TCS Daily

Terrorism in Ship Shape

By Russell Seitz - August 6, 2004 12:00 AM

Basking on New England's beaches this time of year, you'll find a few of the old cold warriors once tasked with thinking about the unthinkable. Even lying on the sand, they can point to how terror strikes where vigilance fails. Sky gazing surfers get wiped out by rogue waves rising up behind them.

Despite obsessive airport security, ships outnumber planes 2 to 1, and even one barge can carry more than a fleet of a jumbo jets. The free passage of a billion-ton armada of 40,000 merchant vessels makes freight so cheap that we drink bottled water from Fiji. Even fertilizer circles the globe by the kiloton. Terror's bottom dollar favorite, explosive ammonium nitrate, is a common cargo far more hazardous than liquefied natural gas.

A ship's machinery is dual-use technology incarnate. Compressors that refrigerate can be modified to liquefy air, and liquid oxygen can transform a cargo of charcoal or coal dust into the powerful blasting agent Cardox. Even an empty vessel could fill its hold with ammonium nitrate at sea -- air, water, and energy, are all it takes.

In living memory, seaports have been devastated, and thousands killed, by cargos detonating aboard ships whose International Maritime Organization papers were in perfect order. It makes one wonder if the latest documents touted to stop marine terror can do better than letters of marque and reprisal did in the days of the buccaneers. The foremost Islamic terrorists of the age of sail, the Barbary Pirates, had credentials galore, but their crews of Meds with clubs preferred to arrive unannounced with false flags flying.

Al Qaeda is accomplished in the art of making ships invisible. No one has traced the one that paused between Mombassa and Zanzibar in 1998 to offload the explosives that destroyed two American embassies. As the wakes of vessels of veiled ownership cross, and re-cross, registry can shift, names can be repainted and silhouettes altered. Shipping agents choose crews that can change in every port from among the world's large cast of shady waterfront characters. Just who's on deck is as opaque as their intentions.

Hurricanes, fishermen and drug smugglers aside, coast guards must track 40,000 floating walnut shells and an unknown number of peas. Little wonder 400 Al Qaeda members have been nabbed ashore in Pakistan, while 15,000 interceptions and 200 boardings by NATO naval forces have yielded only 19 fugitives at sea.

Testifying to the House Judiciary Committee on The Comprehensive Antiterrorism Act of 1995, I related measures to help track or defuse deadly cargos. But lobbyists, including an ex-FBI explosives expert, made it clear low prices (a million dollars will fill a tramp steamer with a virtual Hiroshima) leave little margin for them. Even today, ship owners oppose GPS transponders that reveal a vessel's location to competitors.

Another sort of navigational aid poses a worse problem.

Lighthouses may seem unlikely arsenals for terror, but hundreds powered by radioisotopes were left unguarded by the Soviet Union's bankrupt navy. Each contained a canister of reactor fission waste in ferociously concentrated form -- pounds of pure strontium 90 and cesium 137. Some of these ideal and transportable dirty bomb cores are missing, each small enough to send ashore under the radar -- and indeed the bows -- of the most vigilant harbor patrol.

The ton of fertilizer that rattled the World Trade Center a decade before 9-11 barely got our attention. Two years later, two more tons leveled the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Yet the bulk trade in ammonium nitrate continues.

Despite 9-11, last spring a million pound cargo of ammonium dynamite bound for a post office box in the Sudan cruised the Mediterranean for six weeks, aboard a Balkan rust bucket crewed by Azeris and Ukrainians, registered in the (U.S.!) Marshall Islands, and flying the Comoro Islands flag.

Flags of convenience, invented to confuse the issue of wartime neutrality, are a boon to stateless terrorists because many belong not to nations, but corporate fictions. How the maniacs and mercenaries who helm these leaky ships of state manage to manage hundreds of millions of tons of shipping is a comedy of legal manners worthy of Gilbert & Sullivan. Ships of Bolivian registry are rarely seen migrating upstream to Lake Titicaca like lovelorn salmon, and the hallowed Liberian flag of convenience belongs to a private registry domiciled in suburban Virginia.

The Navy can interdict one kamikaze supertanker, but merchantmen using GPS can converge with precision to bowl over coastal patrol craft. Even in this election year Olympic summer, no defensive naval mines have been deployed.

If the new maritime security regime achieved 99.9% success on paper, it would still leave a megaton of shipping unaccounted for in reality. Those dozing on the sand this summer may dream of ships on the horizon sailing to Byzantium, but just one incoming from Basra could bring a rude awakening. Osama Bin Laden is certainly no Sinbad, but the Jolly Roger is still a flag of a thousand faces.


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