refineries, sports
complexes, and other critical infrastructure.23
In addition to vessels and infrastructure, terrorists may seek to attack maritime
communities using ships as delivery vehicles for WMDs or by exploiting chemicals
or explosives in cargo ships or onshore storage tanks in populated port areas. The
Homeland Security Council included terrorist attacks on ships carrying flammable
and toxic chemical cargoes in a U.S. port among the hazard scenarios it developed
in 2004 as the basis for U.S. homeland security national preparedness standards.24
Because the characteristics of infrastructure targets or human targets may be unique
to any specific category of target (e.g., propane tankers) or community (e.g.,
Charleston), understanding how target characteristics relate to terrorist capabilities
and objectives may offer valuable insights into the credibility of particular attack
Maritime security analysts have discussed numerous potential tactics for
terrorist attacks on U.S. maritime targets. The following passage from the National
Terrorism Monitor. Vol. 4 . No. 3. February 9, 2006. p. 8.
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Security in Maritime
Transport: Risk Factors and Economic Impact. July 2003. p. 14.
Caldwell, Stephen L., U.S. Government Accountability Office. Statement at the House
Committee on Government Reform, Subcommittee on Government Management, Finance,
and Accountability hearing on “Securing Our Ports: Information Sharing is Key to Effective
Maritime Security.” July 10, 2006.
Homeland Security Council. Planning Scenarios: Executive Summaries. July 2004. p. 6-
Strategy for Maritime Security summarizes many of the tactics most commonly
mentioned in maritime security discussions:
Terrorists can also develop effective attack capabilities relatively quickly using
... explosives-laden suicide boats and light aircraft; merchant and cruise ships as
kinetic weapons to ram another vessel, warship, port facility, or offshore
platform; commercial vessels as launch platforms for missile attacks; underwater
swimmers to infiltrate ports; and unmanned underwater explosive delivery
vehicles. Mines are also an effective weapon.... Terrorists can also take
advantage of a vessel’s legitimate cargo, such as chemicals, petroleum, or
liquefied natural gas, as the explosive component of an attack. Vessels can be
used to transport powerful conventional explosives or WMD for detonation in
a port or alongside an offshore facility.25
General tactics of maritime attacks like those above have been further described in
security bulletins based on specific terrorism intelligence. For example, in 2004 the
Federal Bureau of Investigation warned of possible improvised marine mines in
“waterborne flotsam commonly seen around waterways” or attached to buoys.26
More specific tactics have also been articulated as part of U.S. maritime security
exercises discussed later in this report.
As the previous citations suggest, analysis of terrorist tactics must take into
account the specifics of the attack in question. Some analysts believe that there is a
“low probability” that terrorists would try to use a large ship as a weapon because of
the complexity of doing so, but that attacks by small boats are more likely because
they “satisfy the overwhelming terrorist requirement for simplicity.”27 Similarly, the
Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) has reportedly stated that “there is a
significant threat by vessel-borne improvised explosive devices” and that
“vulnerability to small-boat attacks stood out” during a 2006 threat assessment.28
The dimensions of maritime terrorism defined above may be used to
characterize both historical terrorist attacks and potential future attacks against the
United States. Table 1 provides a set of illustrative characteristics which could serve
as the basis for the development of potential attack scenarios.
DHS and DOD. September 2005. p.4.
“FBI Warns of Maritime Terror Threat.” The Journal of Commerce Online. June 28, 2004.
See for example: Murphy, Martin. “Maritime Terrorism: The Threat in Context,” Jane’s
Intelligence Review, February 1, 2006.
Dress, Caroline and Ang, Edgar. “U.S. at Risk from Boats Packed with Explosives.”
Reuters. June 1, 2006.
Table 1. Example Maritime Attack Characteristics
• Al Qaeda and affiliates
• Islamist unaffiliated
• Foreign nationalists
• Disgruntled employees
• Mass casualties
• Port disruption
• Trade disruption
• Environmental damage
• 360+ U.S. ports
• 165 foreign trade partners
• 9 key shipping bottlenecks
• Military vessels
• Cargo vessels
• Fuel tankers
• Ferries / cruise ships
• Port area populations
• Ship channels
• Port industrial plants
• Offshore platforms
• Explosives in suicide boats
• Explosives in light aircraft
• Ramming with vessels
• Ship-launched missiles
• Harbor mines
• Underwater swimmers
• Unmanned submarine bombs
• Exploding fuel tankers
• Explosives in cargo ships
• WMDs in cargo ships
What is apparent from Table 1 is the possibility of generating numerous unique,
logically consistent, and operationally credible attack scenarios based on different
combinations of perpetrators, objectives, locations, targets, and tactics. Doing so
exhaustively, however, leads to far more potential attack scenarios than likely ones,
and far more than could be meaningfully addressed with limited counter-terrorism
resources. As one security analyst has articulated the problem,
An accurate assessment of the current nature and scope of the global maritime
terrorist threat should be driven by an assessment of what is probable, rather than
merely possible. However, sober analysis of this issue has been clouded amid
the anxiety created by the current global security climate, with much discussion
turning on the notion that terrorists could potentially strike any target with
virtually any means available....29
A key challenge, therefore, for U.S. security analysts and policy makers is prioritizing
the nation’s maritime security activities among a virtually unlimited number of
potential attack scenarios. How federal agencies have been addressing the “unlimited
scenarios” problem is discussed in the following section.
Murphy, Martin. February 1, 2006.
U.S. Maritime Security Activities
A number of logical approaches to prioritizing maritime security activities exist
given the unlimited number terrorism scenarios. One approach is to emphasize
diversity, devoting available counter-terrorism resources to a broadly representative
sample of credible scenarios. Another approach is to focus counter-terrorism
resources on only the scenarios of greatest concern based on overall risk, potential
consequence, likelihood, or related metrics. U.S. maritime security agencies appear
to have followed policies consistent with one or the other of these approaches in
federally-supported exercise and grant programs. These approaches lead to differing
allocations of resources and levels of protection against specific types of attacks.
How they ultimately relate to one another under a national maritime security strategy
remains to be seen.
Maritime Security Exercises
The USCG, the U.S. Navy, and other federal agencies conduct ongoing port
security training exercises domestically and overseas. Taken collectively, the
terrorism scenarios in these exercises to date have spanned an extremely broad range
of objectives, locations, targets, and tactics. Specific scenario characteristics are
discussed below in the context of particular maritime security exercise programs.
PortSTEP Scenarios. In collaboration with the USCG, the Transportation
Security Administration (TSA) has developed U.S. maritime terrorism scenarios
under the agency’s Port Security Training Exercises Program (PortSTEP).30
PortSTEP fulfills the annual exercise requirements for Area Maritime Security Plans
under the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002 (P.L. 107-295) through a
combination of basic tabletop, advanced tabletop, and field exercises. The PortSTEP
program began in 2005 and plans to complete exercises in 40 port areas by October
2007. According to the PortSTEP program office, the 25 exercises conducted through
2006 have involved chemical, biological, and radiological (“dirty bomb”) attacks, as
well as various kinds of explosives and improvised explosive devices. The scenarios
have targeted or exploited cruise ships, container ships, a harbor truck, a barge, a rail
yard, port industrial facilities, bridges, and a national landmark. Because the TSA
is responsible for the security of all major surface transportation modes, it is a
specific goal of the PortSTEP program to incorporate surface transportation modes
such as rail and trucking into its maritime security exercises. While the list of ports
in PortSTEP includes many of the largest U.S. ports, it covers a broad cross-section
in terms of size and geography, including Buffalo, NY, Chicago, IL, Corpus Christi,
TX, Juneau, AK, Long Beach, CA, Pittsburgh, PA, and Tampa, FL.31
For more information on PortSTEP, see the TSA’s program brief, an electronic copy of
which is available at [http://www.tsa.gov/interweb/assetlibrary/program_brief.pdf].
Transportation Security Administration (TSA), PortSTEP program office. Personal
communication. December 20, 2006 and “PortSTEP Program Initiated.” Press release.
August 18, 2005; Daniel, Mac. “Terror Preparedness Put to Test.” Boston Globe. September
AMSTEP Scenarios. The USCG has developed additional U.S. maritime
terrorism scenarios under its Area Maritime Security Training and Exercise Program
(AMSTEP), initiated in October 2005. Like the PortSTEP program, AMSTEP
conducts tabletop and field exercises to fulfill annual exercise requirements for Area
Maritime Security Plans under P.L. 107-295. AMSTEP differs from PortSTEP in
that it emphasizes surface transportation modes less deliberately in its terrorism
scenarios. The program plans to conduct up to 28 exercises through FY2007,
specifically in ports not covered by the PortSTEP program. The AMSTEP program
office states that its exercises are designed around Area Maritime Security
Committee objectives in individual ports; there are no requirements to conduct
exercises under any specific scenario.32 According to the limited public information
available, the program’s exercise scenarios in 2006 involved terrorist stowaways on
an inbound hazardous cargo vessel, an explosion at a jet fuel receiving terminal, a
suspicious package at a port facility, surveillance of petrochemical terminals, a
potential improvised explosive device (IED) attached to the hull of a freighter, theft
of gasoline tanker truck, and explosion aboard an oil tanker in a shipping channel,
among others.33 The USCG has conducted AMSTEP exercises in port areas
including Key West, FL; Duluth, MN; Long Island, NY; Charleston, SC; Corpus
Christi, TX; Houston/Galveston, TX; and Washington, DC, among others.34
Asymmetric Warfare Initiative. Port security exercises have also been
conducted jointly by the U.S. Navy, USCG, FBI, local law enforcement, and other
agencies under the federally sponsored Asymmetric Warfare Initiative (AWI). The
AWI exercises, carried out annually since 2003, have reportedly included the
following terrorist attacks scenarios:
Explosives attack on a chlorine storage tank in port
Hostage-taking and executions aboard a vessel in port
A marine mine attack on a Navy frigate in port
Underwater explosive devices planted on multiple vessels in port
A nuclear device aboard an incoming vessel in a 55-gallon drum
Attack on a port with a biological disease agent35
U.S. Coast Guard, Area Maritime Security Training and Exercise Program (AMSTEP)
Program Office. Personal communication. January 4, 2007.
Tully, Tasha, U.S. Coast Guard, 7th Distrist. “Tampa Bay Agencies Test Security Plans.”
Coastline. [https://www.piersystem.com/go/doc/586/136318]; Karl, Richard C., Director
Superfund Division, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region 5. “Reports of
Significant Developments and Activities Ending on September 8, 2006.” Memorandum.
September 18, 2006. [http://www.epa.gov/region5superfund/significant
Hanewich, Steve, Cpt., U.S. Coast Guard. “Coast Guard Plan of Action and Milestones:
Natural Disaster Preparedness 2006.” Slide presentation. December 20, 2006. p. 15.
Chawkins, Steve. “Agencies Get a Taste of Terrorism in Action.” Los Angeles Times.
November 6, 2003.
Detonation of a “dirty” bomb in a shipping container in port36
Aircraft attack on a passenger ferry or cruise ship
Ammonium nitrate bombs shipped by rail to a port37
Sarin gas attack on a cruise ship in port38
The AWI has held its exercises in Port Hueneme, CA, Los Angeles, CA, San Diego,
CA, and the Puget Sound, WA, and Hampton Roads, VA areas.
Other U.S. Attack Scenarios. In addition to the scenarios listed above,
the USCG, the U.S. Navy, other government agencies, and security analysts have
reportedly developed attack scenarios as part of other maritime security exercises or
planning activities. These scenarios have included:
Various types of an explosives attack on a ship in port39
“Dirty” bombs in cargo containers at multiple U.S. ports40
Radioactive materials carried on a cargo ship 90 miles offshore41
Underwater and fishing boat explosives attacks on a riverboat42
Bombing and sinking of a liquefied propane gas (LPG) tanker in a
major commercial and naval shipping channel43
Hijacking of a river tanker for use as a "floating bomb”44
Ramming and “dirty” bombing a ferry with a hijacked cargo ship45
Coordinated bombing of docks and bridges, and mining of the
harbor at a major commercial port46
O’Sullivan, Mike. “Five-Day Exercise Simulates Coordinated Terror Attacks.” Voice of
America. August 5, 2004.
Shukovsky, Paul. “Terrorism Simulation Exercises Set Today.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
May 23, 2006.
Shear, Michael D. “Va. Terror Drills Set Up Worst-Case Scenarios.” Washington Post.
p. B01. August 3, 2004.
California Maritime Academy. “‘Terrorists’ Attack Training Ship Golden Bear.” Press
release. October 29, 2004.
Booz Allen Hamilton. Port Security War Game: Implications for U.S. Supply Chains.
Dorsey, Jack. “Coast Guard, Navy, FBI to Team up for Security Exercise.”
Virginian-Pilot. June 12, 2006; U.S. Coast Guard (USCG). “Coast Guard Atlantic Area,
Navy Second Fleet, FBI Participate in Maritime Homeland Security Exercise.” Press release.
June 12, 2006.
Nelson, Tim. “Is That a Speargun, or Are You Just Glad to See Me?” City Hall Scoop.
Internet blog. July 22, 2005. [http://blogs.twincities.com/city_hall_scoop/2005/07]
Pinto, C. Ariel. and Talley, Wayne K. “The Security Incident Cycle of Ports.” Old
Dominion Univ., Maritime Institute. Working paper. Norfolk, VA. July 2006.
Purvis, Michael. May 4, 2005.
Pyle, Richard. “Agencies Analyze Responses to Nightmare Scenario at U.S. Ports.”
Associated Press. June 7, 2006.
Fuentes, Gidget. “Training Drills Test Threat Response at California Ports.” Navy Times.
Attack on a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal and tanker in port47
Again, although these exercises may have been conducted independently of one
another, they encompass a broad range of potential attack scenarios.
Overseas Exercises. Apart from exercises in U.S. territorial waters, the
U.S. Navy, USCG, and other federal agencies participate in maritime security
exercises overseas, often in cooperation with other countries. For example, in 2006,
the U.S. Navy and USCG joined with the Thai Navy and other international
participants in simulating the hijacking of a vessel with military cargo in the Strait
of Malacca.48 In 2006, the U.S. Navy also participated in a multi-national maritime
exercise involving the hypothetical placement of sea mines by terrorists in coastal
waters of the South China Sea.49 In 2003, the U.S., Japanese, Australian, and French
Navies conducted an exercise involving the seizure of illegal WMD-related cargo
aboard a commercial vessel in the Coral Sea.50 These are only three illustrations of
what appear to be numerous maritime counter-terrorism exercises carried out by U.S.
agencies around the world over the past five years.
Emphasizing Scenario Diversity. Based on the scenario summaries
above, it appears that the USCG, the U.S. Navy, and other agencies have structured
their maritime terrorism exercises in a manner that addresses diverse terrorism
scenarios across many ports. Given that the PortSTEP, AMSTEP, and AWI
programs, in particular, are geared toward training and evaluation, there are logical
reasons they would employ such diverse scenarios. The PortSTEP program, for
example, states that its exercises “are scaled and tailored to each specific port’s
needs” based on the recommendations of individual Area Maritime Security
Committees.51 Since many aspects of terrorism prevention and response (e.g.,
communications) are common to a range of attack scenarios in a given port area, the
choice of one scenario or another may reveal similar things about security plan
performance. Scenario diversity also maximizes the operational and geographical
experience among senior U.S. agency planners in an environment of great uncertainty
about future maritime terror attacks. Emergency responders may therefore be more
likely to have at least some level of preparedness for any kind of maritime attack,
June 13, 2005.
Daniel, Mac. “Drill Will be Gauge of Terror Readiness.” Boston Globe. August 29, 2006.
Baxter, Edward. “Thai Forces Board Button in Maritime Security Exercise.” U.S. Military
Sealift Command. Press release. May 22, 2006.
“Navy Takes in Pacific Exercise.” Associated Press. June 07, 2006.
“Anti-Weapons Marine Exercise to Target 'Japanese' Vessel.” Agence France-Presse.
September 09, 2003.
Transportation Security Admin. (TSA). “PortSTEP: Mission and Goals.” Web page.
August 1, 2006. [http://www.tsa.gov/what_we_do/layers/portstep/editorial
Terrorism scenario diversity is also relatively simple, with a limited need for
complex and time consuming risk assessments to establish scenario priorities. The
only key requirement common to all of the aforementioned scenarios appears to be
credibility, or, as stated in USCG port security guidelines, that they be “within the
realm of possibility and, at a minimum, address known capabilities and intents as
evidenced by past events and available intelligence.”52 It may be sufficient, therefore,
that scenarios are credible and meet the particular needs of local port security
officials, not that they are demonstrably more or less critical than one another.53 The
principal disadvantage of a diverse scenarios approach is that it may devote too many
security resources to relatively unlikely scenarios and not enough to more likely ones.
An alternative approach, for example, might be to conduct repeated exercises
involving only a few high-consequence scenarios (e.g., container WMDs) and only
in the largest or most populous U.S. ports.
DHS Port Security Grants
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) initiated its Port Security Grant
Program (PSGP) in 2002 to provide competitive security enhancement grants to U.S.
ports. The PSGP awarded approximately $870 million in port security grants by the
end of 2006.54
The first four rounds of PSGP grants appear to have been awarded in a
manner consistent with the “broad scenarios” approach described above. For
example, the DHS awarded round two grants to over 125 U.S. port areas ranging
from major ports such as Baltimore, MD, Houston, TX, and Long Beach, CA, to
relatively minor ones, such as Christiansted, VI, Fernandina Beach, FL, and Homer,
AK. These awards also appear to have been granted for protection of a wide range
of potential terrorist targets, including container terminals, rail yards, sightseeing
vessels, ferries, chemical plants, energy facilities, and port operations.55 Consistent
with this conclusion, a 2005 review of the PSGP by the DHS Inspector General
determined, among other findings, that “the evaluation and selection process focused
on awarding funds to as many applicants as possible.”56 According to the report, this
focus was influenced by tension between the “fair and equitable” award criteria
mandated under the MTSA and the competitive criteria mandated under TSA
appropriations. The report also noted, that PSGP awards were not based on a
U.S. Coast Guard (USCG). “Guidelines for Port Security Committees, and Port Security
Plans Required for U.S. Ports.” Navigation and Vessel Inspection Circular No. 902.
September 30, 2002. p.13.
According to a PortSTEP official, the USCG did rank U.S. ports based on risk, but the
selection of ports for the program was based on broader criteria, including port diversity.
This figure includes $75 million in port security grants awarded under the DHS’s Urban
Area Security Initiative in FY2003.
Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Port Security Grant Program Awards,
Round 2. June 12, 2003. Available at [http://www.aapa-ports.org/govrelations/attachA.doc].
Dept. of Homeland Security, Office of Inspector General. Review of the Port Security
Grant Program. OIG-05-10 January 2005. p. 17.
national risk assessment because a mechanism to perform such an assessment did not
yet exist within TSA.57
In 2005, the DHS began to award PSGP grants on a more selective basis as
determined by the agency’s new national assessment and ranking of port risk. For
its fifth round in 2005, the DHS evaluated the 129 largest U.S. ports using a riskbased formula to identify 66 ports eligible to apply for the grants. DHS subject
matter experts further reviewed and prioritized grant applications within this pool of
eligible ports based on specific risk scenario, among other factors. Note that the
PSGP round five grant application materials state that the program
places a strong emphasis on prevention and detection relative to improvised
explosive devices (IEDs), as well as chemical, biological, radiological, and
nuclear devices.... Of great concern to port security are IEDs delivered via
small craft, underwater and in vehicles on ferries. Areas of focus for
grantees should include protection of facilities such as public cruise lines,
ferry terminals, and vessels from tampering and attack.58
PSGP round five awards were granted to 36 ports, predominantly the largest U.S.
ports in terms of cargo tonnage or passenger traffic. According to the DHS, this
approach was intended to allocate grant resources according to the overall risk among
eligible ports and to fund projects with the greatest potential to reduce the risk of
The PSGP’s round six grant eligibility was expanded to what the DHS has
determined are the nation’s 100 “most critical” ports 60 This was an apparent reversal
of the program’s strategic shift in round five which focused on larger ports. On the
other hand, the PSGP round six grant application materials also appeared to focus on
a smaller range of specific attack scenarios, placing a “strong emphasis” only on
improvised explosive devices (IED) placed underwater, in vehicles on ferries, or in
small craft and not on chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear devices, as
stated in round five.61 According to press reports, the Coast Guard’s Maritime
Security Risk Assessment Model (MSRAM), which was used by the DHS to help
evaluate its 2006 grant program applications, dealt only with “plausible” scenarios,
such as small boat attacks on oil terminals, and did not attempt to evaluate the
consequences of attacks using weapons of mass destruction.62 Projects which
Dept. of Homeland Security. “FY2005 Port Security Grant Program.” Fact sheet. May 13,
Dept. of Homeland Security, Office of Inspector General. Follow Up Review of the Port
Security Grant Program. OIG-06-24 February 2006 (Revised). p. 5.
Dept. of Homeland Security. “FY2006 Port Security Grant Program.” Fact sheet. July 7,
2006. p. 1.
Ibid, p. 2.
Edmonson, R.G. “Coast Guard: Risk-Assessment Tools Aid Consistency.” Pacific
Shipper. October 27, 2006. Numerical ratings from the MSRAM program reportedly
demonstrated enhanced “Maritime Domain Awareness” such as access controls and
standardized credentialing, command and control, communications, and intelligence
sharing and analysis were added as an additional criteria for reviewing grant
applications in round six. PSGP round six awards were granted to 50 ports of the
100 eligible to apply.
For the seventh round of grants, to satisfy the requirements in the SAFE Port
Act (P.L. 109-347), DHS expanded the list of eligible ports to all those required to
have an Area Maritime Security Plan, but the bulk of the funds are still reserved for
the highest risk ports.63 Selection criteria for grantees continues to emphasize IEDs,
MDA, and standardized credentialing but adds emergency drills and exercises and
regional port collaboration as priorities.
Emphasizing High Priority Scenarios. The PSGP’s current focus on
specific types of weapons and targets and on the nation’s largest ports demonstrates
an approach to the “unlimited scenarios” problem which emphasizes key scenarios.
While not excluding other scenarios, the PSGP round six and seven application
materials appear to narrow down priority scenarios in terms of locations (major
ports), targets (ferries and cruise ships), and tactics (IED’s). Port Security officials
have also focused on priority scenarios, although not necessarily the same stated by
There are ... a number of threat concerns that are believed to be more likely
and therefore are the ones that most maritime security programs today are
built around. These include the use of ports or vessels as a means to
smuggle weapons of mass destruction or terrorist operatives into the United
States, the use of ships as a weapon to attack critical infrastructure, the
scuttling of ships in major shipping channels and terrorist attacks on ships
such as ferries or oil tankers.64
As indicated by DHS, the priority scenarios approach has the advantage of applying
the nation’s limited maritime security resources against terrorism attack scenarios of
greatest relative concern based on intelligence and risk assessment. The approach
may also create potentially beneficial competition among grant applicants seeking
funds for similar security activities in different ports. It reflects the DHS’s move
towards risk-based distribution of all homeland security grants, maritime and nonmaritime, as recommended by the 9/11 Commission.65
accounted for 25% of port security grant applicants’ overall application score in round six.
Dept. of Homeland Security. “Fiscal Year 2007 Infrastructure Protection Program: Port
Security Grant Program, Program Guidance and Application Kit,” January 2007.
Rooney, Beth. Manager of Port Security, Port Authority of NY and NJ. Statement before
the House Government Reform Committee, Government Management Finance and
Accountability Subcommittee. July 10, 2006.
For more information see CRS Report RL33583, Homeland Security Grants: Evolution
of Program Guidance and Grant Allocation Methods, by Shawn Reese.
One significant disadvantage of emphasizing priority scenarios is dependence
upon intelligence and risk assessment in an environment where neither may be
robust. As the President’s National Strategy for Homeland Security stated in 2002,
“the ambiguous nature of most intelligence on terrorist threats means that ...
decisions must often be made in conditions of great uncertainty.”66 To the extent that
priority attack scenarios identified by DHS or port security officials are not the right
ones, serious threats to U.S. maritime security may remain. Perhaps predictably,
there appears to be disagreement among security analysts about the credibility and
likelihood of specific attack scenarios frequently cited in maritime security policy
discussions. Specific examples are discussed in the following section.
Likelihood of U.S. Maritime Terrorist Attacks
Clear perspectives on the likelihood of specific types of maritime terrorist
attacks are essential for prioritizing the nation’s maritime anti-terrorism activities.
Especially when security policies seek to concentrate resources against a relatively
limited number of terrorism scenarios, as appears to be the case for DHS port security
grants, the responsible agencies must be confident that these scenarios are credible
and do, indeed, pose the greatest threat to the United States. In practice, however,
there has been considerable public debate about the likelihood of scenarios frequently
identified as having high priority by federal policy makers. As a 2006 RAND study
of maritime security concluded “many perceptions of maritime terrorism risks do not
align with the reality of threats and vulnerabilities.”67 The following section
discusses perceptions and uncertainties pertaining to three prominent maritime attack
scenarios, including nuclear or “dirty” bombs smuggled in shipping containers,
liquefied natural gas (LNG) tanker attacks, and attacks on passenger ferries.
The “Bomb in a Box” Scenario
Type of Bomb. The Bush Administration’s National Strategy for Maritime
Security states that “WMD issues are of the greatest concern since the maritime
domain is the likely venue by which WMD will be brought into the United States.”68
One arms control expert believes that, under current maritime security practices, the
likelihood of such an attack within the decade “is more likely than not.”69 According
to a press report, the operations and emergency management director for the Port of
U.S. Office of Homeland Security. National Strategy for Homeland Security. July 16,
Greenberg, Michael D., Chalk, Pete, Willis, Henry H., Khilko, Ivan, and Ortiz, David S.;
Maritime Terrorism: Risk and Liability. RAND Center for Terrorism Risk Management
Policy. 2006. p. xxi.
Executive Office of the President. The National Strategy for Maritime Security.
September 20, 2005. p. 4.
Allison, Graham. Remarks on “CNN Presents: Nuclear Terror.” CNN Presents. Broadcast
transcript. September 12, 2004. [http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0409
Los Angeles has stated that the probability of a nuclear attack at his port is “not low,”
and that measures to prevent such an attack are the port’s top priority.70
Although much attention is paid to the threat of nuclear terrorism, there are
divergent opinions about the likelihood of a terrorist group such as al Qaeda
constructing or otherwise obtaining a workable nuclear weapon.71 Expert estimates
of the probability of terrorists obtaining a nuclear device have ranged from 50% to
less than 1%.72 Among other challenges to obtaining such a device, experts believe
it unlikely that countries with nuclear weapons or materials would knowingly supply
them to a terrorist group.73 It also may be technically difficult to successfully
detonate such a nuclear device. North Korea experienced technical failures in
conducting its 2006 nuclear weapons test, and this test took place under highly
controlled conditions.74 Attempting to detonate a nuclear device in a maritime terror
attack could pose even greater operational challenges. Consistent with these
perspectives, Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff has stated, “I don't
think that in the near term there's a significant likelihood of a traditional nuclear
device being detonated” in the United States.75
Other experts concede that evaluating the likelihood of nuclear terrorism is
inherently uncertain, but that such potential attacks warrant attention even if they are
The probability of a terrorist attack with an actual nuclear weapon cannot
be reliably estimated, and it is surely lower than the probability of virtually
any other type of terrorist attack. But the devastation from such an attack
would be so overwhelming that, based on expected damages — the
probability multiplied by the consequences — this threat must be
considered one of the greatest dangers America faces....76
Gorman, Siobhan and Sydney J. Freedberg, Jr. “Early Warning.” The National Journal.
June 11, 2005.
For further analysis on this topic, see CRS Report RS21293, Terrorist Nuclear Attacks on
Seaports: Threat and Response, by Jonathan Medalia.
Hegland, Corine and Webb, Greg. “The Threat,” National Journal. April 15, 2005.
[http://nationaljournal.com/members/news/2005/04/0415nj1.htm#]; Senator Richard G.
Lugar. “The Lugar Survey on Proliferation Threats and Responses.” June 2005. p. 6.
Bunn, Matthew and Weir, Anthony. Securing the Bomb 2006. John F. Kennedy School
of Government Harvard University. Commissioned by the Nuclear Threat Initiative. July
2006. p. 29.
Collins, Graham P. “Kim's Big Fizzle: The Physics Behind A Nuclear Dud.” Scientific
American. January 2007.
Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Remarks by Secretary of Homeland Security
Michael Chertoff at George Mason University. Fairfax, VA. April 26, 2006.
de Rugy, Veronique. “Is Port Security Spending Making Us Safer?” American Enterprise
Institute. Working Paper #115. September 7, 2005. p. 8.
Terrorist attacks on U.S. ports with radiological dispersion devices (“dirty”
bombs) is also considered among the gravest maritime terrorism scenarios.77 A 2003
simulation of a series of such attacks concluded that they “could cripple global trade
and have a devastating impact on the nation’s economy.”78 Many terrorism analysts
view such a dirty bomb attack as relatively likely. In a 2005 survey, for example,
nuclear non-proliferation experts expressed their beliefs (on average) that there was
a 25% chance of a dirty bomb attack in the United States by 2010 and a 40% chance
of such an attack by 2015.79 Studies suggest that the materials required to make a
dirty bomb may be widely available and poorly controlled internationally.80
According to some press reports, U.S. and British intelligence agencies have
reportedly concluded that Al Qaeda has succeeded in making such a bomb.81 Port
operators have testified before Congress that they believe “it is just a question of
time” before terrorists with dirty bombs successfully attack a U.S. port.82
Although many experts consider attacks with dirty bombs among the most
likely maritime terrorism scenarios, other experts dispute this conclusion. Scientists
have long questioned whether terrorists could actually build a dirty bomb with
catastrophic potential since handling the necessary radioactive materials could cause
severe burns and would likely expose the builders to lethal doses of radiation.83
Building and transporting such a bomb safely and to avoid detection would likely
require so much shielding that it would be “nearly impossible” to move.84 Weaker
dirty bombs made from less radioactive (and more common) materials would be
easier to build and deploy, but would have a much smaller physical impact and would
likely cause few human casualties. Consequently, some analysts argue that terrorists
will forego dirty bombs, restricting themselves to the use of more conventional
explosives.85 In support of this argument, analysts point to the fact that there have
For further information on dirty bombs, see CRS Report RS21528, Terrorist ‘Dirty
Bombs’: A Brief Primer, by Jonathan Medalia.
Ibid. Booz Allen Hamilton. 2003. p. 1.
Senator Richard G. Lugar. “The Lugar Survey on Proliferation Threats and Responses.”
June 2005. p. 6. [http://lugar.senate.gov/reports/NPSurvey.pdf]
Government Accountability Office (GAO). Nuclear Nonproliferation: U.S. and
International Assistance Efforts to Control Sealed Radioactive Sources Need Strengthening.
GAO-03-638. May 16, 2003. p. 65.
Mayer, Josh. “Al Qaeda Feared to Have Dirty Bombs.” Los Angeles Times. February 8,
2003. p. 1.
Gilbert, Gary. Senior V.P., Hutchison Port Holdings. Statement before the Senate
Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Permanent Investigations
Subcommittee. March 30, 2006.
Singer, S. Fred. Hoover Institution, Stanford Univ. “Nuclear Terrorism: Facts and
Fantasies.” Washington Times (Commentary). April 5, 2002.
“Dirty Bomb” Fact Sheet. Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford
University. October 2006. [http://iis-db.stanford.edu/pubs/20769/dirty_bomb_facts.pdf]
Burgess, Mark. “Pascal’s New Wager: The Dirty Bomb Threat Heightens.” Center for
Defense Information. Washington. February 4, 2003. [http://www.cdi.org
been no U.S. dirty bomb attacks, notwithstanding the supposed ease of perpetrating
such attacks.86 They also note that the 2005 U.S. indictment of alleged “dirty
bomber” Jose Padilla, in fact, contained no evidence of, or references to, a dirty
Faced with contradictory perspectives on the likelihood of a dirty bomb attack
scenario at a U.S. port, analysts and policy makers draw qualified conclusions about
such an attack. If a “weak” dirty bomb attack is more likely than a “strong” one, but
a weak attack will have limited effects, it is unclear whether such an attack would
meet terrorist objectives. On the other hand, the effects on the general public of any
dirty bomb attack, even a weak one, may be great enough to motivate potential
attackers. As one analyst has stated, notwithstanding the challenges to dirty bombers,
“the chances of a dirty bomb being deployed by al Qaeda cannot be discounted...
Given the exponential psychological and economic effects of such a weapon, the
benefits of deploying one may far outweigh the costs and difficulties entailed in its
Method of Delivery. The potential smuggling and detonation of a nuclear
or dirty bomb device in a shipping container at a U.S. port is one of the threats most
specifically and frequently mentioned by legislators in the context of maritime
security.89 Shipping containers may be particularly vulnerable to terrorist infiltration
compared to other types of cargo for three reasons. First, shipping containers are
relatively large. They come in standard sizes from 20 to 53 feet long, although the
most common are 40 feet or longer—about the size of a truck semi-trailer. Second,
the containers on any given ship are packed at the factories or warehouses of many
different companies that can be dispersed far and wide from the loading port, making
it impossible for government authorities to ensure that only legitimate cargo has been
packed. Third, the containers are typically trucked to the port of loading, during
which the integrity of the shipments rests entirely on the trustworthiness or due
diligence of the truck drivers. A maritime security expert at the Council on Foreign
Relations, who is a former Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, outlines a scenario
that most concerns him:
Sterngold, James. “Assessing the Risk of Nuclear Terrorism” San Francisco Chronicle.
April 18, 2004.; Dotinga, Randy. “After the Beep, Exit the Premises.” Wired News. May 6,
Taylor, Guy. “Padilla Case Mum on 'Dirty Bomb'.” Washington Times. November 24,
2005. p. A03.
Burgess, Mark. February 4, 2003.
See, for example, Hon. Edward J. Markey. “Rep. Markey Urges Scanning for Nuclear
Devices in Container Ships Before They Arrive at U.S. Ports.” Press release. September 28,
2006; Office of Senator Patty Murray. “Cargo Security: Floor Remarks by Senator Patty
Murray Introducing the GreenLane Bill for Senate Consideration.” Press release. September
Let me share with you the terrorist scenario that most keeps me awake at
night.... A container of athletic foot wear for a name brand company is
loaded at a manufacturing plant in Surabaya, Indonesia. The container
doors are shut and a mechanical seal is put into the door pad-eyes. These
designer sneakers are destined for retail stores in malls across America.
The container and seal numbers are recorded at the factory. A local truck
driver, sympathetic to al Qaeda picks up the container. On the way to the
port, he turns into an alleyway and backs up the truck at a nondescript
warehouse where a small team of operatives pry loose one of the door
hinges to open the container so that they can gain access to the shipment.
Some of the sneakers are removed and in their place, the operatives load a
dirty bomb wrapped in lead shielding, and they then refasten the door.
Other analysts assert that, if terrorists were to attempt a nuclear or dirty bomb
attack in a U.S. port, they would be unlikely to do so using a shipping container
because it would put the device beyond a terrorist group’s control. These analysts
question whether the container shipping system offers the routing or scheduling
precision required by terrorists to position the bomb in the right place at the right
time. Other observers assert that some types of non-containerized cargo could also
be used for smuggling a bomb.90 The manager of port security at the Port Authority
of New York and New Jersey states that their biggest concern is roll-on/roll-off cargo
(ships that carry automobiles, trucks, and other vehicles).91 Non-containerized cargo
is more plentiful. By tonnage, containers carry only 11% of U.S. overseas
waterborne trade92 and container ships account for about one in every three U.S. port
calls.93 Other types of cargo also face less security screening.94 Relatively low-value
cargo might be targeted if terrorists perceive it receives less attention from U.S. Coast
Guard and customs officials. For instance, a federal official familiar with New York
harbor, pointing to a scrap metal terminal in Jersey City, stated the following to a
reporter, “If I wanted to bring an atomic bomb into the port, I’d do it through that
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigated the potential for
maritime terrorists to use weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in 2005. In its
report, the GAO states that
An extensive body of work on this subject by the Federal Bureau of
Investigation and academic, think tank, and business organizations
For an analysis of smuggling a nuclear weapon in an oil tanker, see CRS Report RS21997,
Port and Maritime Security: Potential for Terrorist Nuclear Attack Using Oil Tankers, by
U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). An Assessment of the U.S. Marine
Transportation System. Report to Congress. September 1999.
U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD). Vessel Calls at U.S. and World Ports 2005.
April 2006. p. 1.
Stables, Eleanor. “For Better Cargo Security, Government Needs to Think 'Outside the
Box,' Experts Say.” CQ Homeland Security. October 1, 2006.
Finnegan, William. “Watching the Waterfront.” The New Yorker. June 19, 2006. p. 63.
concluded that while the likelihood of such use of containers is considered
low, the movement of oceangoing containerized cargo is vulnerable to
some form of terrorist action. Such action, including attempts to smuggle
either fully assembled weapons of mass destruction or their individual
components, could lead to widespread death and damage.96
Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) Tanker Attacks
Potential terrorist attacks on LNG tankers in U.S. waters have been a key
concern of policy makers in ports with LNG facilities because such attacks could
cause catastrophic fires in port and nearby populated areas. The Coast Guard’s
FY2006 budget specifically requested funding for “additional boat crews and
screening personnel at key LNG hubs.”97 To date, no LNG tanker or land-based LNG
facility in the world has been attacked by terrorists. However, similar natural gas and
oil assets have been favored terror targets internationally. The attack on the Limburg,
although an oil tanker, is often cited as an indication of LNG tanker vulnerability.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) specifically included LNG tankers
among a list of potential terrorist targets in a security alert late in 2003.98 The DHS
also reported that “in early 2001 there was some suspicion of possible associations
between stowaways on Algerian flagged LNG tankers arriving in Boston and persons
connected with the so-called ‘Millennium Plot’” to bomb targets in the United States.
While these suspicions could not be proved, DHS stated that “the risks associated
with LNG shipments are real, and they can never be entirely eliminated.”99 A 2004
report by Sandia National Laboratories concluded that potential terrorist attacks on
LNG tankers, could be considered “credible and possible.”100 The Sandia report
identified LNG tankers as vulnerable to ramming, pre-placed explosives, insider
takeover, hijacking, or external terrorist actions (such as a Limburg-type, missile or
airplane attack).101 Former Bush Administration counter-terrorism advisor Richard
Clarke has asserted that terrorists have both the desire and capability to attack LNG
shipping with the intention of harming the general population.102
Government Accountability Office (GAO). Cargo Security: Partnership Program Grants
Importers Reduced Scrutiny With Limited Assurance of Improved Security. GAO-05-404.
March, 2005. p. 7.
Dept. of Homeland Security (DHS). Budget-in-Brief, Fiscal Year 2006.
Office of Congressman Edward J. Markey. Personal communication with staff. January
Turner, Pamela J., Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs, Department of Homeland
Security (DHS). Letter to U.S. Representative Edward Markey. April 15, 2004. p. 1.
Sandia National Laboratories (SNL). Guidance on Risk Analysis and Safety Implications
of a Large Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) Spill Over Water. SAND2004-6258. Albuquerque,
NM. December 2004. pp. 49-50.
SNL. December 2004. pp. 61-62.
Clarke, Richard A., et al. LNG Facilities in Urban Areas. Good Harbor Consulting, LLC.
Prepared for the Rhode Island Office of Attorney General. GHC-RI-0505A. May 2005.
Although they acknowledge the security information put forth by federal
agencies, many experts believe that concern about threats to LNG tankers is
overstated.103 In 2003, the head of one university research consortium remarked, for
example, “from all the information we have ... we don’t see LNG as likely or credible
terrorist targets.”104 Industry representatives argue that deliberately causing an LNG
catastrophe to injure people might be possible in theory, but would be extremely
difficult to accomplish. Likewise, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
(FERC) and other experts believe that LNG facilities are relatively secure compared
to other hazardous chemical infrastructures which receives less public attention. In
a December 2004 report, the FERC stated that
for a new LNG terminal proposal ... the perceived threat of a terrorist attack
may be considered as highly probable to the local population. However, at
the national level, potential terrorist targets are plentiful.... Many of these
pose a similar or greater hazard to that of LNG.105
The FERC also remarked, however, that “unlike accidental causes, historical
experience provides little guidance in estimating the probability of a terrorist attack
on an LNG vessel or onshore storage facility.”106 Former Director of Central
Intelligence, James Woolsey, has stated his belief that a terrorist attack on an LNG
tanker in U.S. waters would be unlikely because its potential impacts would not be
great enough compared to other potential targets.107 LNG terminal operators which
have conducted proprietary assessments of potential terrorist attacks against LNG
tankers, have expressed similar views.108 In a September, 2006, evaluation of a
proposed LNG terminal in Long Island Sound, the USCG states that “there are
currently no specific, credible threats against” the proposed LNG facility or tankers
McLaughlin, J. “LNG is Nowhere Near as Dangerous as People Are Making it Out to
Be.” Lloyd's List. February 8, 2005. p5.
Behr, Peter. “Higher Gas Price Sets Stage for LNG.” Washington Post. July 5, 2003. p.
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Vista del Sol LNG Terminal Project,
Draft Environmental Impact Statement. FERC/EIS-0176D. December 2004. p. 4-162.
FERC. FERC/EIS-0176D. December 2004. p4-162. Notwithstanding this assertion, in
its subsequent draft review of the Long Beach LNG terminal proposal, the FERC states that
"the historical probability of a successful terrorist event would be less than seven chances
in a million per year..." See FERC. October 7, 2005. p. ES-14.
Woolsey, James. Remarks before the National Commission on Energy LNG Forum,
Washington, D.C., June 21, 2006.
Grant, Richard, President, Distrigas. Testimony before the Senate Committee on Energy
and Natural Resources, Subcommittee on Energy hearing on “The Future of Liquefied
Natural Gas: Siting and Safety.” February 15, 2005.
serving the facility.109 The evaluation also notes, however, that the threat
environment is dynamic and that some threats may be unknown.110
Passenger Ferry Attacks
Congressional policy makers frequently cite passenger ferries as a key
maritime security concern. For example, in 2005, one Member of Congress stated
that “there is a serious security gap in our ferry systems and we need to ensure that
passengers on our nation's waterways are protected.”111 A RAND study in 2006
argued that attacks on passenger ferries in the United States might be highly
attractive to terrorists because such attacks are easy to execute, may kill many people,
would likely draw significant media attention and could demonstrate a terrorist
group’s salience and vibrancy.112 One U.S. Coast Guard risk analyst reportedly has
stated that “in terms of the probability of something happening, the likelihood of it
succeeding and the consequences of it occurring, ferries come out at the very high
end.”113 Such attacks have occurred overseas. As noted earlier in this report,
terrorists linked to Al Qaeda attacked and sank the Philippine vessel Superferry 14
In a 2006 report, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) identified a ferry
bombing as among the most likely types of maritime terror attacks.114 The DOJ
report reached this conclusion based largely on the number of suspicious incidents
reported at marine facilities in the Seattle area and at other U.S. ports. However,
officials in the Seattle office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reportedly
suggested at the time that the DOJ’s high ranking of the passenger ferry threat might
be due to more aggressive reporting of suspicious incidents in that region than
elsewhere in the country.115 Seattle FBI officials also reportedly stated that they had
never been able to tie a specific suspicious incident to a terrorist group or terrorist
plan.116 Thus, while there appears to be a logical case why ferries may be a key type
of terrorist target, questions remain about actual terrorist activities related to ferries.
U.S. Coast Guard. U.S. Coast Guard Captain of the Port Long Island Sound Waterways
Suitability Report for the Proposed Broadwater Liquefied Natural Gas Facility. September
21, 2006. p. 146.
Congressman Frank Pallone, Jr. “Pallone Calls for Increased Funding for Ferry Security.”
Press release. July 15, 2005.
Greenberg, M.D. et al. 2006. p. 95.
Lipton, Eric. “Trying to Keep the Nation’s Ferries Safe from Terrorists.” New York
Times. March 19, 2005.
U.S. Dept. of Justice, Office of the Inspector General. The Federal Bureau of
Investigation's Efforts to Protect the Nation's Seaports. Audit Report 06-26. March 2006.
Shukovsky, Paul and Barber, Mike. “Ferries a Top Terror Target, FBI Cautions.” Seattle
Post-Intelligencer. April 21, 2006. p. A1.
Overall Likelihood of Maritime Terrorism
The prior discussion illustrates the uncertainty surrounding some of the
maritime terrorism scenarios of greatest concern to U.S. maritime security officials.
Questions about the likelihood of these specific, high priority scenarios beg the larger
question of how likely is any maritime terrorism attack against the United States.
Some experts suggest that some such attack, in one form or another, is almost
inevitable. For example, one senior U.S. military officer has reportedly asserted that
“it’s just a matter of time until the terrorists try to use a ... maritime attack against
us.”117 Security analysts also point to known terrorist plots to attack U.S. maritime
targets, such as those passing the Straits of Gibraltar, as evidence that global terrorist
groups continue to plan maritime terrorism activities. Information from captured Al
Qaeda member Abd al Rahman al Nashiri reportedly included plans for attacks on
a wide range of Western maritime targets, including military vessels, oil tankers, and
Other analysts believe future maritime attacks against the United States are
relatively unlikely, especially in U.S. waters. Notwithstanding specific acts of
terrorism in the past, such as the Cole bombing, they note that fewer than 1% of all
global terrorist attacks since 1997 have involved maritime targets.119 Furthermore,
international terrorists have attacked no maritime targets in U.S. territory since the
anti-Castro attacks in 1976 despite their demonstrated ability to do so overseas.120
Analysts also argue that U.S. ports and waterways are increasingly well-protected
against terrorists due to the ongoing security activities of the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S.
Customs and Border Protection (CBP), provisions of the Maritime Transportation
Security Act (P.L. 107-295), protections added using DHS port security grants, and
other U.S. maritime security measures.121 Classification issues may also influence
differing perceptions of maritime terrorism risk since piracy unrelated to terrorism
is common in Southeast Asia and may be conflated with terrorism in maritime
A key consideration in assessing the general likelihood of a maritime attack
against the United States is the inherent operational difficulty in mounting such
attacks, especially compared to land attacks which may alternatively satisfy terrorist
Gen. Ralph Eberhart, U.S. Northern Command, as quoted in “Militants Eyeing Seaborne
Attack, U.S. General Says.” Reuters. August 25, 2004.
Köknar, Ali M. “Maritime Terrorism: a New Challenge for NATO.” Energy Security.
Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS). January 24, 2005.
National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism (MIPT). Terrorist incident
reports. July 20, 2006. [http://www.tkb.org/IncidentTargetModule.jsp].
MIPT. July 20, 2006.
For further discussion, see CRS Report RL31733, Port and Maritime Security:
Background and Issues for Congress, by John F. Frittelli.
Valencia, Mark J. and Young, Adam J. “Conflation of Piracy and Terrorism in Southeast
Asia: Rectitude and Utility.” Contemporary Southeast Asia. Vol. 25. No. 2. August 2003.
objectives. One U.S. naval analyst has identified a number of specific challenges for
terrorists in the maritime environment:
Maritime targets are relatively more scarce than land targets;
Surveillance at sea offers less cover and concealment than
surveillance on land;
Tides, currents, wind, sea state, visibility, and proximity to
land must all be factored into a maritime terror operation;
Maritime terror operations may require skills that are not
quickly or easily acquired such as special training in
navigation, coastal piloting, and ship handling;
Testing weapons and practicing attack techniques, hallmarks
of Al Qaeda’s typically meticulous preparation, are harder and
more difficult to conceal at sea than on land;
The generally singular nature of maritime targets, the low
probability of damage and casualties secondary to the intended
target, and the problems associated with filming attacks at sea
for terrorist publicity may also reduce the desirability of
Given these challenges, it remains an open question how likely maritime attacks
against the United States may be. In terms of the scenario framework in this report,
although a successful attack on U.S. maritime targets would likely satisfy certain
objectives of known international perpetrators such as Al Qaeda, tactical
uncertainties and security deterrents may lead terrorist planners to turn their attention
elsewhere. It bears repeating, however, that maritime terror attacks against the U.S.
have occurred and there is evidence they have been planned for the future, despite the
operational challenges. The same naval analyst cited above calls for continued
Rather than develop a false sense of security based on the belief that
inherent difficulties will limit maritime terrorism ... caution is warranted in
light of al Qaeda’s adaptability, ingenuity, tenacity, and audacity.
Successful development and application of maritime tactics, techniques,
and procedures has already occurred within the terrorist community.124
It appears, therefore, that while maritime terrorist attacks against the United States
may be more difficult to execute and, consequently, less likely to occur than other
types of attacks, they remain a significant possibility and warrant continued policy
The key challenge in determining the overall likelihood of a terrorist attack
on a U.S. port is reducing uncertainty about specific types of attacks and potential
attackers. Because historical terrorist activity is not necessarily a reliable predictor
Captain James Pelkofski, U.S. Navy. “Before the Storm: al Qaeda's Coming Maritime
Campaign.” Proceedings. U.S. Naval Institute. Vol. 132. No. 12. December 2005.
of future activity, scenarios derived from attacks like that on the U.S.S Cole may not
help prepare for actual future attacks. Furthermore, information about the ongoing
motivations, capabilities, and plans of terrorist groups is limited and typically not in
the public domain. Terrorist intelligence gathered by U.S. and foreign agencies may
reduce this uncertainty, but is unlikely to eliminate it. Faced with this uncertainty,
decision makers are to some extent forced to rely upon their own best judgment to
reach conclusions about the likelihood of maritime terrorist attacks.
Policy Issues for Congress
Maritime terrorist threats to the United States are varied, and so are the
nation’s efforts to combat them. As Congress continues its oversight of ongoing U.S.
maritime security activities, it may focus on issues related to the consistency of
maritime terrorism scenario assessment, intelligence gathering, and responding to
Consistency of Terrorism Scenario Assessment
Development and assessment of maritime terrorism scenarios is a key element
of federal port security exercises, grant administration, and legislative oversight. It
appears, however, that these three dimensions of the nation’s maritime security
strategy emphasize terrorism scenarios in different ways. Port security exercises
(conducted under a number of independent programs) address the broadest range of
terrorism scenarios, with no obvious focus on any particular scenario. The DHS port
security grant program currently emphasizes a subset of these scenarios—IED attacks
on ferries and cruise ships in major ports, for example. Federal legislators appear to
focus oversight on a different subset of scenarios, notably WMD’s aboard container
vessels and attacks on LNG tankers. As this report states, there is a logical basis
underlying the scenario priorities established for exercises, grants, and oversight.
Nonetheless, if these activities are intended to derive from a uniform federal
maritime security strategy the question arises to what degree these activities are
complementary or inconsistent.
If port officials, grant administrators, and legislators disagree on what types
of attack scenarios are of greatest priority, either because their security assessments
are inconsistent, or because they lack sufficient intelligence about terrorist threats,
port security resources may be deployed inefficiently. For example, sharply
increasing security against specific types of maritime attacks in specific locations
may have limited benefits for overall port security if other significant vulnerabilities
are not addressed as a result. A key question is whether policymakers are too focused
on a narrow spectrum of the threat. A former Federal Maritime Commissioner has
stated that “it [is] fair to say there has been little to no emphasis on non-containerized
cargo in the political arena,” while in contrast, “‘virtually everyone’ in the industry
thinks non-containerized cargo is in ‘many respects a more vulnerable path.’”125
Robert Quartel, as quoted in Stables, Elanor. “For Better Cargo Security, Government
Needs to Think 'Outside the Box,' Experts Say.” CQ Homeland Security. October 1, 2006.
While concern, in this case, for container security may not be misplaced, there are
other forms of cargo that terrorists could exploit just as effectively.
Because intelligence about terrorist capabilities and activities is a key factor
in terrorism scenario assessment, Congress may act to ensure that the responsible
U.S. intelligence agencies work to improve their intelligence gathering and reduce
terrorism scenario uncertainty. As a Department of Defense official has reportedly
We have the operational capabilities to defeat any of these threats ... if we
see the threat approaching....The most important thing we can do is to
dramatically improve our overseas intelligence collection, with a specific
orientation toward the maritime threat.126
Better intelligence may also help ensure that various federal maritime security
activities are more closely aligned. The Government Accountability Office (GAO)
evaluated in December 2005 the port risk assessment practices of the U.S. Coast
Guard, the Office for Domestic Preparedness, and the Information Analysis and
Infrastructure Protection Directorate—all agencies within the Department of
Homeland Security. The GAO report concluded:
Each component faces many challenges in making further progress... For
example, obtaining better quality data from intelligence agencies would
help DHS components estimate the relative likelihood of various types of
threats—a key element of assessing risks. In the longer term, progress will
depend increasingly on how well risk management is coordinated across
agencies, because current approaches in many ways are neither consistent
Responding to New Intelligence
Given the dynamic nature of the terrorist threat, Congress may consider
whether federal funding mechanisms for anti-terrorism measures are flexible enough
to respond to new threat intelligence. Between the time Congress decides on the
allocation of security grants among the various transportation modes in the annual
appropriations process and the time that those grants are actually awarded can be
almost a year. Within this time frame, new intelligence may indicate that security
resources be reallocated to respond to a different threat. A related oversight issue for
Congress is the capability of the U.S. Coast Guard and CBP to shift staff and
resources as new threat information becomes available. For instance, the U.S. Coast
Guard has developed Maritime Safety and Security Teams consisting of about 75
McHale, Paul F., Asst. Sec. of Defense for Homeland Defense quoted in Pyle, R.
“Agencies Analyze Responses to Nightmare Scenario at U.S. Ports.” Associated Press. June
Government Accountability Office. Risk Management: Further Refinements Needed to
Assess Risks and Prioritize Protective Measures at Ports and Other Critical Infrastructure.
GAO-06-91. December 15, 2005.
personnel that are designed to provide a rapid surge capacity at any port as the need
arises. CBP may have more difficulty in shifting resources because, in addition to
operating in seaports, it operates in airports and at land border crossings and not all
of its inspection equipment is easily adaptable across these three environments.
Public information suggests that the threat of maritime terrorism is
significant, and can take myriad forms, but that different dimensions of the nation’s
maritime security activities prioritize these activities in different ways. As oversight
of the federal role in maritime security continues, Congress may raise questions
concerning the relationship among these activities, and the implications of differing
terrorism scenario priorities among them. Improved gathering and sharing of
maritime terrorism intelligence may enhance consistency across various U.S.
maritime security activities and increase the efficient deployment of maritime
In addition to these issues, Congress may assess how the various elements of
U.S. maritime security fit together in the nation's overall strategy to protect the public
from terrorist attacks. For example, bulk quantities of hazardous chemicals are found
in marine vessels, in rail and highway tankers, and in chemical facilities on land.
Terrorists may seek to exploit such chemicals in any of these sectors. Balancing the
nation's homeland security resources across the maritime and non-maritime sectors
is a policy challenge because specific sectors may fall under different homeland
security authorities and regulations. Uncertainty about terrorist capabilities and
activities complicates this problem by making it difficult to compare terrorist attack
scenarios across sectors. Without such a comprehensive perspective on terrorist
threats, security analysts may have difficulty identifying which assets to protect and
how well to protect them with the limited security resources available. Reviewing
how these security priorities and activities fit together to achieve common goals
could be an oversight challenge for Congress.