Al Qaeda terrorists proved with the attacks in Saudi Arabia this week that they are still capable of staging simultaneous bombings. And they did so at the same time that the US is carrying out its largest public drill to test the preparedness for such an attack at home.
So far, the terrorists have used trucks - as in the 1998 bombings of the US Embassies in Africa and Monday night in Saudi Arabia, and turned airliners into weapons on Sept. 11. Now, one of the biggest concerns of authorities is that the terrorists may try the same thing with another form of transportation - ships.
Smuggling a biological or chemical weapon in a ship container could be just one approach. Another might be exploding an oil tanker at anchor, an action that might wreak devastation on petroleum ports. Or a large vessel could simply be used as a bludgeon, knocking out bridge abutments and blocking ship channels.
The issue is serious enough that on May 6 the Department of Defense held a little-noticed "Impending Storm" exercise that simulated several kinds of shipborne attacks on US cities. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz participated, as well as high-level intelligence and Coast Guard officials and congressional representatives from coastal districts.
"Maritime transportation security is one of the overarching challenges that faces the nation," says Stephen Flynn, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former commander in the US Coast Guard.
Al Qaeda has already demonstrated a capacity for operating on the water. It was a small explosives-laden boat that blew a hole in the side of the USS Cole while it lay at anchor in Aden, Yemen, in October 2000. Seventeen American servicemen were killed. Al Qaeda used the same method near the same port this past October in hitting a French oil tanker.
AL QAEDA may have already amassed a navy, of sorts. At a March 26 House hearing on terrorist organizations Rep. Chris Bell (D) of Texas asked administration officials about intelligence reports that indicate Al Qaeda could own as many as 15 cargo ships. Officials at the hearing didn't answer the question directly. But earlier this year media reports linked Osama bin Laden's group to a network of cargo freighters that could be used either in operations or for group logistics.
Most of these ships may be coastal vessels that operate in the area of the Red Sea or the Horn of Africa. Al Qaeda has been known to raise money by arms smuggling and the modern version of human slavery: "There were ships associated with bin Laden's organization [that moved] weapons, and also people," a Defense official knowledgeable in the area also notes.
Other officials confirm that US intelligence believes Al Qaeda controls at least 15 ships. Representative Bell says he's gravely concerned about port security. He represents Houston, which has an inland port with many lightly defended petrochemical plants near the water. "If one of those is bombed, and those toxic chemicals are released into the atmosphere - with that much exposed coastline the threat becomes very apparent," he says.
Since Sept. 11, much of the discussion about homeland maritime security has focused on shipping containers. Some 6 million of these big metal boxes arrive at US ports every year, and only a small fraction (3 percent) are subject to search.
The fact that thousands of pounds of illegal drugs enter the US via such containers highlights the permeability of this system. "Absent intelligence about the fact that something may be awry in a particular shipment, the chance of material getting through is very, very good," says Graham Allison, director of Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, which is holding a seminar on this subject Thursday.
But transshipment of bombs or other dangerous material is only one way ships might be used as weapons. The vessel itself could be turned into a bomb. Blowing up a ship near the inner harbors of cities built around ports, such as Baltimore, Boston, or Charleston, S.C., could cause profound physical and psychological shock. "To some extent [ships] can be the equivalent of that airliner flying into the World Trade Center," says Dr. Flynn.
Or a ship could be used to ram a critical bridge abutment in, say, Tampa, hampering the delivery of oil products. Another could be scuttled outside Norfolk, marooning Navy ships in port.
Last week's "Impending Storm" exercise was one of a series of such events that take place at the National Defense University in Washington. Its purpose was to help senior government and military officials understand what might happen after a ship-related terror attack, and to develop responses.
The exercise began with reports of a major oil spill in Houston. Participants didn't know if it was accidental or terror-related. Then, as they wrestled with whether to close the port or tighten security, the scenario expanded to include an explosion in a channel near Charleston, as well as other unspecified plots.
Participants had to worry about the economic impact of port closures as well as security. One lesson to emerge: lengthy closures could hamper the military's ability to project power. "Port security is not just homeland security. It is national security," says Col. Jim Haas, director of the Defense Secretary's Strategic Policy Forum.