Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Maritime Terrorism, US Style

The issue of seaborne attacks on the United States by terrorists has received little play in the media. Which seems a little odd for a nation seemingly so attuned to the threats terrorist might pose to their homeland, especially the idea that a passenger airliner could, once more, be hijacked and used as a weapon of destruction. Yet the security apparatus in place to prevent such an event has, if nothing, been increased since 9/11, as has public awareness of the potential for such a disaster.

But the threat that terrorists could shift their focus of attention to any of the thousands of commercial vessels that visit the U.S. each year continues to receive only muted publicity. Recently, though, former American government counter-terrorism advisor Richard Clarke voiced some public concerns about the issue.

(Clarke, you may remember, was the guy who supposedly told the White House that he found no link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, later quitting his position to write a book, “Against All Enemies”.)

A week ago he was speaking in New England about the potential for liquid natural gas carrier ships (known in shipping circles as LNGs) to be used a weapons. The kind that could be hijacked by maritime criminals, pointed at a major centre like Boston and then ignited to cause the greatest damage possible.

Clarke’s scenario is not without possibility. But he was speaking, unfortunately, as a paid consultant for a firm seeking to build an offshore gas terminal. His description of the potential of an attack on Boston was aimed less at raising awareness of the issue than at scaring officials into considering to favour a facility in a “safer” locale.

Nevertheless, the threat that Richard Clarke evokes is not to be trivialized. Seven million shipping containers enter the U.S. every year – any one of which could contain a weapon. Dozens of vessels are hijacked by pirates every year and hundreds of mariners are taken hostage. Pirates already harass shipping worldwide on a daily basis, and the time when they collude more openly with terrorist groups may be at hand.

Something to consider.