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Richardson, Michael --- "A Time Bomb for Global Trade: Maritime-related Terrorism in an Age of Weapons of Mass Destruction" [2004] MarStudies 1; (2004) 134 Maritime Studies 1

A Time Bomb for Global Trade: Maritime-related Terrorism in an Age of Weapons of Mass Destruction

Michael Richardson[1]

On 11 September 2001, Al-Qaeda used four hijacked civilian jet airliners in the US to kill nearly 3,000 people from 80 nations. This exposed a whole new degree of vulnerability in the global transport system. New security measures were introduced, initially for aviation but later for other forms of transport as well, including shipping, ports and cargo containers. Better security is vital when the risk of weapons of mass destruction reaching international terrorists is rising.

Terrorist Sea Plans and Operations

The world has not experienced a major terrorist attack using ships or containers. But it is clear that terrorists can see the potential of using the maritime trading system to conceal weapons or agents for attack purposes or to provide funding or support for their operations. Al-Qaeda understands the vital role of sea transport and has exploited it for years. For example, an Al-Qaeda cargo ship delivered the explosives that its operatives used to bomb two US embassies in East Africa in August 1998, killing 224 people and injuring more than 5,000. Nearly all were Africans. But 12 Americans were among the dead. US investigators say they have evidence that Al-Qaeda was buying ships at least as early as 1994.

Last December, US and allied forces on patrol in the Persian Gulf tracked and boarded several dhow trading boats, confiscating three drug shipments worth more than $US 15 million. US officials said that seven of the 45 crewmen detained had links to Al-Qaeda and the organisation was using drug smuggling to help finance its operations. US officials blame Al-Qaeda for the suicide attack in Yemen in October 2000 against the American destroyer USS Cole, nearly sinking one of the US navy’s most sophisticated warships. The blast, which left a 40-foot hole in the side of the destroyer, killed 17 American sailors and wounded 40. It took more than 14 months and cost around US$250 million to repair the ship.

The Singapore government has said that when it cracked down on Al-Qaeda’s closest ally in Southeast Asia, the Jemaah Islamiyah, starting in December 2001, it discovered that the group had made preliminary plans to prepare for suicide attacks on US warships visiting Singapore.

Trojan Boxes

Al-Qaeda has also used cargo containers on ships to ferry agents and probably terrorist-related material around the world. Documents seized from one of Osama bin Laden’s senior aides six years ago show how Al-Qaeda intended to use containers packed with sesame seeds to smuggle highly radioactive material to the US.

Shortly before his capture in Pakistan in March 2003, Al-Qaeda’s director of global operations, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, offered to invest $US200,000 in an export firm in exchange for access to the containers used by the firm to ship garments to Port Newark in the New York-New Jersey harbour complex. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed is the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington using hijacked civilian jet airliners.

The fear that terrorists could exploit the container transport system was confirmed barely a month after the Al-Qaeda hijackers crashed civilian airliners into the World Trade Centre twin towers and the Pentagon. In October 2001, authorities in the southern Italian port of Gioia Tauro discovered an unusually well-equipped and neatly dressed stowaway locked inside a shipping container. It was furnished as a makeshift home with a bed, water, supplies for a long journey and a bucket for a toilet. Italian police named the stowaway as Rizik Amid Farid, 43, and said he was born in Egypt but carried a Canadian passport.

Unlike most stowaways, Farid was smartly dressed, clean-shaven and rested as he emerged. He was found to be carrying two mobile phones, a satellite phone, a laptop computer, several cameras, batteries and, ominously given recent events in the US, airport security passes and an airline mechanic’s certificate valid for four major American airports. Gioia Tauro is a leading trans-shipment hub for cargo in the Mediterranean. The container fitted out as a makeshift home had been loaded in Port Said, Egypt. Had the stowaway not been trying to widen ventilation holes when workers in Gioia Tauro were nearby, the box may well have passed unhindered to its final destination in Canada via Rotterdam. After he was discovered, Farid was investigated by Italian prosecutors who suspected that he was an Al-Qaeda operative. He was charged with illegal entry into Italy and detained. But a court released him on bail and he disappeared before further information about him and the purpose of his unorthodox means of travel could be gathered.

Concern that terrorists could use container shipping to mount a catastrophic attack on the US prompted the Bush administration to implement the Container Security Initiative (CSI). The CSI was first announced in January 2002. It is now operational in at least 16 major seaports in Europe, Canada and Asia, including Singapore. Most of the 20 leading mega-ports that ship cargo containers to the US are in Asia and Europe. The CSI programme identifies and checks a relatively small number of cargo containers for possible weapons of mass destruction or dangerous radioactive substances that terrorists might try to place inside. The checking of suspect cargo bound for the US is done at foreign ports, before the containers are shipped to America. Some US officials call this ‘defence in depth.’

Nuclear Terrorism

Officials and counter-terrorism experts have warned that the next step up in mega-terrorism may be an attack using chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons. A ship or container is regarded as one of the most likely delivery devices for a nuclear or radiological bomb. The exposure in February of an extensive and long-running nuclear black market that funnelled weapons technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea from Pakistan has heightened these fears.

There is no evidence that Al-Qaeda or any other terrorist group has nuclear weapons. But they have shown interest in acquiring them. In the mid-1990s, Al-Qaeda agents tried repeatedly – though without success – to purchase bomb-grade highly-enriched uranium in Africa, Europe and Russia. In November 2001, Osama bin Laden announced that he had obtained a nuclear weapon, but US intelligence officials dismissed his claims. Documents recovered from Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime described Al-Qaeda’s nuclear ambitions. One of the documents recovered from an Al-Qaeda facility in Afghanistan contained a sketch of a crude nuclear device. Two retired Pakistani nuclear scientists were detained in late 2001 after meeting bin Laden in Afghanistan. They were later released by the Pakistan government without being charged, despite suspicions that the purpose of the meeting was to discuss how Al-Qaeda could make or acquire nuclear bombs. The CIA believes that Al-Qaeda was seeking a nuclear explosive device – and still is.

Could terrorists build a nuclear bomb? Experts say it would not be easy. Several very difficult problems would have to be solved simultaneously. Acquiring the fissionable material to generate a nuclear explosion is the single most difficult step. At least 25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium would be needed to make a crude bomb, or roughly 8 kilograms of plutonium, a much more difficult and dangerous material to work with.

Radiological Terrorism

But experts note that building a crude, bulky, low-yield nuclear weapon – which the CIA calls an Improvised Nuclear Device or IND – would be far easier than making the compact, reliable, high-yield weapons found in US arsenals. An IND could be smuggled to its target by ship, container or truck. The potential consequences of terrorists acquiring a nuclear explosive device would be so devastating and disruptive that it must be a matter of serious concern, even if the chances of it happening appear slim.

It would be easier, however, for terrorist bombmakers to assemble a radiological device – a ‘dirty’ bomb – that uses conventional explosives to disperse deadly radioactive material. There are millions of radioactive sources that have been distributed worldwide over the past 50 years, with hundreds of thousands currently being used, stored and produced for civilian purposes. The International Atomic Energy Agency has warned that the radioactive substances needed to build dirty bombs can be found in almost any country in the world, and that more than 100 countries may have inadequate control and monitoring programs to prevent, or even detect, the theft of these materials.

Fortunately, building the most potent radiological bombs is much more difficult for terrorists than assembling explosives to disperse less toxic material. Not only are the very dangerous radioactive substances more difficult to obtain, the successful spreading of highly radioactive particles could only be done by a terrorist organisation that had access to specialised scientific knowledge. But criminals are now trading in components and materials for dirty bombs. This makes it easier for terrorists to acquire powerful radiological sources.

The Dirty Bombers

In June 2002, the US government said that it had arrested Jose Padilla, a former Chicago gang member who converted to Islam, on his return to the US from meetings abroad with Al-Qaeda. US officials said that Padilla had proposed a plan to build and detonate a radiological device, possibly in Washington DC, to Abu Zubaydah, then Al-Qaeda’s top terrorism coordinator and a senior lieutenant of bin Laden. Zubaydah was arrested in Pakistan in March 2002 and handed over to America for interrogation.

Concerns about the risk of terrorists getting and using dirty bombs intensified last December when US prosectors said that a British arms dealer, held in the US on charges of trying to sell shoulder-fired missiles to shoot down airliners, would face additional charges of plotting to procure a dirty bomb.

Shipping, Containers and Global Trade

Shipping is the heart of global trade. Most international trade – about 80 per cent of the total by volume – is carried by sea. About half the world’s trade by value, and 90 per cent of general cargo, is transported in containers. An ever greater proportion of container shipping trade is being concentrated in giant ports with modern facilities to handle the boxes. The top 20 container terminals in 2002, led by Hong Kong, Singapore and four other East Asian ports, accounted for 54 per cent of world sea container throughput in 2002, up from 47 per cent of the global total in 2000. As the ships that carry containers on long voyages become larger to take advantage of economies of scale, many of the leading terminals act as transhipment points for smaller ships and regional ports in a hub-and-spoke system.

The smooth operation of the global economy also depends on the free flow of shipping through international straits and canals. Seventy-five percent of global maritime trade and just under half the world’s daily oil consumption passes through six of these waterways. These channels are critically important to the world’s trade because so much of it passes through them. Yet they are also chokepoints because they are narrow enough to be closed for some time to commercial vessels by an accident or by an attack, including a terrorist operation.

Trade Hubs and Choke Points

Seaborne trade is vulnerable to a well-planned terrorist attack on two fronts:

• First, the port-city hubs that form an interdependent global trading web and increasingly dominate container shipping. There are over 30 such mega port-cities spread across Asia, North America and Europe. In Asia, they include Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai and Yantian in China, Kaohsiung in Taiwan, Tokyo and Yokohama in Japan, Pusan in South Korea, and Laem Chabang in Thailand. Many of these giant port-cities are also the location of the top 20 container terminals;

• Second, the handful of international straits and canals through which 75 per cent of world maritime trade passes. For example, over a quarter of the world’s trade and half its oil go through the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. These and other key international waterways are relatively narrow and could be blocked, at least temporarily.

The Labyrinth World of Shipping

Global shipping is a vast industry. It is also lightly regulated, frequently beyond the reach of the law and often secretive in its operations, especially in concealing the real owners of ships. Oceans cover 70 per cent of the world’s surface and most of this huge area is classified by law as international waters, or high seas, where ships are free to roam unhindered except in certain very specific circumstances.

Most seaborne international trade is carried by at least 46,000 ships calling at over 2,800 ports. There are more than 1.2 million seafarers and hundreds of thousands of port workers. Apart from ships and ports, the millions of uniform steel containers that carry most of today’s general cargo around the world are a security nightmare. Once loaded and sealed, inspection is a problem. The contents of a container can be misrepresented and undeclared items hidden inside with relative ease. Even when sealed, containers can be surreptitiously opened and then closed again without great difficulty to remove or add contents. This is a made-to-order method of transport for terrorists – just as it is for drug and other contraband smugglers.

As many as 15 million containers are in circulation, criss-crossing the globe by sea and making over 230 million journeys through the world’s ports each year. Some seven million containers arrive by sea in US ports alone each year. Checks of containers reaching American ports by sea increased to 5.2 per cent of total arrivals by September 2003, from 2 per cent two years earlier. But worldwide, less than 1 per cent of shipped cargo is screened using X-ray and Gamma-Ray devices to peer inside and check for explosives, radioactive substances or other dangerous materials.

The Nightmare Scenarios

The most dangerous possibility in maritime terrorism is that terrorists might sooner or later get and use:

- a powerful radiological bomb or

- even a nuclear bomb, perhaps concealed in any one of the millions of cargo containers that move through the world’s ports each year.

Somewhat less catastrophic would be a terrorist attack or a coordinated series of strikes that did not use nuclear or radiological bombs but instead used ships as weapons to close one or more key international ports, straits or waterways. The damage to world trade caused by such action would depend on how long the blockage lasted, the extent to which it could be bypassed and the costs involved.

Impact on Global Trade

The detonation of either a nuclear or powerful radiological bomb in a major port-city would cut the arteries of maritime commerce if the device was believed to have come by sea. It would halt much of the world’s trade and severely damage the global economy, as governments scrambled to put extra security measures in place to protect their populations, cities and economies.

Such measures would be drastic and could include:

- lengthy cargo inspections in the ports of the affected country, as well as in ports of nations that did extensive sea trade with it,

- or even the complete closure of ports for an indefinite period,

while additional checks and safeguards were implemented to allay public fears.

One of the first things the US government did after the terrorist attacks in September, 2001, was to shut US airspace and ground all civilian flights for four days – a security measure to protect the American public that had severe repercussions on aviation, travel, tourism and business around the world, including in Asia, as hundreds of scheduled flights had to be cancelled or diverted. The Bush administration also closed US ports for two days.


What would happen to insurance rates if terrorists attacked, or worse still closed, a major port, strait or waterway used for international trade? Ship and cargo insurance rates would skyrocket. After terrorists used a small boat packed with explosives to set the French oil tanker Limburg ablaze off the Yemeni coast in October 2002, underwriters tripled premiums on ships calling at ports in Yemen. The exorbitant cost of insurance and the fear of further attacks made many vessels cut Yemen from their schedules or divert to ports in neighbouring states.

A nuclear or powerful radiological bomb attack on a major international port would send ship and cargo premiums to prohibitive levels. The bigger the attack up the scale of terrorist violence, the greater the insurance shock would be. There is no insurance for a maritime-related terrorist attack using a nuclear bomb. The recovery costs would be unimaginably huge. They would also be very heavy if a radiological bomb were detonated in a mega port-city. Whether private insurance payouts would be available to aid recovery from a dirty bomb explosion is doubtful.

Even a terrorist attack using a ship or ships to block one or more key international ports, straits or waterways – but not involving nuclear or radiological bombs – would trigger a damaging upward spiral in insurance rates and make many ships avoid the area.

Layered Defence and Deterrence for Disaster Prevention

If these are the major risks to seaborne trade, what are the most appropriate layered defences?

Of course, accurate and timely intelligence about any attempt by terrorists to make use of ships or cargo containers is vital. So, too, is the continuing crackdown on the Al-Qaeda network’s leaders, operatives, organisation, finances and recruiting. The tighter security measures mandated by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) for ports, port facilities and vessels are also important. They will take effect from 1 July this year.

But many other actions are needed to build a more effective web of layered defence and deterrence against maritime-related terrorism that will help protect the individual and collective interests of states that have been targeted by Al-Qaeda, its allies or emulators, or may be in the future. These preventive measures should include:



A container checking system similar to the CSI needs to be adopted by all ports for all destinations that are significant links in the seaborne supply chain powering the world economy. Both the US and the EU appear to recognise the importance of expanding the coverage of the CSI. At present, containers bound for the US are the main focus of checks, although Canada and Japan have accepted a US offer to screen any suspect containers in American ports before they leave for Canada or Japan.

But the CSI system remains very US-oriented. In Singapore, for example, containers headed for the US and Singapore itself are checked if intelligence indicates there may be a problem. But containers from or transhipped through Singapore that are bound for the rest of the world are not screened, irrespective of where they come from.

The US and the EU agreed in November 2003 to work out ways of ensuring the security of containers from all locations that are imported into, transhipped through, or transit the EU and the US. This would amount to a very large portion of the world’s general cargo trade. Leading Asian traders should adopt a similar approach. It could be the genesis of a Universal Container Initiative.


It should be possible to implement a more universal system of container security over the next few years as new technology for ‘smart and secure’ containers becomes widely available and costs come down. These IT-enabled containers will have satellite-communication connections so that they can be tracked remotely at all times when loaded. They will have electronic seals, as well as physical locking systems, to prevent unauthorised opening. They will also contain sensors to detect explosive, radioactive, and harmful chemical or biological substances. Non-invasive scanners using X-ray, Gamma-ray and other technologies will also improve.

Companies owning containers could be encouraged by tax incentives as well as government regulation to introduce the ‘smart and secure’ containers.


Lifting the shroud of secrecy covering the ownership and control of ships, and improving seafarer recruitment and identification, are critically important in preventing terrorists from using ships for their own purposes. Failure to do so will mean that terrorists can work within, and under the cover of, the new maritime security arrangements that have already been applied or will be in place by the end of 2004.

Seafarers are to be issued biometric identification documents by their governments to guard against terrorist infiltration. To reinforce this, the IMO should develop a database of all seafarer certificates and work with its member-states to crack down on the fake papers that are reportedly widespread.

The long-established tradition of having companies, not individuals, own ships also makes checking ownership, for security reasons, difficult. The practice can be justified in commercial terms: individuals naturally want to avoid personal liability for any accidents their ships may have. But the practice of making the registered owner or owners of a ship no more than a ‘brass plate’ corporation can be a convenient shroud.

Open, or flag-of-convenience, registers – which by definition do not have any nationality requirements – are the easiest places in which to register vessels that are covered by complex legal and corporate arrangements. But it is not so much the registers themselves that enable reclusive owners to hide their identities; it is the corporate arrangements that are widely and legally available in many countries to give the ultimate owners anonymity, even if they are terrorists.

The OECD Maritime Transport Committee is studying various ways in which a cloak of secrecy can be created around the ownership of vessels. It will then identify best practices that would enhance transparency without breaching the confidentiality of commercially sensitive, but non-security-related, information.

The US insists that a flag state – the country or territory whose flag a ship flies − must provide a port state − where the vessel is calling − accurate and complete ownership information for maritime security purposes if requested. Washington has proposed that the IMO develop international standards so that, in cases where there are reasonable grounds for suspecting terrorist connections, the identity of the person or entity in actual control of the vessel can be speedily made known to authorised security personnel. The US wants such standards to ensure that the person providing the information, i.e., the captain of the vessel, the agent or owner, provides a complete and accurate account, and that the port state will continue to apply domestic law in its internal waters in cases of false reporting, meaning that sanctions or legal penalties can be imposed.


Many countries and companies, particularly the smaller and less affluent, complain of the difficulty and costs in meeting the new security standards. In some cases, financial aid and technical assistance may be warranted to make compliance possible for governments and ports in developing countries. Industrialised nations, and regional agencies such as APEC (the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum), and the Asian Development Bank are already helping governments and ports in developing countries to raise their security levels to meet international standards and join the US-sponsored Container Security Initiative. More help may be needed on the basis that security is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain.

But the IMO should not extend its deadline for implementing its new standards, which in most cases must happen by 1 July 2004. Too much is at stake for world trade and global security for slippage to be tolerated. The fact is that most countries, ports and shipping lines with a major interest in seaborne commerce will comply, if they have not already done so, because the costs of non-compliance far outweigh the costs of conforming.

Until quite recently, port state concerns – even in countries like the US which face an acute terrorist threat – have focused on safety, rather than security. The new security measures, combined with an assertion of port state control, will put heavy pressure on all ships and ports that are involved in international trade to conform with the standards set by the IMO and powerful trading nations or blocs such as the US and the European Union.

The IMO has told shipowners that they must implement its security measures in 2004 or face severe restrictions on the movements of their ships. Tankers, cargo ships, cruise liners and other large vessels travelling to foreign destinations must obtain the IMO’s International Ship and Port Facility Security certificate by 1 July or they will no longer be admitted into foreign ports.

Ships that don’t pass the security tests will be liable to fines or exclusion. This will force sub-standard vessels to improve or become pariahs of the sea. Failure by a port to comply with the security standards by 1 July 2004 will allow other countries to delay or bar vessels which visited that port.

Preparations for Disaster Recovery

What should be done to prepare for the possibility that a nuclear explosive device or a powerful radiological bomb may be placed by terrorists somewhere in the world?


Many countries have drawn up plans for managing a major terrorist attack on their ports and cities. How effective they would be in coping with the mass panic following a radiological bombing or the horrific devastation and casualties after a nuclear explosion is open to question because they have never been activated to deal with such catastrophes. Industrialised nations and some other countries have emergency response units and procedures in place to defuse a radiological or nuclear bomb found in their national jurisdiction before it explodes.

Given the impossibility of completely securing seaborne trade and the global container cargo supply chain, and given the growing risk that terrorists will resort to mass violence, possibly by using a dirty bomb on a ship or in a container in or near a key port-city or international shipping strait, the five declared nuclear powers, (the US, Britain, France, Russia and China), or as many of them as are prepared to act, should establish a mechanism for coordinating the prompt despatch of technical teams to help any country threatened by a terrorist weapon of mass destruction or a radiological bomb to neutralise it.

Since speedy action would be vital, three other known nuclear powers – India, Pakistan and Israel – should also be called upon to assist if necessary, based on their geographical proximity to the crisis point. The country in which a nuclear or radiological bomb was found would need to request outside help if it was unable cope by itself. Such an assistance mechanism could be linked to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations body responsible for nuclear and radiological safety. If a nuclear or dirty bomb exploded, the same channel through the IAEA could be used to coordinate the international assistance required to cope with the disaster and recover from it.

America has a special responsibility in this regard, since it has insisted that all containers arriving by sea in its huge market – the world’s largest − be checked for WMD and dirty bomb materials in foreign ports. The US, which has a large reservoir of expertise and technical know-how to disarm nuclear and radiological bombs, calls the Container Security Initiative, the CSI, a defence-in-depth strategy. In effect, however, it is foisting on other countries the potentially terrible consequences of mass terror aimed primarily at America.

Many of those countries do not have the resources and capacity of the US to defuse nuclear or radiological bombs or cope with the devastating aftermath if they explode. US policy on the CSI is an application of the NIMBI (Not-In-My-Backyard) syndrome. It is perfectly understandable in the climate of terrorist threat that surrounds the US. But it will be seen, rightly, by many other countries as a policy of selfishness that is being enforced by the world’s sole superpower unless it is accompanied by a readiness to help cope with the possible consequences.


The global seaborne supply chain can probably never be made immune from this kind of attack. The fight against terrorism is likely to last for years. A key issue facing policy planners must therefore be how to build a global seaborne supply chain that is sufficiently resilient to withstand a devastating shock and resume operations quickly enough to avoid precipitating a world economic crisis.

How long would it take for port and shipping trade to get up and running again if a terrorist catastrophe happened? There are at present no agreed international arrangements for reviving the maritime supply chain system after a crisis; there is no ‘restart’ button or mechanism. This is serious gap that needs to be filled. One way of doing so may be to add a security mandate to the work of the World Trade Organisation, much in the way that APEC has been given responsibility for promoting and facilitating secure trade in the APEC region.

A catastrophic terrorist attack from the sea would be particularly damaging because the global economy is built on integrated supply chains that feed components and other materials to industry on a ‘just enough, just in time’ basis. Disruption of this supply chain would have repercussions around the world, and profoundly affect business confidence. Yet the global economy will also suffer if well-meaning security measures slow trade and make it more costly. Striking the right balance between free trade and security is critically important, and it must be done in 2004 as a wide range of new counter-terrorist measures for ships and ports take effect.

[1] Michael Richardson is a former journalist who worked for Australian newspapers and the International Herald Tribune from Asia for many years. He is currently a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. This summary of his report, A Time Bomb for Global Trade: Maritime-related Terrorism in an Age of Weapons of Mass Destruction ( click on Viewpoints) is published with the permission of ISEAS. An updated version of the report, under the same title, will be available as an ISEAS book from May 2004.

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