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It’s a scenario straight from the pages of a Tom Clancy thriller: a gimlet-eyed fanatic pilots a small boat up the Potomac River toward Washington, D.C. The vessel’s hold is packed with enough explosives and radioactive material to create a dirty bomb that will contaminate huge tracts of the U.S. capital, bringing the country’s political infrastructure to its knees.
So-called “dark vessels” are not just plot devices to further the fictional career of Clancy’s CIA operative Jack Ryan. For those tasked with protecting the United States from coastal attack, they are all too real. And, given that terrorists might not pick such an obvious target as Washington, all too difficult to prevent.
“The United States has thousands of miles of shoreline and there’s a massive potential for threat,” said Kenneth Christopher, a criminal justice expert at Park University and former Port of Miami security chief.
It’s seems hard to conceive that in a post-9/11 world, any part of the United States would remain so vulnerable to attack. Indeed, since 2001 the country has locked down security at most major ports, selectively scanning inbound shipping containers before they even embark on their journey.
But while large cargo vessels fall under routine scrutiny, millions of smaller sea craft operating in U.S. waters come and go largely unmonitored.
Official figures from 2007 estimate the country has 13 million registered and 4 million unregistered recreational vessels. Add to those a 110,000-strong fleet of commercial fishing boats and thousands of tugboats and you have an immense flotilla of crafts, any one of which, in the wrong hands and with the wrong cargo, could become a brutally effective weapon.
According to Michael Bunn, a Harvard expert on global nuclear weapon controls, the wrong cargo is certainly available. There are currently at least six tons of plutonium unaccounted for in the United States (the Nagasaki bomb used six kilograms), plus whatever went missing during the break-up of the Soviet Union.
“We know some 18 to 20 cases of real theft of highly enriched uranium or plutonium,” he said. “The cases we know about we know about because the material was seized and recovered, but the obvious question is how many other cases are there out there, of what iceberg are we seeing the tip?
“Unfortunately the accounting for the nuclear material in the big programs in the United States and Russia was not the first priority during the Cold War. The first priority was to keep up with the other guy, and the accounting ended up being sufficiently poor and we may never know how much material has gone missing.”
The practicality of small vessels for use in terrorist attacks has been proven. In October 2000, 17 U.S sailors were killed when an Al Qaeda suicide squad was able to ram its explosives-laden boat into the side of Navy destroyer USS Cole while it was harbored in the Yemeni port of Aden.
In November 2008, militants used speedboats to bypass security in the Indian port of Mumbai where they carried out audacious attacks on landmark buildings, killing more than 160 people.
Security forces in the United States are, of course, only too aware of the potential danger posed by unregistered craft bearing weapons of mass destruction. In April 2008, the Department of Homeland Security produced a strategy document outlining official fears.
“Many sites of [critical infrastructure and key resources] in the maritime domain are vulnerable to small vessel attacks,” the report said. “Additionally, small vessels routinely operate within close proximity of high-profile targets such as passenger craft, large commercial or cargo vessels, military warships, major bridges, critical waterfront industries and other maritime infrastructure.”
Noting that a 2006 study valued the economic damage of a radiological attack on Los Angeles at $34 billion, the report added: “One can imagine the multi-fold consequences of a mass terrorist attack using a weapon of mass destruction, including the mass casualties, devastation to infrastructure and environmental fallout.”
The report concluded that the “complex” threat from small vessels required a “risk-based” solution. This, said Park University’s Christopher, means applying to boats the same kind of profiling used to identify potential terrorists elsewhere: monitoring behavior and patterns rather than attempting blanket surveillance.
Additional techniques involve adopting technology such as unmanned drone aircraft — currently being tested by some Coast Guard units — and promoting waterway watch schemes among the small boating community.
While the Homeland Security report admitted there was no “stand-alone” solution, those at the frontline of this potential attack route say they are largely happy with progress with clear signs that the government is giving greater urgency to the constantly evolving demands of littoral security.
“We're starting to see an increased level of prioritization and attention towards that. It's certainly an issue that's in need of greater resources,” said Kurt Nagle, president of the American Association of Port Authorities.
“One of the challenges for the Coast Guard has always been not having adequate resources, in terms of staff, money and vessels to be able to fully address waterside security at ports throughout the country. This increasing level of focus, and with that a concomitant increase in resources, will better enable the coastguard to manage those risks.”
There can never be enough vigilance though, added Harvard’s Matthew Bunn, warning that — as with terrorist threats anywhere — there is no ultimate solution to eliminating the risk from small vessel attack.
“If you're sailing a yacht up the Hudson or up the Potomac or into San Francisco Bay or into Los Angeles Harbor, no one expects you until you pull ashore. And that could prove to be too late.”
Where’s Jack Ryan when we need him?