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Maritime risks extend beyond cargo ships

Maritime risks extend beyond cargo ships

WASHINGTON—Protecting against maritime terrorism requires more than focusing solely on cargo container shipping, according to a new report by the Santa Monica, Calif.-based RAND Corp.

Instead, anti-terrorism efforts need to take into account ferries and cruise ships as well, Henry H. Willis, a Pittsburgh-based RAND policy researcher who co-wrote "Maritime Terrorism: Risk and Liability," told a Capitol Hill briefing last week.

According to the report by the nonprofit policy think tank, doing so will mean focusing on improvements for screening passengers, crew and luggage, because cruise ships and ferries have to allow passengers to move freely.

Mr. Willis pointed out, however, that terrorism involving maritime targets has been relatively rare in the past 30 years. In fact, seaborne strikes have accounted for only about 2% of all international terrorist incidents during that period.

That's because operating at sea requires more resources than attacking targets on land, he said. Terrorists must be able to sail ships, mount an attack from the water and possess certain specialist abilities such as knowing how to set up underwater explosives.

But according to the report, maritime attacks could become more attractive. For example, heightened security measures on land could make terrorists view waterborne operations in a more favorable light. In addition, given that 80% of global freight moves by sea, seaborne attacks have the potential for considerable economic disruption.

While the report notes that an event such as the detonation of a nuclear bomb smuggled into a harbor via a container ship would result in a huge maritime disaster, the likelihood of such an attack is far lower than the occurrence of a less catastrophic but still damaging attack on a cruise ship or ferry. Both would be vulnerable to attacks via such methods as bombs or contamination of food supplies, noted Mr. Willis. Cruise ships resemble hotels in that they are soft targets and are associated with leisure, he added.

Turning to another aspect of maritime terrorism, Mr. Willis played down the possibility that modern-day pirates and terrorists are working together.

"There's no empirical evidence" that there is cooperation between the two criminal groups, he said. In fact, their motivations and objectives often conflict, he said.

In his remarks, Mr. Willis also said current tort law offers poor guidance on how companies that are terrorist targets can avoid negligence. There's ambiguity regarding whether specific attacks are foreseeable, according to the report.

"The potential net of defendants could be quite large," Mr. Willis told his audience.

The report itself urges policymakers to take a close look at civil liability questions associated with terrorism. They "should carefully review the scope and rationale of third-party liability for terrorist attacks, both in regard to providing reasonable compensation to victims and in setting appropriate incentives for prevention and mitigation efforts by private firms. More broadly, policymakers should consider the pros and cons of liability as a method of dealing with terrorism risks and injuries."

"Maritime Terrorism: Risk and Liability" is available at