Safety at Sea: Cruise Ships & Terrorism

CBS New York aired a short special last night titled Elite NYPD Team Protects City From Dirty Bombs, Waterborne Threats.

The video focused on the efforts of a special unit of the NYPD’s Counter-Terrorism Division which concentrates on protecting the hundreds of cruise ships and other maritime vessels which enter and leave the ports of New York and New Jersey each year.

The special begins with the Norwegian Gem returning in the predawn hours to New York after ten days at sea. Unbeknownst to the passengers, the NCL cruise ship was being swept for a dirty bomb before it entered the port. 

The New York anti-terrorism team reportedly uses radiation detection devices and sonar to scan the ships and docks for explosive devices.

The special briefly discusses the deadly attack on the U.S.S. Cole in 2000 and the last month's suicide attack on a Saudi Arabian frigate, both occurring in the Red Sea near Yemen, which we have mentioned several times in other articles. 

The CBS crew interviewed the CEO, Dan Richards, of a security company called Global Rescue, which CBS says provides crisis response and evacuation options to travelers. Mr.Richards mentions that that "ISIS and other terrorist organizations are planning these kinds of operations.” This is a sentiment expressed by several U.S. naval commanders in the recent past. Read: Terrorists on the Ocean: Sea Monsters in the 21st Century by Captain Robert N. Hein, U.S. Navy.

Many travelers may be comforted by these security measures in New York and other major seaports like Miami and elsewhere. But, at the same time, the special underscores the lack of security in ports of call outside of the U.S., in places like the Caribbean and North Africa, where the port countries lack the resources to implement sophisticated anti-terrorism plans.

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How the Next Jihadist Terror Attack Against Cruise Passengers Will Happen

USS Cole AttackFor the past couple of years I've been troubled by the increasing violence in North Africa and the Middle East and the unprecedented nature of the cruelty of jihadist terrorists who have beheaded and burned "infidels" alive. I have worried about various scenarios where cruise passengers are at risk of attack.

We already know that al Qaeda has planned to seize cruise ships and execute passengers.

 Our readers have sent us various scenarios of how cruise passengers are at risk on the high seas and in ports of call. 

A terrorist fires a RPG into a cruise ship: Libya is awash in weapons after Colonel Muammar Gadaffi was killed and lost control of the country. Automatic weapons, rocket propelled grenades (RPG's), mortars, bazookas, and anti-aircraft guns have fallen into the hands of violent religious fanatics. The two Tunisian terrorists killed during the attack on Costa and MSC cruise passengers were trained in Libya. ISIS and Al Qaeda, of course, have access to weapons, including RPG's, throughout the Middle East.

Think it's far fetched? Think again. Al Qaeda has already used this weapon to attack tankers in the Middle East. In the video below, you can see the terrorists fire their weapons, yell Allah Akbar ("God is Great") and run off into the bushes. Cruise ships are easy targets, over three football fields long and 15 stories high, moving at only a few knots an hours while entering and leaving ports. A RPG would slice though the aluminum hull like butter and cause fire, damage, injuries and death. They're sitting ducks without military escorts. 

A USS Cole-style kamikaze attack on a cruise ship:  Remember the U.S.S. Cole? 17 service men USS Cole Attackand women were murdered when suicide bombers rammed their speed boat loaded with explosives into the U.S. navy ship. Such an attack during a fueling operation while a fuel barge is alongside a cruise ship would result in a tremendous explosion with many hundreds of deaths.

Blowing up a tour excursion bus:There have been many tour buses filled with tourists which terrorists have attacked over the years. A bus with Korean tourists was exploded in Egypt last year. The saying "safety in numbers" doesn't apply to cruise passengers; its more likely to make you a target when you come off of a cruise ship and board a bus with fifty other passengers. You can see what a terrorist attack on a bus looks like in the video below.

Al Qaeda embeds themselves as crew members or passengers: After 9/11 and the attack on the twin towers, my office received a call from an agitated U.S. crew member (a musician). He was upset that other crew members on a U.S based cruise ship which sailed into Miami were literally cheering while watching televised images of the death and destruction. Some cruise lines boast that their crew come from 60 different countries. This may well be an asset in most circumstances but it underscores the fact that the crew members have loyalties to other countries and other causes than those shared by U.S. Tourist Bus Attackpassengers.

A reader of my recent article for Yahoo Travel titled Is Cruising Safe? A Chilling Look at an Industry Under Siege offered this scenario:

". . . This isn't about the ports and the safety of them. A terrorist could be among you at the buffet, laying by the pool, playing slots, drinking at the bar … they lay in wait. They're completely legitimate looking like one of us. 50 of them could board a ship as a passenger with a clean record. They've been trained in other countries. They've lived in the countries they're in for years and they lay in wait anticipating their marching orders. Then three days into the cruise, they take over the ship and start killing passengers . . . And that's how it'll go down."

The cruise industry needs to wake up. Tunis was preventable. Greater attention to Al Qaeda and ISIS is necessary to avoid a similar if not worse attack on innocent passengers. Dangerous ports need to be avoided. In the past, Princess Cruises used security teams / police to accompany tour bus excursions in Egypt. Maritime security teams are also required in foreign ports of call to address the risk of waterborne attacks. Cruise lines are overflowing with cash. The cruise industry collects around $40 billion a year, pay their crew members peanuts and doesn't pay U.S. taxes. The industry needs to start investing some of those tens of millions of dollars into substantial security to keep their guests safe. 

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Photo Credit: USS Cole diagram - Reuters; bus explosion - AP via Yahoo Travel 

Are Jihadists Sailing on Cruise Ships?

The Associated Press (AP) reports that jihadi fighters are increasingly buying tickets on cruise ships to join extremists in battle zones in Syria and Iraq.

The AP states that jihadists are trying to bypass travel restrictions in neighboring Turkey.

According to the AP, Turkey says that it has been deporting hundreds of terrorists caught in airports and bus stations.  But there are some 15,000 fighters or more from 81 countries traveling to the Middle East to fight for extreme Islamic causes. 

The BBC reports that Islamic militants are using of cruise ships "more and more."

The AP quotes outgoing Interpol chief Ronald Noble as saying:

"Originally, our concern about people on cruise ships - dangerous people on cruise ships - really al Qauda Cruise Shipfocused on the classic sort of rapist, burglar, or violent criminal. But as we've gathered data, we've realized that there are more and more reports that people are using cruise ships in order to get to launch pads, if you will - sort of closer to the conflict zones - of Syria and Iraq."

Terrorism is a concern for any kind of international travel. The current news does not suggest an attack by such groups on cruise ships but there is historical evidence of such attacks. We have written about plans uncovered two years ago by al Qaeda to seize cruise ships and dress passengers in orange jump suits and execute them. Three decades ago, Arab terrorists killed cruise passenger Leon Klinghoffer on the Achille Lauro cruise ship and a decade ago our U.S. Navy lost several dozen sailors who were blown up during the attack on the U.S.S. Cole by an al Qaeda group.

 

Photo Credit: CNN

27 Years After Hijacking of Achille Lauro, Can Cruise Ships Keep Passengers Safe in the Middle East?

Twenty-seven years ago today, the world saw terrifying television images of Palestinian terrorists holding passengers aboard the Achille Lauro cruise ship hostage. The terrorists demanded the release of 50 Palestinians held in Israeli jails. 

There were over 20 nationalities of passengers booked on the cruise, but the terrorists stated that Americans would be the first to be executed if their demands were not met.   

Leon Klinghoffer, age 69, was from New York City and was vacationing with his wife, Marilyn, and their friends, when the Achille Lauro sailed for Port Said, Egypt.  Although Mr. Klinghoffer was disabled and in a wheelchair, the terrorists picked him to be the first to die. They shot him in the chest and head, and Achille Lauro Cruise Ship - Terrorismthen forced two crew members to dump him and his wheelchair over the side of the cruise ship.

That terrible crime occurred in October 1985. Now 27 years later, are cruise passengers, particularly Americans, any safer?

We have seen civil unrest across North Africa. President Mubarek is gone from Egypt and Colonel Gaddafi of Libya is dead. Good riddance to both I say, but both countries now seem more dangerous to Americans than ever. Last month we saw anti-American demonstrations on the 9/11 anniversary in both of these countries, and the murder of the U.S. Ambassador to Libya in Benghazi.

On the front page above the crease of the New York Times this morning are several articles about violence in Syria with a photo of a Syrian firing a Kalashnikov rifle. I not sure who is fighting who anymore but they all seem to have the potential to take their violence to U.S. interests.

In April I blogged about a plot where Arab terrorists envisioned hijacking a U.S. based cruise ship, forcing the passengers to wear orange Guantanamo-like jump suits and then videotaping their execution. 

The World Cruise Industry Review concluded that the most likely terrorist scenario is the hijacking of a Anti American Protests - Egypt, Libya, Tunisiacruise ship and its passengers: "A cruise ship is boarded and commandeered, while perpetrators hold and potentially injure or kill passengers if demands are not met – as in the Achille Lauro attack."

27 years after Leon Klinghoffer's dead body was dumped into the Mediterranean Sea, the danger of terrorism against cruise ship passengers seems greater than ever before. Have cruise ships increased the number of security guards aboard their cruise ships? I doubt it. Every cabin occupied by a security guard means less revenue for the cruise lines.    

The current strategy seems to be to simply skip ports in Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia until things calm down. But that's a short turn fix; when the street protests are over, there remains the risk of jihadists plotting a cruise ship to target. Will the cruise security teams be ready?

If terrorists can over-power several heavily armed U.S. Marines and kill our Ambassador in Libya, does anyone really think that they are safe sailing on a Holland America Line or Princess cruise ship sailing into Tunis or Port Said?

al Qaeda Planned to Seize Cruise Ships, Execute Passengers

al Qaeda - Cruise Ship - Execute PassengersThere is a disturbing story today in CNN entitled "Documents Reveal al Qaeda's Plans to Seize Cruise Ships .  .  ."  The CNN article explains that an al Qaeda operative was caught with encoded digital data which, once deciphered, revealed some of the terror group's "most audacious plots and a road map for future operations."  

The terrorist group had far reaching plans to conduct operations in Europe and to kill cruise ship passengers as part of its reign of terror. 

The CNN article was based on the work of investigative journalist Yassin Musharbash, a reporter with the German newspaper Die Zeit, who was the first to report on the documents.  The CNN articles states: 

"One plan: to seize passenger ships. According to Musharbash, the writer "says that we could hijack a passenger ship and use it to pressurize the public."

Musharbash takes that to mean that the terrorists "would then start executing passengers on those ships and demand the release of particular prisoners."

The plan would include dressing passengers in orange jump suits, as if they were al Qaeda prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and then videotaping their execution."

Al Qaeda -Terrorism USS Cole - Cruise Ship TargetsAre cruise ships prepared to deal with a well organized attack by a jihadist terrorist organization?  

The idea is not theoretical or far-fetched.  After all, the PLO hijacked a cruise ship 25 years ago and killed and threw an America passenger overboard:  The Death of Leon Klinghoffer on the Achille Lauro Cruise Ship - 25 Years Later  And our U.S. Navy lost several dozen sailors who were blown up during the attack on the U.S.S. Cole by an al Qaeda group (photo right).

May 1, 2012 Update:  Former Director of Security at Princess Cruises, Commander Mark Gaouette, left a comment below, pointing out that Islamic extremists have taken steps to target cruise ships over the past decade. Commander Gaouette has also worked for Homeland Security and is an expert on the subject of cruise ship safety and the threat of international terrorism.  

Gaouette authored a best selling book "Cruising for Trouble: Cruise Ships as Soft Targets for Pirates, Terrorists, and Common Criminals" which explains that cruise lines are not taking adequate steps to protect passengers from harm.  One reviewer stated: "The chapters about terrorism were so interesting it was hard to put down and should raise some serious red flags with the cruise industry. I think this book should represent a real sea-change of how security and safety on these vessels is regulated by the governments of the world, marketed and perceived to you and me the consumer, and how the cruise line industry conducts their business in general." 

The South Florida Business Journal covered the story today, stating: "The Coast Guard, cruise ship and facility operators, and law enforcement officials generally believe waterside attacks are a concern for cruise ships," a 2010 General Accounting Office report said. "Agency officials and terrorism researchers also identified terrorists boarding a cruise ship as a concern." 

Here is the CNN video:

 

 

Do you believe that the cruise industry has done enough to protect passengers from terrorism, or are cruise vacationers sitting ducks?  Please leave a comment below.