Cruise Security Update - 2007

| January 8, 2007
Ports and ships are better-protected today than ever before.

This past weekend, (January 7, 2007) there was a security incident at the Port of Miami: A man driving a container truck tried to enter the port with improper credentials. When he gave inconsistent statements about his business there, port authorities searched the truck and found two other men of Middle Eastern nationalities hiding inside the cab. By the time the incident ended, what first appeared to be a terrorist threat turned out to a documented worker trying to make time by unloading a truck on Sunday with the help of friends. But when real terrorism strikes there is nothing funny about it.

As I was in south Florida for a cruise out of Miami last week, I also wanted to visit the Port Everglades cruise facilities in Fort Lauderdale, 30 miles north of Miami. At Port Everglades, we encountered a new security system -- every car was stopped outside the port and all passengers had to show identity documents and cruise tickets to prove they had a reason to go inside. Because we did not have official business at the port that day, we were instructed to turn around and drive away.

This heightened security at Port Everglades was news to me; I have been through this port many times, but not in the last two years. I certainly understand the need for such security, however, and I was glad to see it even if it did dampen my plans. So, I was equally surprised the next day when we were able to drive right up to the cruise ship terminal in Miami (30 miles south) without being stopped or questioned. Both ports host about five cruise ships a day, and as many as a dozen on some days, but right now Miami's cruise terminal security requirements are completely different from the cargo side of the port, and especially different from Port Everglades' procedures.

Thus, I was not entirely surprised to hear about the incident at the Port of Miami yesterday after I returned home. I now believe it is just a matter of time before the security requirements we saw in Ft Lauderdale for passenger vessels are put in place in Miami, and other Florida ports, as well.

Ft. Lauderdale's Security Rules for Port Everglades

The following is taken from the official guide to Port Everglades:

    Pursuant to federal, state and local law, all persons entering Port Everglades are subject to following various rules and regulations to help ensure safety and security. These include:
  1. All visitors must be invited guests of a specific Port Everglades business, tenant or agency.
  2. Visitors shall be authorized access only to the area specific to their port business. Unauthorized roaming through the Port is prohibited.
  3. Visitors must present valid government-issued photo identification (such as a current driver's license or passport) and comply with periodic vehicle screening at the Security Checkpoint upon arrival.
  4. Visitors, with the exception of ticketed cruise passengers, will obtain Visitor ID badges issued by the Broward Sheriff s Office at one of the checkpoints upon entry to the Port. The Visitor ID Badge is self-expiring at 23:59 on the date received.
  5. Visitor ID badges must be affixed to the upper, outer garment and clearly visible at all times.
  6. At the checkpoint, visitors will receive a placard to be placed on the driver's side of the dashboard - unobstructed and visible - for inspection.
  7. Do not leave vehicles unattended in No Parking zones, fire lanes or passenger drop-off areas by the cruise terminals.
  8. Visitors entering a Restricted Access Area must display a Port-issued visitor badge and be escorted at all times by an individual with a restricted access area badge for that location.
  9. While on Port Everglades property, all persons are subject to local, state and federal regulations.
  10. Report any suspicious activity to the Broward Sheriff's Office at Port Everglades 954-765-4511.

Past Cruise Ship Terrorism Incidents In the old days (the 1980s), anyone could walk aboard a cruise ship docked in port just to look around, have lunch, and say goodbye to those sailing away. Onboard, you could request a tour of the bridge and might be invited inside on the spot. Not any more; new federal laws mandate heightened security at ship terminals, and rightfully so. But in fact, there has not been a major - or even a minor - terrorist incident on a cruise ship or ferry since the 1980s.

In 1985, the Achille Lauro was hijacked in waters between Alexandria and Port Said (both in Egypt). The four hijackers, representing the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF), took control of the liner, presumably in response to Israel's bombing of the PLO headquarters in Tunis.

The hijackers' plan was upset when a crew member caught on to them, so they held passengers and crew hostage and directed the captain to sail to Tartus, Syria. They demanded the release of 50 Palestinians then in Israeli prisons. Refused permission to dock at Tartus, the hijackers shot wheelchair-bound American Leon Klinghoffer - reportedly because he was Jewish -- and threw his body overboard. The ship headed back towards Port Said, and after two days of negotiations the hijackers agreed to abandon the liner for safe conduct; they were flown towards Tunisia aboard an Egyptian commercial airliner.

When the news of Klinghoffer's murder emerged, the plane was intercepted by United States Navy fighters and directed to land at a NATO base in Sicily, where the hijackers were arrested by the Italians after a disagreement between U.S. and Italian authorities.

In an odd conclusion to the incident, the family of Klinghoffer sued the PLO for his death and the suit was dropped when the PLO paid an undisclosed sum to his daughters. The terrorists said that Klinghoffer was shot not primarily because he was Jewish, but because he was acting in a disruptive and non-cooperative manner.

The PLO has also been held responsible for an attack on a Greek ferry sailing a 30-mile route between Greek islands in 1988. This more serious incident involved nine gunmen sneaking automatic rifles and hand grenades aboard, then opening fire in a public area, scaring people into jumping overboard. Nine tourists died - most from hitting the running propellar. The weapons were reportedly supplied by a Libyan organization, and though Libya has a long history of spawning self-employed pirates, the country is no longer considered the hotbed or terrorist activity it was back then. In fact, several cruise ships have been scheduling stops there for the last few years (although the admittance of U.S. passport holders has been an on-again, off-again affair during 2006).

But speaking of pirates, there was an incident involving the Seabourn Spirit in November, 2005, in which two small boats approached the ship off the coast of Somalia at 5:30 a.m. and fired upon it with rifles and a rocket propelled grenade launcher. This was not regarded as a terrorist incident, however, because it was not a pre-planned attack and there were no known political motives on the part of the criminals.

The boats contained modern day pirates taking advantage of the lack of governmental supervision in the war torn nation. The world had been warned these pirates were operating in Somali national waters by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) and the captain admitted he made an error in getting too close to shore. This one incident resulted in no passenger casualties, though some bullets did penetrate the hull and enter staterooms.

The onboard security did a great job of keeping passengers out of harm's way and the pirates were never able to actually board the ship. The captain took evasive actions by speeding up and first turning into the small boats to deflect them before he turned the opposite way and made haste back into international waters. A high-tech "sonic cannon" manned by a Gurkha security officer, was used in this incident; a device that emits a very loud, high pitched, highly directional siren-like sound. This one crew member had minor injuries.

This was the first attack on a luxury cruise liner in the area, though at least 23 hijackings and attempted seizures had been recorded off the Somali coast that year including two ships carrying aid for the UN World Food Program.

Cruise Ship Security Today Today's security on cruise ships is much better than in the 1980s, or even five years ago for that matter. For this reason, cruise ships have not been a target for actual terrorist plots since these two incidents, even on the smallest level. Not even a lone "shoe-bomber" has been arrested.

Every major cruise ship now creates picture ID cards of every ticketed passenger during embarkation. The ship security officers use these picture IDs to track the transit of every passenger at every port. In addition, modern cruise ships have metal detectors and x-ray machines to inspect every person and package entering the ship in every port, including crew members. It is very difficult for anyone to stow away or sneak a metallic weapon aboard a cruise ship today.

But even more importantly, cruise lines have been employing security officers to man the gangways and sail on ships for years, but in the last decade a special breed of cruise line security officers has evolved. Many of these security officers are descended from a line of Nepalese fighters known as Gurkhas. These Nepalese Gurkhas, with their centuries-old traditions of old and modern techniques, are highly respected both for hand-to-hand combat and munitions handling.

Gurkhas were first encountered by western civilization in the 1800s when the British conquered Nepal. The Brits respected the Nepalese rulers of Gurkhan descent so much that they hired them as mercenaries and created special Gurkha brigades in the British army. The city of Singapore today has a special Gurkha Contingent within its police force charged with top security details.

Thanks to the Coast Guard A very special mention must be given to the Coast Guard who works especially hard in patrolling the waters close to cruise ports. I have eyewitness accounts by cruise ship passengers of events that don't get media play because they turn out to be routine. For example, on my last cruise (on Jan 3, 2007) a small boat was reported as "following us" by some passengers, according to an announcement made by the captain. He went on to say that he had contacted the Coast Guard who dispatched a fighter jet to check the boat out. Some of the passengers I talked to described the jet as a non-combat "Gulfstream Type." A CruiseMates' staffer, Mike Mastellar says he saw a similar jet in a similar event in 2004.

Why Not Cruise Ships? Another possible reason why cruise ships are virtually incident-free is that they do not represent or symbolize the prime targets for terrorist attacks - national governments. Most cruise ships are registered in neutral nations like Panama or Liberia (an African nation with a 20% Islamic population). The largest shareholders of most cruise lines other than Carnival Corp. are citizens of Norway, the Netherlands or other neutral European nations. Most cruise ship workers are non-U.S. citizens, and many are Indonesian -- the world's largest Islamic nation. Assuming the rationale of a terrorist act is to sway or embarrass an opposing government, in the long run an attack on a cruise ship would be a public relations disaster for a terrorist group, as the attack on the Achille Lauro is generally regarded to this day.

As for Carnival, as every Miami resident knows, it was founded by one of the most successful and well-connected Israelis in history. One could speculate on the possible repercussions of a terrorist attack on a Carnival ship, but the people who would suffer in any ship attack are not the usual terrorist targets -- any more than the airlines or the people onboard the jet who hit the pentagon were the targets of 9/11. The hijacked jets of 9/11 became weapons themselves, but there are no plausible scenarios in which a cruise ship could be used in a similar fashion.

Access to Security Details As a journalist with good access to cruise line personnel, I can tell you that the industry is appropriately cautious with all details of security aboard ships. Cruise lines wisely choose not to discuss their onboard security details with anyone. Even company insiders are kept in the dark, including crew members on ships and land-based personnel, except on a "need-to-know" basis. The fact that cruise ship security has never been tested by terrorists is a testament to the industry.

On a recent cruise I was lucky enough to be in a group of journalists who were given a tour of the bridge. I could tell you the depth of the the security procedures I encountered, but I also believe they should not be divulged. I am lucky enough to be on the "trusted" list and I want to stay that way.

Are there firearms aboard ships for security officers? It has never been denied. Nor has the presence of plainclothes security personnel. I will tell you that today there are security cameras covering the interior and the exterior of the ship operating around the clock.

The Future of Port and Ship Security Port and cruise ship security has been a big concern since the USS Cole bombing in the Yemeni port of Aden in 2000, a concern that was amplified by 9/11. But to the aggravation of some cruisers, details about specific security procedures in place will likely always remain intentionally vague.

If the new security measures now in place in Ft Lauderdale, and the reaction of Miami port officials yesterday, are any indication, port security will continue to get tighter. As for onboard security, I believe a lot happens that is not perceived by the casual observer, and that much of it is not only based on cautionary procedures and tools, but that there is also a good deal of intelligence about who is on the passenger manifests. No one is allowed onto a cruise ship, or especially gets privileged access to sensitive areas once aboard the ship, unless they are cleared shore-side long before the cruise begins.

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