The Obama Administration is worried increasingly about the danger posed by homegrown terrorism. In the past year there has been the Zazi plot to blow up the Grand Central and Times Square subway stations in New York, the Christmas Day airline bomber and the attempt to detonate a car bomb in Times Square. Two of the three plotters were legal U.S.; one, Faisal Shahzad, is a 30-year-old U.S. citizen from Pakistan. In the latter two cases, U.S. intelligence and homeland security measures failed completely. Only the incompetence of the bombers prevented disaster from occurring.
Counterterrorism experts have long been very worried about the rise of homegrown threats. Just look at the impact that John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo had in the Washington area with their sniper attacks. The reasons for concern are many. Homegrown terrorists can fly beneath the radar screen, particularly if they are not traveling to known terrorist havens. Locals can readily acquire the means to carry out their plans and may be more aware than individuals coming from overseas when, where and how to deploy explosive devices to the maximum effect.
The recent plots to attack the U.S. homeland have involved transportation infrastructure targets: subways, airliners and road intersections/pedestrian walkways. These are not only highly symbolic targets but they can have serious, even devastating economic and human impacts. The Department of Homeland Security continues to spend a lot of resources in an effort to secure air transport and to reduce the threat to land lines of transportation.
One form of transportation that is not receiving much attention from security officials is this nation’s waterways. There are three main reasons for this lack of interest. First, there is the belief that terrorists like moths to a flame mindlessly go after the same targets. Since there have not been attacks on maritime transportation in the past, there won’t be in the future. The second reason for avoiding the topic is that maritime transportation networks, with a couple of exceptions, are thought to be more difficult to attack than other targets. The third reason not to focus on this area is that defending the waterways and more important maritime transportation nodes is more difficult than protecting land and air transportation nodes.
Yet, a relatively simple homegrown attack on a key maritime target could inflict enormous damage on this country. A sea mine or a waterborne bomb, the equivalent of the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that have proven so effective in Iraq and Afghanistan, in a major U.S. port could have a significant impact on sea-based commerce. This country is extremely dependent on the flow of goods through a small number of large ports such as Long Beach, New Orleans, Houston, Norfolk, Baltimore, New York/New Jersey, Seattle and Boston. In addition, the deployment of even a small device in a popular waterway such as the Chesapeake would have a major impact on pleasure boaters and require a serious response by homeland security forces. If one device is discovered port authority could not be confident that others were not around, particularly if the terrorists warned of the presence of additional devices. The “existential” threat alone could close down the port or waterway.
One reason why homegrown terrorists might attempt such an attack is that they can clearly observe the weakness of U.S. measures to protect waterways and ports. There is nothing in U.S. ports equivalent to the presence of TSA inspectors at airports, police at subway stations or even simply the cameras in Times Square. The agency responsible for securing ports and waterways, the Coast Guard, does tremendous work but is spread very thin. Moreover, it has almost no capacity to deal with sea mines or waterborne IEDs. That is the job of the U.S. Navy. Unfortunately, the Navy has only a limited and aging fleet of mine countermeasures ships and helicopters and a small cadre of explosive ordinance disposal experts.
Homeland security officials could take simple steps to lessen the threat or at least improve their ability to respond in the event of waterborne terrorism. One such step would be to conduct underwater surveys of major ports and waterways. This would create a baseline understanding of what lay beneath these waters which could be compared with a more current picture in the event a threat emerged. As a result, non-threatening objects could be easily identified and eliminated, allowing mine hunters to focus on a small set of anomalous targets. Publicizing such survey activities could even tell homegrown terrorists that they need to go elsewhere if they want to attack critical U.S. infrastructure.
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