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Targets for Terrorism: Ports

Author: cfr.org editorial staff
Updated: January 1, 2006
This publication is now archived.

Could terrorists attack U.S. ports?

Yes. Experts warn that U.S. seaports could be tempting targets for terrorists bent on killing large numbers of people, grabbing media attention, and disrupting the U.S. economy. Port, ferry, and cruise-ship terminals are often located in highly congested areas where large numbers of people live and work. Liquefied natural gas terminals and refineries that produce highly volatile petrochemicals and convert crude oil into gasoline and heating oil are also often nearby. Given the importance of foreign trade to the U.S. economy, an attack that shut down a major American port for even a few days could devastate the regional economy served by that port.

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Are U.S. ports vulnerable to terrorist attacks?

Yes. CFR Senior Fellow Stephen Flynn says “maritime transportation is one of our nation’s most serious vulnerabilities.” At current staffing and funding levels, U.S. Coast Guard personnel and Customs agents can thoroughly inspect only about 5 percent of the 9 million shipping containers that arrive at U.S. ports every year. Though the Customs Service is using increasingly sophisticated risk-assessment technology to choose which shipments to inspect, many outside experts are unsure about the system’s effectiveness.

Whatís the volume of traffic at U.S. ports?

Some 7,500 ships with foreign flags make 51,000 calls on U.S. ports each year. They carry the bulk of the approximately two billion tons of freight, three billion tons of oil transports, and 134 million passengers by ferry each year. The volume of traffic gives terrorists opportunities to smuggle themselves or their weapons into the United States with little risk of detection; in May 2002 there were reports that twenty-five Islamist extremists entered the United States by hiding in shipping containers.

Are ports hard to protect?

Yes. They’re often large and busy, offering multiple opportunities for terrorists to get in and attack. The port of Houston, for example, is twenty-six miles long, and thousands of trucks enter and exit its major terminals every day. Moreover, ships often traverse narrow channels; a sunken ship in such a channel could close the port for weeks or months and cause economic chaos.

How many large seaports are there in the United States?

There are 361 major ports in the United States and many other harbors, piers, and ferry landings.

Who guards U.S. ports?

The captain of the port—an officer in the U.S. Coast Guard—is responsible for providing security on the water, inspecting and regulating ships coming in and out. The Bureau of Customs and Border Protection—which has absorbed the personnel and the border inspection functions of both the Immigration and Naturalization Service and Customs—is responsible for security on the ground, inspecting foreign vessels’ cargoes and clearing crews and passengers. Ports are owned by state port authorities, which lease pier and terminal space to private companies. These firms often hire their own private security; usually low-paid contract guards who patrol the facilities and staff the entrances and exits. The role of private companies at U.S. ports was thrust into the spotlight in early 2006, when Dubai Ports World, a state-owned shipping company, took over leases at six major ports along the United States ’ East Coast. The company backed out of the deal after significant pressure from Congress.

What has been done to protect our ports?

While the Coast Guard remains at a heightened state of alert, some of the reforms to secure nationwide ports include:

  • Implementing uniform standards of security throughout the U.S. ports under the Maritime Transportation Security Act.
  • Commissioning new Maritime Safety and Security Teams in San Francisco, Houston, New York and St. Mary's, Ga., bringing the total number of teams nationwide to eight.
  • Identifying and funding business-driven initiatives to enhance security for the movement of cargo throughout the entire supply chain. Many such initiatives are being spearheaded by Operation Safe Commerce, a test bed project between the Transportation Safety Authority, the Department of Transportation, Customs, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Department of Defense, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the State Department, and the Justice and Commerce departments.
  • Launching a Container Security Initiative, aimed at identifying and inspecting potentially dangerous containers as they are being loaded abroad, before they ever reach U.S. ports.

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