by Sophie Forbes of yahoo.com
In the first 18 days of 2016, there have been 41 terrorist attacks across the globe that have killed more than 500 people. Several of these attacks took place in popular tourist destinations, such as Paris, Istanbul, and Tel Aviv.
In November 2015, the U.S State Department issued a Worldwide Travel Alert, warning its citizens about ongoing risks of travel due to terrorist threats, and stating that the authorities believe attacks by extremists towards Westerners overseas will continue.
But while international governments scramble to secure towns, cities, airports and tourist attractions, there is one big question that has yet to be answered: What if terrorists attack at sea?
In 2015, there were more than 22 million passengers aboard cruise ships worldwide — meaning that at any time, there are tens of thousands of travelers afloat.
Some of today’s larger ships can carry as many as 6,000 people, including staff.
This undoubtedly makes cruise liners major targets for attacks. But how big is the risk? And what are cruise lines doing to protect their ships and passengers?
“There are numerous studies by security companies and U.S. government organizations which have studied terrorist organizations that concluded that terrorism against cruise ships is likely,” explains maritime lawyer and cruise ship expert Jim Walker.
In fact, groups such as ISIS, Boko Haram, and al-Qaida have threatened cruise ships on multiple occasions.
“Terrorist groups have openly expressed interest in maritime targets,” admits Joseph Mroszczyk, manager of intelligence products and services for Global Rescue, a travel risk and crisis management firm.
And while there are no recent examples of actual attacks on cruise ships, there have been several cases of terrorist attacks on other maritime targets, such as the bombing of USS Cole at a Yemeni port in October 2000, when two al-Qaida suicide bombers rammed a boat carrying explosives into the side of the docked ship, killing 17 people and injuring 39 others.
“Conducting an attack against a maritime target at sea requires a higher level of operational sophistication and coordination than other forms of terrorist attacks we have seen,” says Mroszczyk. But the risk is still there — especially when a boat is docked in a foreign port, he says.
“When docked at other destinations while passengers are off-boarding and on-boarding,” he says, “there is perhaps greater vulnerability to the ship — both in terms of passenger screening practices and port security infrastructure.”
The high risk to passengers that occurs when a ship is in port has largely to do with the unregulated nature of most port facilities. There are no set guidelines for how to secure ports in different countries, and little way for cruise lines to have an impact when it comes to that issue.
“A port has to be adequately screened, and cruise lines are responsible for sending in a team of people to assess whether the ports they are sailing into are capable of suitably docking and securing a boat that might have 3,000 to 4,000 people on board,” explained Walker.
The largest risk to passengers likely is when they disembark the ship. Just last March, 17 passengers were killed and another 21 were injured during the terrorist attack on the Bardo National Museum in Tunis, Tunisia. That attack specifically targeted tourists, and reports indicated that the attackers had waited for the buses to arrive from the ships.