CBRNE Attacks at Sea: Time to Revisit the Maritime SAR International

“The issue is how seriously … governments take the threat of maritime terrorism. … We cannot continue to hope for the best and ignore the lessons.” Cited in a 4 February 2003 Straits Times editorial on “Security At Sea.”

Security at sea is just one of many preparedness-and-response policy issues facing the international maritime community. It is widely recognized that, in today’s maritime environment, a terrorist attack at sea involving chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and/or high-yield-explosion (CBRNE) weapons or devices would strike a devastating blow to global economic stability. What is often ignored, though, is that for at least the past several years Al Qaeda has been increasingly active in the maritime environment and is still enhancing its capabilities.

NATO’s search for the Al Qaeda fleet, which includes a number of “phantom” vessels posing as legitimate ships and roaming the ocean freely, has been a difficult one. In the more than three years since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, NATO officials have boarded and searched only about 200 of the approximately 16,000 commercial vessels operating in international waters. Meanwhile, the front line of the war on terrorism has become ever more violent, unpredictable, and unwavering.

Following are a few examples, of many that might be cited, that illustrate Al Qaeda’s flexible arming capabilities and determination to succeed as a maritime threat:

  • Yemen-Limburg, October 2002: Twelve crew members were injured when an explosives-laden boat rammed the Limburg as it prepared to enter the port of Ash-Shir off Yemen’s southeastern coast. A Bulgarian crewmember’s dead body, covered in oil, washed ashore a few days later.
  • Rota, Spain, May 2005: The Spanish newspaper ABC reported that a French Al Qaeda cell was “preparing to unleash an unspecified chemical agent” against a U.S. naval base in Rota. One of those said to be implicated in the plan was Algerian Said Arif – who, ABC reported, also was affiliated with Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, one of the alleged masterminds behind the continuing insurgency in Iraq.
  • Jordan, June 2005: Jordanian state television aired a video of four men admitting they were part of an Al Qaeda plot to attack the U.S. embassy, as well as Jordanian intelligence services and other targets, in Jordan. They planned, the report continued, to use a combination of conventional and chemical weapons powerful enough to kill 80,000 people and severely injure another 160,000. One of the alleged conspirators, Azmi Al-Jayousi, said that he was acting on the orders of Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi.

The obvious progression of al-Zarqawi’s asymmetric warfare and toxic industrial chemicals/materials (TIC/TIM) weapons planning and operational capabilities is both understated and disturbing. If he and/or others were ordered to initiate attacks at or from the sea, the world’s maritime stakeholders might well find themselves almost totally unprepared to protect themselves. Current international strategies, policies, and capabilities for mass-rescue operations (MROs) in the post-CBRNE maritime environment do not adequately address the harsh realities responders will undoubtedly face. A review of current national and international search-and-rescue (SAR) strategies and policies suggests that many if not all maritime nations, although acknowledging the risks involved, have reluctantly accepted the harsh reality that maritime CBRNE attacks may well result in the loss of perhaps thousands of lives.

From Halifax to LNGs and the IAMSAR

As the nations involved in the global war on terrorism become increasingly aware of the maritime threat environment, their citizens are becoming correspondingly concerned about piracy, Al Qaeda rogue ships, the waterborne shipments of hazardous materials, and other terrorism-related threats. In a 1978 book – “ Time Bomb: LNG, The Truth About Our Newest And Most Dangerous Energy Source,” by Peter van der Linde and Naomi A. Hintze – the co-authors stated that in certain situations the consequences of a single inadvertent rupture of a liquefied natural gas (LNG) tanker would create a catastrophic explosion. In certain circumstances, in fact, an LNG blast could match the physical destructive power of a nuclear detonation (but without the thermal pulse, neutrons, x- and gamma-rays, radiation, and other by-products of nuclear explosions).

Probably the closest example of this type of catastrophe is the 6 December 1917 harbor explosion in Halifax, Nova Scotia, that devastated that Canadian port when two ships – one carrying 5,000 tons of high explosives – collided, creating the largest man-made explosion prior to the beginning of the atomic age. The explosion that resulted virtually wiped out the suburb of Richmond, killing almost 2,000 people, injuring 9,000 more, and destroying 3,000 buildings. An additional 2,000 people were missing, and the short- and long-term economic damages were astronomical.

Although terrifying to contemplate, the low-probability/high-consequence effects of a CBRNE attack may not represent the most significant terrorist threats to some IMO (International Maritime Organization) states that are signatories to the International Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue (IAMSAR) agreement. Judging from a review of updates and amendments to the agreement, terrorist attacks, including attacks using CBRNE weapons or devices on maritime targets, seem to have ranked low on the scale of probability. Nonetheless, even in today’s post-9/11 world, the lack of maritime CBRNE preparedness poses potentially enormous consequences, both politically and economically, to the entire global economy.

A recent edition of the IAMSAR agreement, which is jointly published by the IMO and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), instructs participants on how to mount a large and rapid response – which would be critical in preventing a large-scale loss of lives at sea – in the event of a terrorist CBRNE attack against maritime targets. However, an effective response involves many factors that must be in place prior to the attack(s): advance planning, for example; viable alerting and communication systems; safety clothing and equipment – e.g., certified CBRNE personal protective equipment, detection systems, and decontamination facilities and equipment; and an effective transition plan.

Needed: Collective International Action

The timeliness of the response is particularly critical, because there almost surely will be only a small window of opportunity – known to first responders as the “Golden Hour” – to save lives after a physical trauma. Some experts believe, in fact, that a victim must receive assistance within two hours of his or her injury – but, according to some Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports, the reality is that simply responding to the scene may take as much as four hours. What this means, therefore, is that, by the time a first-responder team reaches the victims who were most critically injured in a CBRNE attack, they may well have succumbed to a combination of traumas, including miosis, salivation, lachrymation, muscular twitching and fasciculation, diarrhea, convulsions, coma, and/or respiratory failure.

For practical purposes, any effective preparedness and response plan for dealing with terrorism incidents at sea – particularly incidents involving CBRNE attacks in international waters – must be based on the premise that collective international action will be required – and will be available when needed.

Fortunately, some mass-rescue operations are anticipated in a number of NATO Standardization Agreements (STANAGs), which encompass a set of processes, procedures, terms, and conditions on which the alliance’s member countries have reached prior agreement. Unfortunately, however, current STANAGs do not specify the SAR capabilities and/or equipment required for either aviation or surface assets that might be called out to participate in a mass-rescue operation at sea.

Outdated Plans to Meet a Growing Threat

That is only the tip of the iceberg, though. The fact is that most if not all current maritime SAR plans and agreements: (1) are a decade or more outdated; (2) were originally developed to prevent and/or mitigate the consequences of maritime accidents or natural disasters; and (3) do not address the truly catastrophic effects of a CBRNE terrorist attack in or near a port or on the open sea.

Major Irvin Lim Fang Jau of the Singapore Armed Forces commented on this collective international problem three years ago in a prescient article he wrote for The Pointer (Journal of the Singapore Armed Forces, Vol. 28, No. 3): “The maritime terrorist threat is a hydra that continues to pose a clear, present danger to world commerce and, ultimately, the very well-being of nations.

“The war on global terrorism,” he continued, “against newly regenerated Al-Qaeda elements and their shadowy associates is far from over, and we have not yet seen the turning of the tide.”

Today, Al Qaeda insurgents are proving on an almost daily basis – both on the evening news and on the e-Qaeda online training website – that additional attacks are possible, almost anywhere in the world, at any time. As last week’s missile attacks against U.S. Navy ships in Jordan demonstrated, those attacks could easily be carried out by Al Qaeda sleeper cells operating in or close to the maritime environment. For that and many other reasons it seems obvious that all international participants in current IAMSAR agreements must give much higher priority to the development, promulgation, and implementation of updated and more effective policies and plans for dealing with terrorist incidents involving CBRNE weapons or devices in the maritime environment.

Ashley Moore

Ashley Moore



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