During the past year, piracy attacks in the South Pacific have become much more sinister in nature. No longer are pirates boarding tankers or other maritime vessels for the purpose of taking cash, kidnapping crews for ransom, or seizing and selling the cargoes. Recent piracy incidents are now occurring because those boarding the vessels only spend a few hours at the helm to develop the necessary skills to navigate them — a bit like the 9-11 hijackers attending flight training schools — and then take the captains and co-captains with them when they abandon the tankers.
Now add to this alarming development the theft of as many as 10 tugboats during the past six months in the South Pacific (which could easily be used to tug a disabled bomb-laden tanker into a busy harbor.) Next add the kidnapping and subsequent release of deep-sea diving experts from prominent resorts in Southeast Asia who authorities have been told were forced to train terrorist operatives how to dive — but curiously not how to resurface — and we have an increasingly serious terrorist threat to maritime security.
Keep in mind that, according to the UN, 80% of the 6 billion tons of the world's traded cargo is transported by ships. Imagine the damage to regional or even large segments of the global economy if a key choke point — the Suez Canal, the Panama Canal, the Straits of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, or the Straits of Malaca in the South Pacific — were blocked by a chemical or liquified natural gas tanker either set ablaze by terrorists, or worse, laden with radioactive materials and then detonated to create a massive dirty bomb explosion. Recall the October 2002 torpedo attack against the French tanker, the MV Limburg, near Yemen. That, in my judgment, was a calibration run to determine whether external attacks on a tanker were more effective then setting charges directly to the hulls. Clearly, the training for a maritime attack is under way and is intensifying as every day passes.
Are governments in Southeast Asia fighting Al Qaeda? Are they working with the U.S.?
Southeast Asian governments are corrupt, nepotistic and incapable of protecting the vast expanses of ocean around small island nations infested with al-Qaeda affliated terrorist cells. The political will is certainly there in the Philippines to help US efforts in the region, but I question whether Indonesia is fully committed, and I doubt whether Singapore and Malaysia have the technological tools and maritime resources to effectively police anything but the port areas, and that is just not enough for terrorists who hide in coves and raid ships by night on the open seas.
You say Al Qaeda is intent on disrupting the global economy to level the divide between the haves and have-nots. Can the U.S. pacify Al Qaeda without proving to them that terror works?
Civilized people do not negotiate with terrorists no matter what their cause or concerns. We must simply destroy terrorism's infrastructure, and a key to doing that is to identify potential areas of threat early enough that we dismantle their enterprises before they have an opportunity to complete their training or fully develop their instruments of terror (like tanker ships laden with radioactive materials and explosive fuels.)
What do you recommend we. do to prevent a seaborne attack?
At the moment, the U.S. is working with authorities in key foreign ports to check cargo containers for illicit materials before the ships depart for U.S. destinations. But that does not address the fundamental strategy of terrorist groups that want to make the vessels themselves the instruments of terror, much as commercial airliners were converted into flying missiles on September 11th.
The U.S. needs to develop a comprehensive strategy for naval monitoring and intervention that deploys our vast advantage in maritime high technology at the five strategic choke points in global maritime waterways (the Suez and Panama Canals, and the Straits of Gibraltar, Hormuz and Malaca.) Working with local governments for political reasons is important, but there's nothing like having U.S. Coast Guard-type vessels, Navy ships and elite SEAL and other types of anti-terrorist units deployed in these local environments. The U.S. also needs to press hard on international maritime organizations to clamp down on the lax procedures for registering and monitoring ownership of vessels, as well as about the backgrounds of those who work on board.
Is the international community equipped to handle threats to our waterways?
No, and there is little likelihood that the international community will have the ability to combat threats in a timely manner. Only U.S. naval resources and technology can adequately provide the infrastructure, and then local governments in the most threatened areas can add manpower and other resources (language, knowledge of the maritime geography, human intelligence) unique to each environment.
Are our leaders addressing the threat adequately?
Unfortunately not. One of the great tragedies of the post 9-11 period has been the utter complacency of lawmakers in Washington to even understand what the threats are, much less deal with them. There has not been a single hearing, either open or closed, that I know of in Congress to address maritime threats, or to present the data I've presented here, or to make the American people aware of the consequences of an attack on maritime interests far away from our shores.
We are still stuck on airline hijackings and the use of aircraft as terrorist instruments when al-Qaeda leaders, according to my sources, have moved far along in their designs to disrupt the global economy. They've internally handed over airliner attacks to the second and third-tier al-Qaeda operatives who were just trainees when 9-11 happened. The 9-11 attacks were about symbolism, with a secondary emphasis on economic disruption. The next set of attacks will emphasize economic disruption with only an eye to symbolism.
What can average Americans do?
I would ask every American reading these comments today to write a letter or make a phone call to their Congressional Representative or Senator and ask the following questions:
1. What is being done to protect U.S. ports and harbors from conventional maritime attacks, such as terrorists putting explosives on board a cargo vessel or tanker and blowing them up?
2. Is technological assistance of a significant magnitude being given by the U.S. Coast Guard, Navy and Marines to allies whose countries host these key waterways (Panama, Egypt, Singapore, Indonesia, Spain and Morocco) to help them protect against maritime terrorist attacks?
3. Has the U.S. Navy expanded and trained its elite teams to work with local authorities in preventing unauthorized diving expeditions in these environments?
4. Why is Congress not approving funding for the rapid development and deployment of new scanning technologies at seaports around the world, or at the mouths of key choke points, much the way trucks on U.S. highways now pass through checkpoints on interstate highways?
The world cannot afford a maritime disaster that shuts down a key waterway or strait. We should place heavy trade penalties on countries that either refuse our assistance or do not deploy the technologies we provide them with to combat the next generation of terrorist threats emanating from organizations like al-Qaeda.