U.S. Issues Strategy to Prevent Small Boat Terrorist Attacks
Thursday, May 15, 2008 11:47:00 AMLast updated: Thursday, May 15, 2008 11:47:00 AM
Feds seek boater certification and increased scrutiny of pleasurecraft in harbors.
—The Bush Administration wants to enlist America’s 80 million recreational boaters to help reduce the chances that a small boat could deliver a nuclear or radiological bomb somewhere along the 95,000 miles of U.S. coastline and inland waterways.

The millions of small vessels — which are characterized as any watercraft less than 300 gross tons — that ply America’s waterways are not, for the most part, nationally regulated as they buzz around ports, oil tankers and other potential terrorist targets.

This lack of regulation could allow terrorists in small boats to carry out an attack similar to the USS Cole bombing, said Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen. That 2000 attack killed 17 American sailors in Yemen when terrorists rammed a dinghy packed with explosives into the destroyer.

To reduce the potential for such an attack at home, the Department of Homeland Security has developed a new strategy intended to increase security by enhancing safety standards.

On April 28, officials released the plan, which asks states to develop and enforce safety standards for recreational boaters and asks them to look for and report suspicious behavior on the water — much like a neighborhood watch program. The government will also look to develop technology that will help detect dangerous materials and other potential warning signs.

Initially, the government considered federal licensing for recreational boat operators, but that informal proposal was shot down by boating organizations. Coast Guard and Homeland Security officials have toured the country in the past year to sound out the recreational marine industry and boating enthusiasts. While the government insists there will be no federal license, the strategy suggests that the government consider registering and regulating recreational boats.

The only way to police the waterfront, said maritime security expert Stephen Flynn, “is to get as many of the participants who are part of that community to be essentially on your side.” Flynn, a fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, said treating boaters as allies rather than threats to security will go a long way.

While small boats may not be the top terrorist threat facing the United States, the nation shouldn’t wait to be attacked, said Vayl Oxford, the head of Homeland Security’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office.

Oxford’s office is leading two pilot programs that train and arm harbor patrols with portable radiological and nuclear detection equipment, starting with Seattle’s Puget Sound. A similar program for San Diego is in the planning stages.

The Coast Guard will work with states to establish minimum safety standards and ways to enforce the new rules. That may include requiring boat operators to have a copy of the safety certification on board with them and a piece of identification that links them to the certificate.
The new strategy will not only create more awareness on the water, but additional state safety requirements could have other benefits: keeping boats shipshape and having their inspections up to date; having more lifesaving equipment on board; and possibly having fewer intoxicated people operating boats, said California’s Homeland Security adviser Matthew Bettenhausen.

This article first appeared in the May 2008 issue of The Log Newspaper. All or parts of the information contained in this article might be outdated.