“A terror attack on maritime infrastructure can cost the economy greatly,” said Kevin Cresswell.

It’s the fundamental structure of a system or organization. The basic, fundamental architecture of any system (electronic, mechanical, social, political, etc.) determines how it functions and how flexible it is to meet future requirements.

Among ’s infrastructure is the supply chain, which includes an obvious dependence on commerce through worldwide sea lanes.

“What’s worse for is the fact that most of the important straits and trade routes are controlled by Muslim countries (the Bosporus, Gibraltar, , Malacca, Hormuz, Bab al-Mandab). Likewise, the long history that Muslims have in maritime warfare and stressing crusader commerce increases the possibility of returning to that form of jihad.” That 2002 statement was made by Abu Ubeid al-Qurashi, a leader of al-Qa’ida.

In today’s economy the ocean sea lanes represent the “femoral artery” of the nation’s trade. The safety and economic security of the depend in substantial part upon the secure use of ports and marine transportation to protect this flow of goods. Ships and associated infrastructure operating within the maritime domain are largely under the ownership of the private sector and for years they have been both targets of and potential conveyances for dangerous and illicit activities.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks showed existing gaps not just in aviation and land security but in maritime transportation as well. Ships and ports are major players in global trade. Actions have been taken to improve the situation but, given the scale of maritime trade and the larger scale of commerce moving through the global supply chain in cargo containers, the task is far from complete.

A maritime-related terrorist attack could disrupt or even halt world seaborne trade and thus the global trading system. Multinational companies and trade-reliant firms have a vested interest in hastening this result because an interruption in the supply chain would keep their goods out of the market and cost them money.

So how secure is maritime trade and the inter-linked supply chain on land?

  • Over 50 percent of the world population lives within 50 miles of the sea.
  • Over 95 percent of the value of trade takes place over the sea.
  • At any one moment there are 93,000 merchant ships transporting 5.7 billion tons of cargo, in the vast, largely un-policed isolation of the world’s oceans.
  • Recent estimates of the yearly value of goods moving in seaborne international trade exceed $3.5 trillion dollars.
  • The industry is complex: An attack on a owned vessel registered in the , with Malaysian crew, traveling from to
  • Much of what occurs in the industry in respect of vessel movements, activities, cargoes, and ownership is often difficult to discern.

In the last 30 years only two percent of terrorist incidents have been in the maritime arena mostly because terrorists have been tactically conservative with little experience of the ocean. In the past there have been a profusion of accessible, land-based targets available to choose from, offering substantial returns and visibility. But as security continues to be heightened at land and air borders, restrictions on movement have led terrorists to seek alternative targets. Terrorist organizations such as al-Qa'ida could very likely launch seaborne assaults because floating targets have not been “hardened” in the same manner.

Ports were constructed to be widely accessible to facilitate speed of business.  They were built with mass storage facilities which were cost conscious not security aware. With its myriad boltholes, hiding places and cover in inshore waters and ports, the maritime environment presents an attractive opportunity for terrorists. Of all transportation, it is the most necessary for global trade and equally the most vulnerable.

Maritime infrastructure and commerce are therefore the soft underbelly of all states.  It can be attacked with little expense or endeavor and offers an array of exciting potential targets that fit the terrorists’ operational objectives of achieving mass casualties and gaining maximum media impact while inflicting catastrophic economic harm. Terrorist organizations can overcome their military and technological weaknesses through an asymmetric approach based on creative process, surprise, speed and adapting weapon systems. Disparate groups will increasingly adopt a combination of seaborne tactics and weapons originally designed for land use. It is a threat of global proportions originating from both states, non-state and non-traditional organizations that could jeopardize economic prosperity. 

Al-Qa’ida has demonstrated its ability to emulate successful tactics from groups outside its own umbrella. It may be argued that disruption rather than eruption through asymmetry itself is the basis for all successful military operations. The marine aggressor will use one of eight options: 

  • Surface approach - port access, surface swimming or small craft using blind arcs or jetties in harbors.           
  • Surface attack - standoff weapons alongside or from surface craft.
  • Underwater attack - swimmers, mini-subs, remotely operated vehicles.
  • Improvised explosive devices - (IEDs) in brown water or alongside.
  • Chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear attacks or CBRN – ingestion, absorption or explosion.
  • Aerial – Unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs, suicide attack airframes, micro lights, or small RC aircraft.
  • Cyber/psychological operations – Some terrorists have declared mastering high technology "a religious duty.”
  • Novel technology and novel explosives.

The attack could be aimed at a military vessel, commercial or a cruise liner. It may aim to disrupt oil flow through the or target a cruise liner perhaps through food or water contamination.  The threat of action may be sufficient to cause widespread economic disruption. An attack on a major U.S port is inevitable sooner rather than later and could endanger a company’s regular operations through a disruption of the supply chain.


The indirect and induced effects of a terrorist attack on a port the size of , for example, would be an economic catastrophe for the private sector. A Berkley Symposium on risk and public policy in March 2006 estimated that a 120 day closure would result in the loss of nearly $34,071 million in output and a quarter of a million job losses.

The costs associated with a prolonged and systematic disruption of the marine transportation system may be avoided by implementing tested contingency and continuity plans, which exceed industry standards. These recovery and reconstitution plans must manage risk and uncertainty within acceptable levels.

In order to balance the maritime asymmetric threat effectively, security leaders must first understand it and then react in an equally robust manner.  Security planning within the industry requires innovation and creativity in design, concept and application.

While public efforts will continue to enhance the capabilities of current systems and develop new capabilities and procedures to locate and track maritime threats and illicit activities, the private sector has a duty to pursue initiatives to maximize domain awareness, expanding and enhancing risk analysis and mitigation. Contingency and continuity plans must be developed and exercised in a coordinated manner. Effectively this “blend” of public and private maritime security activities needs to be initiated on a global scale into an integrated effort to address all maritime threats.  

SIDEBAR: Identity Management and Biometrics

Technology and applications are coming together just in time to be employed in the protection of ’s infrastructure.

For example, Aware’s biometrics software is now working with Sun Microsystems’ Java System Identity Manager to deliver personal identity verification (PIV) and other mission-critical biometric identity assurance solutions. The integration enables fingerprint-based biometric authentication for establishing single sign-on and identity federation. Bridging the gap between physical and logical access is one of the biggest challenges facing U.S. and global governments. 

Advanced biometric functionality includes:

  • Fingerprint, face, and iris autocapture and enrollment.
  • Standards-compliant formatting and parsing of interoperable biometric data structures.
  • Secure transport and archival of biometric images, templates, and metadata.
  • Biometric authentication for enterprise and Web-based
  • Connectivity with FBI IAFIS and OPM for fingerprint-based
    background checks.
  • Connectivity with card management systems and certificate authorities.