When most people think about small watercraft, they probably think fondly of good times and activities like waterskiing or fishing. The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), however, thinks of how easy it would be for an attacker to weaponize one of these innocent-looking vessels, as was done in the attack on the U.S.S. Cole, and use it to wreak havoc somewhere in the United States’ vast maritime domain.
The United States has more than 95,000 miles of maritime coastline; 361 ports, including eight of the world’s 50 largest by volume; and 10,000 miles of navigable waterways on which approximately 17 million small craft operate routinely.
The economic activity carried out in and along these waters is immense. In addition to cruise ships, cargo lines, and fishing vessels that do business on the water, there are refineries, ports, and other critical infrastructure near the water. U.S. coastlines and waterways have been free of terrorist attacks, but America’s maritime assets may be the country’s soft underbelly—a vulnerable and target-rich environment for terrorists.
Within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the USCG is the lead agency for preventing maritime terrorism. Currently, the USCG assesses the waterborne improvised explosive device (WBIED) threat as “moderate,” Commander Brian P. Hill, chief of the maritime homeland security section of the USCG’s District 11, said this past May at the 9th Annual Maritime and Transportation Security Expo in Baltimore. But this type of attack is not just theoretical. It has already happened elsewhere.
The most infamous attack occurred in October 2000, when al Qaeda attacked the U.S.S. Cole, anchored in Yemen’s port of Aden. Seventeen sailors died and another 39 were injured when a WBIED piloted by two al Qaeda operatives slammed into the Navy destroyer’s hull. It’s not a scenario the USCG wants to see copied on a cruise ship in the Port of Baltimore or against a fuel tanker at the Port of Long Beach.
The sheer size of the maritime domain makes defending against this type of threat a Herculean task. In an effort to address the problem in a way that doesn’t further stress limited resources, the USCG has begun to adapt the proven Neighborhood Watch and community policing models to the water. The idea is to educate and “enlist” those 17 million small vessel operators, as well as state and local maritime personnel, so that they can be additional eyes, ears, minds, and hands for the USCG