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.