Terror by sea: the unique challenges of port security

Cole Maxwell

The United States always has defended its borders and natural resources from harm. Unlike threats of the past, however, maritime terrorism constitutes a multifront conflict both at home and abroad. It recognizes no borders and can originate from organized groups and individuals operating inside or outside the United States. The fight against maritime terrorism, unlike conventional threats, is a complicated struggle with neither an easy nor a rapid conclusion. The U.S. maritime jurisdiction represents a daunting challenge: more than 1,000 harbor channels with 25,000 miles of inland intracoastal and coastal waterways that serve 361 ports containing more than 3,700 passenger and cargo terminals. Annually, the U.S. Maritime Transportation System manages over 2 billion tons of freight, 3 billion tons of oil, more than 134 million ferry passengers, and an estimated 7 million cruise ship travelers. The dimensions of the extraordinarily difficult task confronting the United States center on an estimated 7,500 foreign ships, manned by 200,000 sailors, entering U.S. ports every year. The more than 6 million intermodal cargo containers that enter annually represent two-thirds of the total value (as opposed to tonnage) of all U.S. maritime trade. (1) Monitoring the intricate waterways, ports, and interstate connections falls to the marine enforcement officers in the field.


Perhaps, a review of the ports on the Mississippi River can put the challenge these officers face into proper perspective. The lower 255 miles of the Mississippi River, from the mouth to Baton Rouge, contain 4 of the top 11 ports in the country. The Port of South Louisiana, located between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, encompasses a total of 54 miles, while the Port of New Orleans includes 33 miles of the river. The Port of Greater Baton Rouge comprises 85 miles, and the Port of Plaquemines, located south of New Orleans, covers over 80 miles of the Mississippi River. Of particular interest is the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, internationally known as the LOOP, located about 18 nautical miles south of Grand Isle. The nation’s only offshore deepwater port, it can handle 100,000 barrels of oil an hour, or 2.4 million barrels per day, and services over 30 percent of this country’s refineries. Such a valuable resource as the Mississippi River obviously requires protection from the threat of maritime terrorism.

Piracy Connection

A report on piracy and other criminal attacks at sea highlighted the vulnerability of shipping to terrorist attacks. “Today’s pirate is tomorrow’s terrorist and one can foresee that a nexus will ultimately develop between terrorist organizations and pirates. Both are acts of violence against innocent people, one done for monetary gains and the other perhaps for a political purpose. Since piracy is largely undertaken for a commercial gain, pirates will not hesitate to carry out a terrorist act if someone pays them enough and they have a reasonable chance of getting away.” (2) This nexus cannot be ruled out. After all, if terrorist groups are to sustain their operations, they likely will tend toward mounting suicide attacks on commercial and military vessels for such purposes as–

* procuring alternative revenue for their main initiatives (i.e., simple piracy);

* carrying out suicide attacks on unsuspecting ships or ports in the spirit of September 11;

* smuggling weapons and explosives to their affiliates in other parts of the world, probably by hijacking a ship before renaming and otherwise disguising its identity and providing a new crew and manifest;

* seeking ransoms and trading hostages for members of their groups detained by authorities; and

* placing mines aboard innocent-looking tugs and barges, commonly found in the coastal and intracoastal waters and ports of the United States.

As an example, the Strait of Malacca, the world’s busiest waterway, provides passage to more than one-third of the global trade. The number of vessels that ply the waters ranges from 50,000 to 330,000 each year. Geographically, the Strait of Malacca is 500 nautical miles in length and extremely narrow, especially along its southern half where it ranges from a mere 20 nautical miles wide to as little as 9 nautical miles at the southern end. A terrorist attack on a steamer could endanger the lives of its crew, threaten the safe passage of other vessels and the lives of their crews, and disrupt maritime traffic along the straits, crippling regional and international trade.

Post-September 11 World

Before the tragic events of September 11, marine enforcement officers received specialized training to combat drug smuggling and illegal immigration and to protect America’s natural resources and environment. Today, however, because of the threat of maritime terrorism, the need for advanced, specialized, and tactical training of these officers has become far more critical.

As the tip of the spear, the U.S. Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) are tasked with the protection of America’s ports. One of the Coast Guard’s principal missions involves safeguarding U.S. ports and waterways, whereas the primary mission of CBP is to inspect cargoes and cargo containers entering U.S. ports. (3) To meet the unprecedented challenges facing them, the Coast Guard and the CBP have allocated additional workers to their respective port- and cargo-security missions and have initiated several programs designed to tighten security not only of port areas but also of merchant ships, the cargoes they carry, and their crews.

The United States has taken the common-sense approach of detecting and deterring potential threats long before they escalate into clear and present dangers. In the maritime arena, this requires “identifying and intercepting threats well before they reach U.S. shores.” (4) This strategy supports national-level objectives while recognizing the uniqueness of the maritime environment, including the difficulty associated with the shared use of oceans and waterways.


Denying the use and exploitation of the maritime domain by terrorists as a means to attack U.S. territory, population, and critical infrastructure requires increased maritime domain awareness (MDA) and enhanced security operations. Currently, the U.S. maritime domain is protected via intelligence information and layered, multiagency security operations nationwide, including the strengthening of the security posture and reduction of vulnerability of American ports.

The first MDA consideration is the effective understanding of anything in the marine environment that could adversely affect America’s security, safety, economy, or environment. Given the physical impossibility of patrolling the entire maritime domain, building a robust MDA capability can provide national leaders, operational commanders, and maritime stakeholders the information, intelligence, and knowledge needed to make operational and policy decisions. Enhancing maritime security operations includes the reality that resources are finite and security forces must be enduring, sustainable, and flexible enough to accommodate both local and regional requirements while remaining able to adjust to changing security levels. The shifting priorities have resulted in marine enforcement units evolving into special operations as opposed to merely patrol. For example, the Coast Guard created active-duty, multimission, mobile teams with specialized capabilities to close critical security gaps in the nation’s strategic seaports. Representing just one element of the defense posture in U.S. ports, these teams augment existing Coast Guard units and law enforcement agencies as opposed to working alone. CBP also follows a forward-deployed strategy. The Container Security Initiative represents over two-thirds of all cargo containers shipped to the United States and requires, among other things, that incoming containers be screened before they depart for U.S. ports of entry, rather than after they arrive on American shores. Other national efforts include greater intelligence collection, new regulations, increased patrols, additional assets, and partnering with other law enforcement agencies and the maritime industry.

New Training

U.S. policies direct agencies in the maritime community to deter, detect, and defend against traditional and asymmetric attacks. Every federal, state, and local marine enforcement officer should have training that addresses the current trends in worldwide maritime terrorism. However, the agencies needing maritime enforcement training have limited qualified educational facilities that, in turn, have few vessels, specialized equipment, and vehicles with which to conduct training.

With this in mind, on April 6, 2004, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, Driver and Marine Division convened a Curriculum Review Conference of the Advanced Marine Law Enforcement Training Program. Protecting over 90,000 miles of U.S. coastline has become an increasingly difficult task. Therefore, the conference proposed a new curriculum to address the contemporary tactical skills required in the marine enforcement specialty. In addition, the participants recommended changing the program name to the Antiterrorism/Port Security Boat Operations Training Program. Five days in length, the program trains marine law enforcement officers, security personnel, executive protection agents, supervisors of marine units, and others in the knowledge and skills needed to deal with contemporary threats in the maritime environment. The target audience for the revised program includes federal officers and agents with marine enforcement duties or supervisory responsibilities of marine enforcement units; state and local officers who support or work closely with federal agencies involved in marine enforcement; and U.S. Department of Defense personnel involved in harbor security, marine counterterrorism, and other marine tactical operations.

The new curriculum includes several innovative courses. The Strategic Maritime Threat provides marine enforcement officers with a comprehensive review of the history of maritime terrorism, crime, and piracy with a view toward identifying relevant, current trends. Upon completion, students will have a greater appreciation of the role of enforcement agencies to prevent, deter, and mitigate threats to security in the maritime environment.

DHS Use-of-Force Policy familiarizes students with the use-of-force policy adopted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. It includes a detailed explanation of the use of force during vessel pursuits and port security evolutions.

Tactical Navigation Techniques teaches students to adapt navigational skills to a law enforcement situation. It concentrates on using radar in reduced visibility or at night to assist in pursuits and intercepts. It also trains students to use radar to assist them in enforcing security zones. Finally, the course introduces students to state-of-the-art integrated electronic navigation tools.

Defensive Boat Tactics shows students how to operate a patrol boat during maritime security operations. Knowing these skills will enhance students’ abilities to work in cooperation with the Coast Guard during these critical evolutions, improve their confidence, and increase their performance of other marine enforcement duties.

Tactical Boat Pursuits introduces students to the tactics of single- and multiple-vessel pursuits, including positioning, screening, blocking, and handing off. Students practice these tactics during underway laboratories, while a pursuit scenario in a graded practical exercise evaluates their mastery of these skills.

High-Risk Boarding trains students how to conduct tactical boarding in high-risk situations. It covers tactical techniques, such as line of fire and triangulation, as well as assessing threats and reacting appropriately. It teaches students to deal with aggressive behavior by methodically escalating the level of force necessary to bring a situation under control.


In the post-September 11 world, the threat of terrorist attacks reaches into every segment of American life, whether on land, sea, or in the air. Protecting this country’s ports and waterways constitutes a daunting challenge due to the sheer magnitude of the task.

Recognizing the scope of such an undertaking, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center has created a new training program for marine law enforcement officers who must safeguard U.S. maritime interests. Providing these dedicated men and women with the best techniques and tactics for dealing with maritime terrorists will ensure that this country remains strong and committed to countering every threat, even if it is borne on the waves.


(1) John F. Frittelli, “CRS Report for Congress,” Analyst in Transportation, RS21979 (Washington, DC, 2003), 2.

(2) International Maritime Bureau, High Seas Terrorism Alert in Piracy Report (London, 2002).

(3) James D. Hessman, “A Maritime Challenge of Staggering Dimensions,” Navy League of the United States, May 2003, 1.

(4) Admiral Thomas H. Collins, Maritime Strategy for Homeland Security (Washington, DC, 2002), 2.

Mr. Maxwell is a senior instructor in the Marine Training Branch of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia.

Mr. Blanda is a senior instructor in the Marine Training Branch of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia.

COPYRIGHT 2005 Federal Bureau of Investigation

COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group

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