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RAND: Maritime Terrorism Risk Extends to Cruise Ships, Ferry Boats

Attacks on cruise ships and ferry boats meet the requirements of "visibility, destruction and disruption that drive transnational terrorism in the contemporary era, says Peter Chalk, a co-author of a new report from RAND Corp.

"Recognizing this is essential to any comprehensive regime of maritime security," he adds.

The report, "Maritime and Terrorism: Risk and Liability," concludes it is not adequate to base maritime counterterrorism efforts only on increasing port security and the security of cargo container ships, rail cars and trucks that transport goods into and out of United States ports.

"Focusing solely on securing the container supply chain without defending other parts of the maritime environment is like bolting down the front door of a house and leaving the back door wide open," said Henry Willis, a RAND researcher and a co-author of the report.

The study by RAND, a nonprofit research organization, also says a maritime terrorist attack is likely to create complicated liability issues that will slow efforts to compensate victims of an attack.

"We need to examine closely the challenges that a maritime attack would create for our civil justice system," said Michael Greenberg, another of the report's authors. "Tort liability is supposed to compensate victims while providing appropriate security incentives for firms. But ambiguous liability standards in the maritime terrorism context raise the prospect that the civil justice system may neither be effective as a compensation mechanism, nor in generating clear incentives for the private sector."

RAND researchers prepared the report by considering different types of terrorist attacks that could strike maritime activities. The authors assessed each scenario for its likelihood, its potential impact on the loss of life and the potential economic impacts. They also considered the likely application of civil liability in the aftermath of different attacks.

Researchers point out that their review of more than 30 years of terrorist activity shows that less than 2 percent of international terrorist attacks have hit maritime targets. Historically, this is because it has been difficult to successfully carry out maritime terrorist attacks and because such attacks have rarely caused the large loss of life or generated the heavy news coverage that terrorists seek, the study says.

The report acknowledges that the contemporary relevance of these factors is in a state of flux, but that relative prioritization of risks in the maritime domain remains underdeveloped.

The largest maritime disaster would involve the detonation of a nuclear device smuggled through a major domestic port inside a shipping container. However, the report stresses that the likelihood of such an event occurring is far lower than for other types of attacks.

Though considerably less catastrophic than worst-case scenario, the report argues that attacks on passenger ferries or cruise ships would be more probable. These attacks might involve on-board bombs or biological contaminants inserted into the food supply, according to researchers.

The report highlights several findings and recommendations that have relevance for understanding the evolving nature of maritime terrorism and addressing potential attacks that might occur. The study says:

  • Reducing the risk of an atomic device being smuggled into a U.S. port is a priority, though increasing attention to the control of nuclear weapons and materials may be more important than inspecting containers. Policies must balance the need for reducing the risk with the need to keep shipping open.
  • There is no observable evidence that terrorists and piracy syndicates are collaborating to attack maritime targets. In fact, their motivations and overall objectives are frequently in conflict.
  • The potential economic impact of a maritime terrorism incident could be reduced by improving procedures to reopen ports and restore container-shipping systems that might be shut down following a terrorist attack or natural disaster.
  • There is little prospect of terrorists successfully blocking a shipping lane by sinking a ship. Such an attack would not achieve terrorists' desire for maximum public attention through inflicted loss of life, and modern hull design makes it difficult to sink a ship. In addition, if an obstruction were created in a critical shipping channel it could be cleared quickly.
  • Because cruise liners and ferries must allow passengers to move freely, security improvements should focus on developing more stringent and effective means for screening passengers, crew and luggage.
  • Negligence liability for maritime terrorist attacks creates a likelihood that firms will be held financially responsible for harm to victims. But ambiguity regarding whether specific attacks are foreseeable, and regarding the steps required to prevent attacks, may undermine the effectiveness of the justice system in setting meaningful incentives for the private sector.
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