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.

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.

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.

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.

Share this story
Share on Twitter Share on LinkedIn Share on Facebook
About the Author
Gaouette is the author of Cruising for Trouble: Cruise Ships as Soft Targets for Pirates, Terrorists, and Common Criminals.
Posted in Commentary Tagged ,

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Cavalry Travel Insurance

Cavalry takes the worry of out travel by providing 24/7 access to medical and security professionals combined with the best medical evacuation and security extraction services. Cavalry gets you home safely when you need it most. Learn more at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Enterprise Holdings

A family-owned, world-class portfolio of brands. A global network that spans across more than 85 countries. Some 97,000 dedicated team members sharing common values. And more than 1.9 million vehicles taking our customers wherever they need to go.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by InsureMyTrip

It’s simple. InsureMyTrip finds you the right travel insurance plan, every time. InsureMyTrip is the authority on travel insurance. Rated A+ for travel insurance by the Better Business Bureau. All travelers that purchase a policy through  InsureMyTrip have access to Anytime Advocates® for claims assistance.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by SCOTTeVEST

An innovative apparel brand for people who want easy access to everything they need. For those who live for every second, SCOTTeVEST lets you maximize your life. Ditch the carry-on bag and pick up a  SCOTTeVEST.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

As a company that is constantly striving to simplify travel insurance, VisitorsCoverage, is on a mission to help travelers make the better decisions about purchasing travel insurance, quickly. VisitorsCoverage has helped millions of travelers globally to buy the suitable travel insurance and explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at  VisitorsCoverage. Lowest Price Guaranteed.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International,, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.