Are you ready for a terrorist attack at sea? Is your cruise line?

It happened in San Bernardino, Colorado Springs, and Paris. But what if terrorists decided to strike at sea?

On any given day, cruise ships packed with thousands of passengers are plying the open ocean or calling at ports all over the globe. Given the recent uptick in violence, how vulnerable is the cruise industry to an act of terrorism?

It seems that no target, big or small, is off the terrorists’ list of possibilities, as long as the attacks produce mass casualties and provide shock value. Airports, jetliners, skyscrapers, embassy buildings and entire cities have been attacked with such regularity that they differ only in the terrorist groups responsible for the mayhem.

The terrorists tactics and their motives, however, are not new and have been used for decades against both military and civilian targets by such groups as ISIS, al-Qaida, the Palestine Liberation Organization, Hamas and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah. Using automatic weapons and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), these terrorists are motivated by one sole purpose: to kill as many innocents as possible.

Cruise lines are a target

The fact is that cruise ships have always been targets of terrorist plots, both at sea and on shore.

An important consideration is the increased probability in the terrorist’s strategy that the cruise ship passengers will be of Judeo-Christian faiths, the primary targets of the jihad agenda, without risking wider Muslim interests.

Most famously, in 1986 the Achille Lauro, a passenger ship, was seized by a group of four Palestine Liberation Front terrorists as the ship left port in Alexandria, Egypt. The terrorists were able to smuggle machine guns, pistols and grenades in checked luggage, and easily boarded the ship using forged documents.

The terrorists singled out American and Jewish passengers. They later were able to disable the ship’s transponder and sailed anonymously around the eastern Mediterranean. An international negotiating effort ended the odyssey of the hijacked ship, but not before one Jewish American passenger was summarily executed by the terrorists and his wheelchair-bound body was dumped overboard.

In 2015, Islamic terrorists inspired by a Tunisian nationalist group attacked cruise ship passengers as they stepped off excursion buses at the Bardo museum in Tunis, Tunisia, killing 19 people.

Tip of the iceberg

Probably lesser known, but equally significant, was a plot in 2005 by al-Qaida inspired terrorists to attack Israeli cruise ships bound for Turkey. Their plan was to attach explosives to underwater scuba scooters to ram the cruise ships. Fortunately, reliable intelligence information alerted the cruise ships of a possible threat and they diverted their port call from Turkey to Cyprus.

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After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, al-Qaida had plans to attack the most famous of cruise ships, the Queen Mary 2, as she transited the Mediterranean. The plan was foiled only after the U.S. captured Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the al-Qaida mastermind behind the plot.

The cruise industry likes to boast of its safety record, and regularly repeats its mantra that safety is their number one priority. Regardless of whether this is really true, it does not make the industry any less at risk from the ongoing scourge of Islamic jihadists, or even the threat from maritime pirates.

Is the cruise industry ready?

This begs the question: Are cruise ships and their security operations adequately prepared to respond to and, more importantly, prevent such acts?

The simple answer the cruise industry would like you to believe is: yes.

But the underlying truth is that even with a surge in pirate attacks and worldwide terror threats on the rise, the cruise industry has not altered its security paradigm in any significant way. Instead, the cruise lines have opted for selective avoidance of ports and oceans known to be at risk.

Unfortunately, the number of safe destinations and ports of call, especially in the Mediterranean, have begun to shrink as the threats increased. If cruise ships really are potential targets for terrorist plots, is there something more that should be done to protect them?

Taking precautions

The obvious idea to arm security crews onboard cruise ships was given consideration after the wave of pirate attacks in the Indian Ocean. The consensus among the cruise industry at the time was not to arm security crews on board ships. One major European line, however, favored the idea because one of their ships came under armed attack by pirates in the Gulf of Aden. Passengers allegedly threw deck chairs at the pirates as they tried to climb onto the ship from their small boats.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) emphatically stated they were not in favor of arming any ships passing through pirate waters, fearing running gun battles on the high seas. Piracy, as far as the cruise industry was concerned, after all, was a matter for the international anti-piracy patrols (which included the U.S. Navy) operating off the coast of Somalia and in the Western Indian Ocean.

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Soon, however, especially after the seizing of the Maersk Alabama in 2009, a growth industry of armed maritime mercenaries trained to repel pirate attacks, began servicing ships transiting these waters. This has seemed to stem the tide of piracy for now.

Terrorism is different

Terrorism is quite another matter when it comes to protecting cruise ships. It is impractical to safeguard cruise ships against terrorism the way ships are typically protected against pirates.

Although some anti-piracy measures may work to prevent some terrorist plots in port and at sea — like engaging fire hoses, using pirate screens (barriers designed to prevent intruders from accessing the ship’s open lower decks) — the omnipresent threat of terrorism makes arming the crew impractical.

Maritime terrorist attacks have historically included bombings such as the attack in 2004 by the Abu Sayyaf guerrilla group on Superferry 14 in the Philippines. 116 persons died after a small IED placed by a terrorist exploded and started a fire which capsized the ship.

With the creation of the 2004 International Ship and Port Security (ISPS) Code in place, it is unlikely that terrorists could smuggle arms or explosives aboard a ship the way the Achille Lauro hijackers did in 1986.

However, while the ISPS Code only prescribes minimum security standards which must be met, cruise operators can claim they are doing everything required by international law to combat both piracy and terrorism. This lets the cruise industry off the hook, so to speak.

When cruise lines are asked about security, their standard answer is that “to protect their security operations, cruise lines cannot discuss any security measures.” This answer is usually a euphemism to mean categorically no, especially in regards to arming their crews.

In reality, cruise ship security personnel most likely do not carry anything more than pepper spray. Security crews on cruise ships are generally private security guards, trained only to break up occasional bar fights, check IDs, and screen passengers at the gangways with metal detectors.

What they should do

If the cruise lines are serious about combating terrorism, they should immediately consider arming their security crews or supplementing their security staffs with professional armed security personnel. They should also proudly boast this fact to the public and put the terrorists on notice.

It is highly unlikely that the industry would ever consider doing this. The sight of armed security guards on ships would cause some passengers to question their personal safety while on a holiday cruise.

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That’s not to say they are doing nothing; quite the contrary.

The ISPS Code notwithstanding, some cruise lines have engaged in a wide range of anti-terrorism measures, short of weapons. Some measures like the Long Range Acoustic Device are already responsible for thwarting a pirate attack against the Seabourn Spirit in 2005. However, this device is not universally carried by all cruise ships, and would have limited value against a terrorist attack, especially one employing drones, underwater scooters packed with explosives, suicide bombers, or chemical or biological weapons.

The idea of placing the equivalent of air marshals on cruise ships has been brought up from time to time in response to the threat of terrorism, and is currently under consideration in a maritime security bill before Congress.

Cruise passengers would be relieved to know that, at least in U.S. ports since 9/11, the U.S. Coast Guard has placed temporary “sea marshals” on vessels which are deemed to be at risk from terrorism that are entering and leaving U.S. ports. This includes cruise ships.

Armed Coast Guard personnel on ships are a highly visible deterrent against any hijacking-type scenarios inside the harbor boundaries. Out at sea, away from the protection of the port’s ISPS measures and response capabilities of the Coast Guard, cruise ships are on their own. This is exactly where the terrorists, at least in previous examples, have planned everything from food poisoning to kamikaze-style suicide attacks.

A two-tiered strategy

From these examples, it seems that the most effective approach for the cruise industry to prepare itself against terrorism is to employ a two-tiered strategy. First, they should increase visible security on ships with an armed law enforcement presence like sea marshals. Behind the scenes, they should increase efforts to gain access to credible threat information targeting cruise ships and the ports they visit.

As recent events have proven, the terrorists’ ability to plan and swiftly carry out attacks against “soft targets” will continue. While maritime pirates seek to capture a ship and crew and hold them for ransom, terrorists only want total destruction and death.

The terrorists perceive that with just a little ingenuity and secrecy, they can succeed in killing scores of people in a single act. Unless more stringent deterrence is enacted in the cruise industry, the possibility of a serious attack against a cruise ship or port facility can’t be discounted.

Mark Gaouette

Gaouette is the author of Cruising for Trouble: Cruise Ships as Soft Targets for Pirates, Terrorists, and Common Criminals.

  • Bill___A

    I think I will continue my policy of not cruising.

  • Tom McShane

    I will join you not cruising, but it would be fun to throw stuff at pirates coming up the side of the ship–better than any video game, especially if you had a good supply of Acme anvils.

  • IGoEverywhere

    I agree that the ultimate terrorist attack will be against a cruise ship. 3000-6000 souls with 1 incident, And if you want an industry to implode, then everybody that reads this article will cancel and not cruise again; OR go to Washington DC, Paris, London, or the local movie theater. I will not cruise as they have become the vacation for Wal-Mart (ers), not like our 40+ cruise of the past 4 decades that were somewhat luxurious. Terrorism wins when we are afraid to do what our hearts tell us. No, I am not heading for Iraq or North Korea, but we are not curtailing our travels.

  • Lee

    If their security guards are paid the low-slave wages as the rest of the crews, then, no, do not arm such individuals. I doubt they are any better qualified for that gig than people hired by the TSA.

    If they hire professionals, then why not (except for the fact that these companies are so cheap)? They don’t need to be painfully obvious amongst thousands of people but what barrier would they be to an explosive device?

    Just the thought of taking a cruise is revolting – stuck on something I can’t get off of exactly when I want to; yes, I know I can’t flee a plane when I want to but out in the middle of the ocean – nope, the idea is just so unappealing.

    Yes, it would be the sort of incident that would likely kill an entire industry if such an attack were to happen. Which rather makes me think that perhaps the cruise companies are better prepared than I imagine them to be.

    There is no completely safe place in the world – I think that has become painfully apparent and all we can do is adjust to the security measures that get implemented and get on with our lives. I continue to travel where I want to go and just grin and bear it with the security, some of which is laughably obvious in its ineffectiveness – nevertheless….It is a new world.

  • sirwired

    I don’t agree with the leap of logic here.

    – The cruise lines were asked if the crews were armed. They responded “no comment”. (Which is totally the answer I would give, no matter if they were armed or not.)

    You then go on to write: “If the cruise lines are serious about combating terrorism, they should immediately consider arming their security crews or supplementing their security staffs with professional armed security personnel.”

    To use a legal term cribbed from Law and Order: “Assumes facts not in evidence.”

    – “They should also proudly boast this fact to the public and put the terrorists on notice.

    It is highly unlikely that the industry would ever consider doing this. The sight of armed security guards on ships would cause some passengers to question their personal safety while on a holiday cruise.”

    So, you are saying that the cruise lines should take measures to scare passengers? The whole point of terrorism isn’t the taking of life… it’s right there in the word; the point is “terror”. I can’t think of a better way of doing their job for them than by supplementing the rent-a-cops with heavily (and openly) armed rent-a-soldiers.

    – “Behind the scenes, they should increase efforts to gain access to credible threat information targeting cruise ships and the ports they visit.”

    What exactly did you have in mind? “Do more” isn’t real specific. Collecting intelligence on armed threats is properly the job of governments (It’s kind of the WHOLE REASON we have intelligence agencies.) I know! Maybe we should have an organization dedicated to collecting information on threats on the proverbial high seas. Oh, wait, we already have that… it’s called, appropriately enough, the Office of Naval Intelligence, and it operates out of a very large office building in Maryland shared with other parts of the Intelligence community.

  • Jeff W.

    It will not kill the industry.

    Just a couple of years ago we had several incidents very close together. A ship running aground off the coast of Italy, norovirus outbreaks, and a few losing power which made sanitary conditions unbearable.

    After awhile, the industry recovered. Put in some great sales along with some successful voyages and all will be well again.

  • RightNow9435

    I have never taken a cruise….just not my style of traveling. But I would not give up cruising for the reasons in this article, as something similar could happen at the grocery, the football game, Disneyland, etc.

  • RightNow9435

    Not curtailing here either……will live as I wish, not in fear

  • JewelEyed

    Is there a reason people of Christian faith would be more of a target than atheists or other religions? You’re aware that existing theocracies take great pleasure in executing atheists, right? I understand why people of Jewish faith would be a bigger target due to historical and current geopolitics, but the rest really doesn’t make any sense to me.

  • Jadeveon Clowney

    I was thinking the same thing. I thought this was a pretty biased article.

  • LonnieC

    I believe there was a recent terrorism event where Christians were separated from non-Christians and then executed. They were singled out because of their religion. And of course, Jews are tops on terrorists’ lists, as we always have been. The sad fact is, religion has become a factor in too many acts of terror.

  • Lindabator

    Just choose better cruise lines — Azamara – Oceania – Crystal

  • Linedancer29

    Wow, you summarized perfectly why we’ve stopped cruising, too. It has become a cattle call and a nickle and dime fest. Not what it used to be at all.

  • Elliott

    I used to think that Pirates were something of make believe. As a kid, I dressed up as a Pirate a couple of times for Halloween but don’t ever remember playing Pirates.

    Later on as a charter boat Skipper and owner, I had boat insurance with Loyd’s of London. In the policy was a War and Pirate exclusion that was not covered by the policy. At the time, I thought this was quite strange as I thought there was no such thing as a real Pirate in this day and age…

    During my time in the Merchant Marine sailing as an Ordinary Seaman on the Viet Nam sea lift. I came face to face with Pirates on our Tramp Freighter the SS Old Westbury at anchor in Manila Bay in the Philippians. In the dark of the night, several Pirates were trying to climb up our anchor chain to board our ship!!!

    We had armed Philippine Guards on board our ship that were able to chase the Pirates off our ship and back to their canoes and into the darkness. Came to find out that the Pirates were probably after the ships cash that was carried to pay our crew and supplies along the way. They were also after our small stores of cigarettes and supplies. In the news at that time, a ship was found to have been captured and abandoned up an isolated river off Manila Bay. The ships crew were all dead.

    Sailing along the coast of Viet Nam, I often wondered if Pirates would be-able to board our slow moving WWII era ships by coming along side with speed boats and grappling hooks, Just as the Somalia Pirates are doing to this day. When we were traveling the Saigon River and anchored in Viet Nam waters, we had armed US Army Guards. Other wise, we were unarmed.

    After my run in with the Pirates of Manila Bay in 1967, I no longer thought of them as mythical make believe. Shortly after my encounter with Pirates, the US Naval Ship Pueblo was high jacked off North Korea. The US cargo ship SS Mayagues was captured by Pirates in the Straits of Malacca in Indonesia and later taken back by the US Marines. The Strait’s of Malacca have been a haven of Pirates for years.

    I am glad to see that the Pirates are now getting the media coverage that they deserve and not the romantic image of the movies and books…

    Been there, done that,

  • jim6555

    Enough is enough with this terrorism fear. A terrorist act could happen anytime, anywhere. I could board a city bus which could be taken over by terrorists. I can go to a movie theater and be shot at by a crazed lunatic. Or I could go to pray at a house of worship which could be attacked by someone who believes that his/her religion is the correct way to heaven and that mine isn’t.

    Since terrorist acts are so rare and random, I just go on with my life knowing that there is an infinitesimal probability that I will fall victim to an act of terrorism just as there is an infinitesimal probability that I will be struck by lightning or be hit by a car driving up onto the sidewalk.

  • Jadeveon Clowney

    I see that this site has taken to editing portions of people’s comments.
    Not cool. I had left a line in my comment from yesterday saying that I thought this article was biased. They took that out. They left only “I was thinking the same thing.” What’s going on, guys?

  • Grant Ritchie

    Hi Jadeveon,

    “They” is me, Grant Ritchie, the moderator. And yes, I do edit comments that violate our comments policy… including yours.

    Here’s a link to our FAQ about comments:

    Here’s the specific section your comment violated:

    We offer the option of commenting to responsible readers who want to say something about the topic of a story. We only publish comments related to the subject of a post. Remarks about a headline, illustration, author, or an author’s approach to the topic — in other words, anything not directly related to the subject — are best sent to us as a letter to the editor.

    And here’a link to our “Letter to the editor form”:

  • JewelEyed

    So what I get out of Grant’s response, because frankly, I’d never have known that was a rule based on the way I don’t see it enforced most of the time (unless it’s brand new), is that instead of writing that, perhaps point out the content of the article you specifically take issue with and explain why.

  • JewelEyed

    I don’t know about that. The only one I see is the one about a Kenyan bus attack, and the “non-Christians” were Muslims. The Muslims refused to identify themselves to protect the Christians and told them to either shoot everyone or no one. You might have to be more specific because that’s the only one I’m finding.

  • Grant Ritchie

    Yeah, it’s new. We’re trying to make the Comments a kinder, gentler place where everyone can feel comfortable. Chris created the new FAQs for comments, and has tasked me with enforcing them fairly. Yesterday, for example, we had a commenter who, in one comment, took a shot at the article, a shot at the comments, a shot at the commenters, and a shot at Chris. That’s the kind of thing we’re trying to put a stop to. We won’t always get it right, but I hope we get points for trying.

  • JewelEyed

    The only part that I wonder about is the bit about remarks about the author’s approach to the topic. I can understand people being asked to restrain comments of that sort to questions or otherwise thoughtfully and politely presenting concerns.

    There have been a number of articles in the past on which commenters understandably questioned the tone taken on the subject and the fact that the issue was handled in a very one-sided fashion, not in a matter of opinion, but in the presentation of facts. Sometimes the comments were counterproductive, but not always.

    I’m concerned something may be lost if even the constructive comments can’t yield a discussion, but are limited to individual people sending messages to the editor. But it’s not my sandbox, it’s yours.

  • LonnieC

    I just googled “terror attack where christians were singled out and executed” and the second site had an extensive list of attacks on Christians.

  • JewelEyed

    That site is extremely biased and obviously Islamophobic. I obviously can’t accept that as a factual source.

  • LonnieC
  • JewelEyed

    “Of course, Christians aren’t the only ones who have suffered at the
    hands of such organizations. For example, most victims of ISIS are
    fellow Muslims who refuse to go along with the ISIS worldview and
    ruthless tactics.” – NBC News

  • LonnieC

    But we’ve gone a little off topic. I never suggested that Muslims weren’t in danger. I merely intended to support the position that Christians have been singled out in some of the terrorist acts. Clearly, everyone is a potential target of terrorists, but there have been a number of instances where Christians were singled out. I meant nothing more, nothing less.

  • JewelEyed

    It’s not really about what you personally meant or didn’t, it’s more my response to the article. No sweat, no drama.

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