In an effort to stop the possibility of a terrorist attack on U.S. waters, Coast Guardsmen will become more like cops on the beat, a Coast Guard commander said yesterday at a maritime security expo.
BALTIMORE - In an effort to stop the possibility of a terrorist attack on U.S. waters, Coast Guardsmen will become more like cops on the beat, a Coast Guard commander said yesterday at a maritime security expo.
As part of the Coast Guard program Operation Focused Lens, Coast Guardsmen will eventually fan out across the nation’s waterways documenting marinas and boat ramps, training boaters in reporting suspicious activities, and conducting more random patrols and small-boat boardings at high-risk boat ramps and marinas, according to Commander Brian Hill, chief of the Eleventh Coast Guard District’s Maritime Homeland Security Section.
“This is all about interrupting the terrorist planning cycle,” Hill said at the Maritime & Transportation Security Expo inside the Baltimore Convention Center. The program, which is currently underway in California and has recently been rolled out in Baltimore, has been selected as a best practice by the Department of Homeland Security in a recent report (.pdf) and is anticipated to go nationwide.
The program’s mission is to stop terrorists from launching a successful attack using small vessels on U.S. waterways and coastlines like they have overseas, particularly off the coast of Yemen.
“The real threat is just a small boat loaded with an explosive ramming into the side of a vessel like it did to the U.S.S. Cole,” said Hill.
While that attack might be the most memorable to Americans, terrorists have launched other water-borne-improvised-explosive-device attacks since the Cole attack in Yemen’s port of Aden. Nearly two years after the Cole attack, terrorists used the same attack method and crashed an explosive-laden boat into a French oil tanker, the MV Limburg, killing one crew member and spilling 90,000 barrels of oil in the Gulf of Aden . The only Coast Guardsman killed during the war in Iraq died guarding an oil terminal in Basra that was attacked by al Qaeda in Iraq . Hill also noted that the November 2008 terrorist assault on Mumbai qualifies as a maritime attack, even though the attack occurred on land, because the terrorists came to shore on small vessels.
Operation Focused Lens fits neatly into the post-9-11 landscape of intelligence-led policing that aims to detect and disrupt terrorist attacks before they can go operational. According to Hill, once a terrorist successfully hits the water with arms and explosives, it’s nearly impossible to stop an attack.
“If there is a vessel on the water with a bomb on it heading for a ship, they’re going to be successful,” Hill said. “Even if we’re there, even if we’re escorting the ship, there’s a 99 percent chance that even if we’re shooting at that small boat with our machine guns that they’re...going to be successful.”
Focused Lens, however, seeks to establish a network of aware citizens and Coast Guard processes to detect and disrupt an attack before it can occur. Before Operation Focused Lens was implemented in California, Hill said, the Coast Guard simply didn’t visit marinas. Now Coast Guardsmen in the state regularly visit high-risk marinas and establish relationships with marina operators and live-a-boards in the hope of receiving suspicious activity reports.
Coast Guardsmen also assess the security measures marinas take as well as whether the marina is close to attractive terrorism targets--like cruise ship terminals or chemical facilities--to determine how frequently to conduct random patrols and boardings around that marina.
The resulting relationships and suspicious activity reports have already helped District 11 Coast Guardsmen discover meth labs, boat thieves, poaching, drunken boat races, and maritime copper thefts.
Hill believes a vigilant citizenry could have helped prevent the Mumbai attacks from occurring and he’s hoping his program can maximize that possibility in the United States.
“There were Indian fisherman that saw this unusual activity, but they didn’t report it,” Hill said. “If they had reported it, maybe India could have done something. That [is] the focus of Operation Focused Lens, getting people to report.”
♦ Photo by momentcaptured1/Flickr