The threat from global terrorism is mutating and some might even argue advancing far faster than has the world’s response to it. The past year has witnessed the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State and its seizure of a large swathe of territory in Syria and Iraq, the onslaught of Boko Haram in Northwest Nigeria, the overthrow of the pro-U.S. government in Yemen, chaos in Libya and the activation of sleeper cells in Europe as part of the attacks in Paris. Nor is the U.S. homeland immune as the beginning of the Boston Marathon bomber’s trial reminds us. We are facing a new type of terrorism, what some experts are calling Terrorism 3.0.
Terrorism 3.0 has shown remarkable facility at exploiting modern networks and communications media for its purposes. The new terrorists have used social media as a propaganda and recruiting tool. They have conducted cyber attacks on Western institutions, most recently Central Command’s Facebook and Twitter accounts. They are constantly looking for new ways to attack Western organizations and particularly the global transportation and trade networks.
The one major global network that the terrorists have not yet gone after is ocean-going freight. Bulk cargoes such as oil, ores and grains are carried in the holds of cargo vessels and tankers. Most semi-finished and finished goods are carried in twenty-foot metal boxes called TEUs on container ships. These are the same containers that are carried on railcars and pulled by large diesel trucks. Modern cargo vessels can carry between 5 and 19,000 TEUs internally and stacked on their decks. Some 200 million TEUs moved across the world’s oceans last year. The Port of Long Beach alone received over 3,500,000 loaded TEUs in 2014.
Counterterrorism experts have long worried that maritime transportation, particularly the traffic in TEUs, could provide a difficult to detect avenue for the delivery of a weapon of mass destruction to U.S. shores. That is why since 2007 there has been a law on the books that the Department of Homeland Security pursue the goal of screening 100 percent of all cargo bound for the United States by the end of 2011. While some progress has been made towards this goal, the reality is that cargo screening today is largely a paper exercise, relying on shippers to provide manifests of what is contained in cargo bins or TEUs. Less than one percent of cargo containers, whether traveling by air or on ships, are actively inspected or scanned with a detector. Sending a bomb in the cargo hold of a commercial airliner or cargo ship might seem to the terrorists like a pretty sure thing.
A weapon of mass destruction or radiological device going off in a U.S. port would cause incalculable physical and economic damage and could result in the loss of tens of thousands of lives. The impact on international trade could be even worse. In the wake of 9/11 the U.S. government initially grounded all flights over the United States. It took about a year to reopen Reagan National Airport. After the Deepwater Horizon Disaster, all U.S. deep water drilling was halted for two years while safety measures were reviewed and upgraded. In the absence of 100 percent cargo screening, even a failed attempt to smuggle a device into the U.S. could bring international trade to a complete halt. Closing U.S. ports for weeks, much less months or years would cripple our economy.
Government officials and some in the shipping industry have opposed the 100 percent screening mandate much less active scanning of all inbound cargoes as impossible to implement and too costly. This would be true if such a system had to rely on old technologies such as radiation portal monitors.
However, a new technology exists, one that is easy to deploy and cheap to operate. Using this technology, the global cargo system could be rendered extremely safe. I am referring to the Multi-Mode Passive Detection System (MMPDS) created by Decision Sciences International Corporation which offers to revolutionize the business of cargo screening. The MMPDS relies on naturally-occurring high energy neutron particles as its source and a simple detector array to measure the change in the path of the particles based on their interactions with the material inside the container. Dense materials such as uranium, plutonium or high explosives cause greater changes in the paths compared to less dense materials and are thus easily detected. Because the system is passive, meaning it doesn’t have to generate high energy particles such as x-rays, it is fast, relatively cheap, extremely accurate, safe and easy to operate. The estimated cost for the MMPDS is around $10 per TEU which carry, on average, $67,000 in cargo per trip.
It is time to get ahead of the terrorist threat, rather than always closing the loopholes after the bad guys have exploited them. It is only a matter of time before Terrorism 3.0 figures out that putting a weapon on a cargo carrier is an easy way to slip it into the United States. Now is the time to forestall that possibility by deploying the MMPDS at all major ports.
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