Port authorities prepare for a variety of potential attacks from a terror group believed to own as many as 15 ships.
Al Qaeda terrorists proved with the attacks in Saudi Arabia this week that they are still capable of staging simultaneous bombings. And they did so at the same time that the US is carrying out its largest public drill to test the preparedness for such an attack at home.
So far, the terrorists have used trucks - as in the 1998 bombings of the US Embassies in Africa and Monday night in Saudi Arabia, and turned airliners into weapons on Sept. 11. Now, one of the biggest concerns of authorities is that the terrorists may try the same thing with another form of transportation - ships.
Smuggling a biological or chemical weapon in a ship container could be just one approach. Another might be exploding an oil tanker at anchor, an action that might wreak devastation on petroleum ports. Or a large vessel could simply be used as a bludgeon, knocking out bridge abutments and blocking ship channels.
The issue is serious enough that on May 6 the Department of Defense held a little-noticed "Impending Storm" exercise that simulated several kinds of shipborne attacks on US cities. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz participated, as well as high-level intelligence and Coast Guard officials and congressional representatives from coastal districts.
"Maritime transportation security is one of the overarching challenges that faces the nation," says Stephen Flynn, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former commander in the US Coast Guard.
Al Qaeda has already demonstrated a capacity for operating on the water. It was a small explosives-laden boat that blew a hole in the side of the USS Cole while it lay at anchor in Aden, Yemen, in October 2000. Seventeen American servicemen were killed. Al Qaeda used the same method near the same port this past October in hitting a French oil tanker.