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Dec 14, 2005 | 01:10 GMT

5 mins read

The Ongoing Threat to Cruise Ships

In August, Israel's Shin Bet security service warned four Israeli cruise vessels bound for Turkey to avoid the Mediterranean coast and divert to Cyprus, citing a security risk in the region. The warning came days after Turkish authorities arrested five men at a residence in the port city of Mersin. Police, called to the scene after chemicals the men were mixing to make explosives caught fire, discovered nearly 5 pounds of plastic explosives and almost 45 pounds of chemicals. Turkish police later said the suspects were planning to attack government buildings and tourist sites. The cell's intended target, however, almost certainly was at least one of the cruise ships — and the tourists on it. The timing and severity of the Israeli warning — coming so soon after the Mersin raid — has led some counterterrorism experts to believe Israel dodged a bullet by diverting its ships in August — and that jihadists continue to plan an attack against a cruise ship. The jihadists, who until recently had focused on hitting commercial shipping targets, could now be shifting their sights to cruise ships, these experts believe. Furthermore, al Qaeda has been known to repeat an unsuccessful attempt against a specific target until it succeeds. Although where and when such an attempt might occur is unknown, the area around Turkey would make a prime target. Many American and European Christians are deferring trips to Israel because of the unrest in that country, and instead are visiting religious sites in Turkey, which they consider to be safer. Mersin is an especially attractive port of call for passengers seeking to visit the city of Tarsus, birthplace of the Apostle Paul. This stream of foreign tourists could provide a tempting target for jihadists operating in Turkey. Because cruise ships — as well as the ports they dock in — are at best only lightly defended, cruise ships present a soft target. While at sea, the ships often are miles away from any assistance should they come under attack. Moreover, a swift tactical response to an attack against a ship in international waters can be hampered by issues of jurisdiction and responsibility for a ship carrying passengers of different nationalities. As demonstrated in the October 1985 attack against the Achille Lauro, a relatively small number of militants can seize a cruise ship with little difficulty. Laborers, cooks or other low-skilled crew members could represent an unreliable criminal element on a ship. By coordinating with operatives planted among the passengers or crew, a militant group could easily take over a cruise ship at sea — taking hundreds, if not thousands, of hostages or victims. Cruise ships also fit into the targeting criteria of many militant groups. For certain militant Islamist groups, a ship full of Israeli tourists would be especially enticing. In addition, because they carry anywhere from several hundred to a few thousand passengers and crew, an attack against a cruise ship could easily result in mass casualties. Even while in port, a cruise ship is vulnerable to a terrorist attack. Some aspects of an attack in port make that scenario extremely dangerous, because of traffic congestion and the fact that the ship would be moving slowly. An attack similar to the October 2000 suicide bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Aden, Yemen, would have devastating results on a cruise ship. The crew would not see the a bomb-laden suicide boat coming from as far away as they would on the high seas and would not have much time (or space) to react and maneuver. Unlike a warship — built to withstand attacks from missiles, bombs, and torpedoes — cruise ships lack structural reinforcements and built-in damage control systems. The bomb that nearly sunk the Cole, then, could easily sink a much larger cruise ship. The cell that likely was plotting to attack the ships in Turkey might have been interrupted, but the danger to cruise ships remains. In the Mediterranean Sea and off the coast of East Africa, routes often take cruises near the coastlines of unstable countries that have active insurgent or militant groups. For their part, some cruise lines have tightened security since the Sept. 11 attacks. Most U.S.-based lines have adopted the U.S. Coast Guard's Level 3 security measures, which include increased screening of both passenger luggage and the ship's supplies, closer inspection of passenger identification and cross-referencing with U.S. government watch lists, further restrictions on access to key areas such as the engine rooms and bridge, increased time-of-entry notices from 24 hours to 96 hours for all U.S. ports, and the creation of a 100-yard security zone around the ship. In addition, each ship carries a Chief Security Officer who leads a small team authorized to carry non-lethal weapons such as pepper spray. Such a team would be trained to handle such things as stowaways, contraband smuggling and, of course, the threat of terrorism. Some lines, including the Miami-based Seabourn Cruises, have equipped their ships with advanced non-lethal weapons such as the Long Range Acoustic Device, (LRAD), which the U.S. Navy has used since the attack against the Cole. If the attackers know they are likely to encounter the ear-splitting sound of an LRAD, however, they can employ countermeasures such as earplugs. In any case, suffering a little pain unlikely will deter a suicide attacker. These measures are a start, although the effectiveness of each line's security measures varies. In actuality, however, such measures probably are insufficient to deter determined, heavily armed and aggressive attackers.

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