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Ships and ports are terrorism's new frontier

Despite the billions of dollars spent since  Sept. 11 to secure commercial aviation, security experts say that effort has created a new vulnerability: the thousands of ports around the world, many of which have only recently turned their attention to thwarting terrorism. 
A Singapore special police forces commando is seen on board a container vessel during a security exercise at Singapore's port last month. The International Maritime Organization has urged governments and shipping lines to hasten implementation of security measures ahead of a July 1 deadline.Albert Sim / AFP/ Getty Images File
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It is one of the most heavily-guarded checkpoints on the border between Israel and the Gaza strip. Security is so tight at Karni that goods are transferred from trucks parked back-to-back to prevent smuggling.

But despite those precautions, a truck carrying two suicide bombers left the border crossing into Israel at about 2 o’clock in the afternoon of March 14 headed for the deepwater port of Ashdod, about 40 kilometers south of Tel Aviv. By 3:30 pm, the truck had arrived at the port,  one of Israel’s busiest. About an hour later, the terrorists detonated their explosive devices, killing ten and wounding 18. A local police chief speculated that the real target may have been nearby chemical storage tanks, but that the bombs went off prematurely.

A subsequent investigation solved the mystery of how the terrorists eluded security forces: they had hidden themselves in a secret compartment of a steel shipping container.

Welcome to the new front in the war on terrorism. Despite the billions of dollars spent since the Sept. 11 terror attacks to secure commercial aviation, security experts say that effort has created a new vulnerability: the thousands of ports around the world, many of which have only recently turned their attention to thwarting terrorism.

“Terrorists not only understand the vulnerability of seaports and shipping but have readjusted their target folder for the greater difficulty in attacking aviation,” said Kim Petersen, executive director of the trade group, Maritime Security Council. “And the presumption is that maritime is going to be a more significant target in the future."

The Ashdod attack emphasized the concern security experts have about cargo containers being used as terrorist Trojan Horses. And, they say, that's just one of threats faced by the 361 U.S. ports -– vital arteries to the U.S. economy.

Trade on-ramps
As cross border tariffs have fallen and manufacturing has moved offshore, the U.S. economy has become increasingly reliant on maritime shipping, and global seaports have become the on-ramps and off-ramps to the global trade highway. Some 90 percent of the U.S. imports by weight enter the country via ship. Last year, some 2.4 billion tons of goods – valued at over $1 trillion passed through U.S. ports.

Consumers got a taste of what a port shutdown could mean in 2002, when a 10-day lockout of dockworkers at the Port of Los Angeles generated a massive backup of maritime cargo and an estimated $1 billion a day in economic loss. The backlog took months to clear.

All of which has made seaports an increasingly appealing target to terrorists, Stephen Flynn, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and retired Coast Guard commander, told a Senate hearing last year.

“A modest investment by a terrorist could yield billions of dollars in losses to the U.S. economy by shutting down – even temporarily -- the system that moves 'just in time' shipments of parts and goods,” he said.

200 million containers
One of the thorniest security problems involves determining just what’s inside each of the 40-foot steel containers that arrive every day on cargo ships carrying as many as 4,000 containers each.

Air travelers at security checkpoints have become accustomed to delays as passengers spend a few moments unpacking laptops, removing shoes and retying them. But a comparable physical inspection of the millions of tons of cargo that enter U.S. ports every day is simply not practical: security experts say it takes five agents roughly three hours to fully inspect the contents of just one of those containers.

The result is that only 2 percent of containerized cargo entering the country. is physically inspected. And while advanced technology scanners have helped speed those inspections, just tracking the 200 million containers that move among the world’s top seaports each year is a major undertaking. Flynn cited one major shipper with over 300,000 containers in its inventory.

“It doesn’t know where 40 percent of them are at any given time,” he said. “It takes one of their customers saying, ‘Hey I’ve got one of your boxes if you want it back.'”

Those boxes are a potentially potent weapon for terrorists – whether for use smuggling weapons, explosive materials or terrorists themselves, or as a huge chemical, biological or "dirty" bomb spreading radioactive waste. At present, though, many ports are ill-prepared to deal with that threat.

The accidental explosion of a container on the dock of the Port of Los Angeles on April 28  underscored the problem. Gasoline fumes from a pickup truck inside the container were apparently ignited by a spark from a battery, blowing the locked steel doors open and spilling the contents, which included 900 bottles of LPG butane gas, according to Michael Mitre, Coast Port Security director at the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

“There was virtually no response,” Mitre told a House panel on maritime security last week. “There was no evacuation. There was no shutdown of work … It could have been something that was a biological or chemical release; it could be a radioactive release. No one knew. But at the time, the terminal was absolutely not prepared.”

Mitre said the explosion also highlights a major deficiency in container inspection. “Export cargo is not treated the same way as import cargo,” he said. “We have cargo coming in through the gates that is not having to show what the contents are." As a result, terrorists inside the U.S. would have a much easier time loading a container on an outbound shipment, he said.

A piracy police blotter
Even as governments and private security officials set up efforts to protect their country's shores, pirates and terrorists operate virtually unchallenged in some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

Take the case of the tanker Cherry, recently attacked in the Malacca Strait, bound for the port of Belawanon the island of Sumatra in western Indonesia, a regional export hub for producers of rubber, tobacco, palm oil, spices, and tea. The captain and crew had little warning when the shooting started; when it was over, heavily-armed pirates had taken over the vessel and her cargo of 1,000 tons of palm oil. The attackers held 13 crew members hostage for five weeks, but after the ship’s owners refused to pay a ransom, the pirates killed four of the crew before fleeing.

Piracy reports like these read like a page from another century, but the incident happened just a few months ago -– one of a growing number of almost daily attacks on ocean-going vessels that have been rising steadily since the late 1990s.

It’s impossible to estimate the financial impact of these attacks – most estimates put the losses to piracy in the billions of dollars a year. Last year there were 445 pirate attacks worldwide, up from  370 in 2002, , one of several agencies that track attacks. Last year, at least 21 mariners were confirmed killed and 71 crew and passengers were listed as missing in the attacks.

Many maritime incidents are petty crimes, like stealing dock lines or robbing crew members of cash. But increasingly, attacks are staged by organized groups using high-speed boats and automatic weapons, often killing or marooning the crew, stealing cargo worth millions and selling it in loosely-patrolled ports of call. Popular targets are ships laden with cargo of oil or other valuable commodities that are easy to sell and difficult to trace.

And some security experts think the problem is under reported. “If your ship has been attacked and word gets out, that’s not good for business,” said Howard Cohen, spokesman for the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. The agency maintains a database of that was set up in 1985 following the hijacking and of the Achille Lauro and the murder of a hostage.

While most of the reported attacks appear to be aimed at stealing cargo, security experts say  maritime shipping offers terrorists an important conduit for moving personnel and supplies around the globe.

The seizure by Greek authorities last year of the Baltic Sky, loaded with 750 tons of industrial-grade ammonium nitrate-based explosives and 140,000 detonators, renewed concerns of terrorists using ships as bombs to blow up port cities. Like many ships, she was flying a so-called flag of convenience used by many shipping companies to shield their owners from the taxes and regulations that apply to ships registered in developed nations. Especially troubling to some security experts was the flag she was flying from the Comoros Islands, a tiny Indian Ocean country that bills itself as .

Other suspected safe harbors for piracy or pockets of terrorism can be found closer to home. One security expert cited the inland Paraguayan port of Ciudad del Este -- which the described in 2002 report as "a den of low-technology criminality" and "a haven for international money laundering, with much of the money coming from the Middle East."

Oil attacks
With oil prices reaching 21-year highs -– in part due to fears that terrorists could interrupt supplies -- perhaps one of the most attractive targets is the fleet of thousands of oil tankers that ship a major portion of the 80 million barrels of oil consumed daily worldwide.

Those concerns came into sharper focus with the October 2002 bombing of the French oil tanker Limburg which was hit by a waterborne attack similar to the 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole. The Limburg attackers blew a hole 10 yards wide in the tanker, killing one Bulgarian crew member and spilling 90,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf of Aden. Fourteen suspects, believed linked to Al Qaeda, recently went on trial in Yemen for the attack.

Beyond the threat to individual tankers, oil industry experts fear that terrorists might target several high volume “choke points” where much of the world's oil flows by tanker.

By far the most important of these is the Strait of Hormuz, connecting the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. Oil tankers sailing through this narrow channel carry  15 million barrels of oil a day – roughly 20 percent of the world’s supply, according to a .

The concern, security experts say, is that terrorists need not be heavily armed to seriously restrict the flow of oil in one of these choke points.

“The way to shut down a port is to sink yourself in one of the channels,” said Frank Lanza, CEO of L3 Communications, which is developing maritime security technologies. “You could certainly tie up a port for months before you could get the ship out of there.”