Ok, this will probably be it for port security posts. I’ve never done a series like this before and it takes more time than I have, at least for now. It sure is nice, though, when your school district gets access to a news database and tells all the teachers to go “research stuff to test it out and see what you think.” For those of us who enjoy “researching stuff” it’s a nice way to be expected to spend some conference periods. So here we go, looking beyond the dangers posed by container ships…
The danger of a container ship bearing a bomb into a US port is frightening to imagine, but another scenario is just as scary and more audacious.
Pirates (or terrorists) can and do hijack ships and then repaint and reflag them at sea, thus creating what is known as a phantom ship. Phantom ships are aided by the phenomenon in the shipping industry known as flags of convenience that allows ship owners to avoid taxes, labor laws, safety and environmental regulation, and any number of other ‘inconveniences’ that can slow a ship down. William Langewiesche describes this in The Outlaw Sea:
No one pretends that a ship comes from the home port painted on its stern, or that it has ever been anywhere near. Panama is the largest maritime nation on earth, followed by bloody Liberia, which hardly exists. No coastline is required either. There are ships that hail from La Paz, in landlocked Bolivia. There are ships that hail from the Mongolian desert. Moreover, the registries themselves are rarely based in the countries whose names they carry: Panama is considered to be an old-fashioned “flag” because its consulates handle the paperwork and collect the registration fees, but “Liberia” is run by a company in Virginia, “Cambodia” by another in South Korea, and the proud and independent “Bahamas” by a group in the City of London.
All of this makes determining exactly who owns any ship a major investigative task and the seeming ease with which flags of convenience can be acquired would make it simple for a phantom ship to pose as legit. The article “Terrorism Goes to Sea” (Foreign Affairs, Nov/Dec 04) discusses an “al Queda Navy” made up of phantom ships:
Intelligence agencies estimate that al Qaeda and its affiliates now own dozens of phantom ships-hijacked vessels that have been repainted and renamed and operate under false documentation, manned by crews with fake passports and forged competency certificates. Security experts have long warned that terrorists might try to ram a ship loaded with explosive cargo, perhaps even a weapon of mass destruction, into a major port or terminal.
In a previous post, I referenced a JINSA article that described an incident in which so-called pirates hijacked a ship in the Straits of Malacca, but instead of stealing anything simply practiced steering the ship for about an hour. This sounds a lot like the preparations made by terrorists who were interested in learning to fly airplanes but not in how to land them. You don’t need to land a plane or dock a ship if your intent is to crash it.
Between flags of convenience, phantom ships and the fact that terrorists have clearly been practicing steering large ships, I can’t help but wonder if our enemies might be thinking bigger than just slipping an explosive container aboard a cargo ship bound for a US port. Let’s remember, these people tend to think big. Do we have the resources in place to stop such an attack? We knew Hurricane Katrina was coming days in advance and we knew where it was going to hit and yet, we weren’t ready. A ship full of explosives or hazardous cargo crashing and igniting in the Houston Ship Channel with its refineries and chemical plants would make Katrina look like a rainy day at the park. Imagine the Texas City Disaster of 1947, only engineered for maximum effect including the release of toxins or radioactive substances.
Increasing funding for the US Coast Guard will not necessarily prevent such an attack from occuring, but it would decrease the likelihood. Spending that money to protect not just our ports but the cities in which they’re based would be well-worth the expense.