The recent combination of the Mumbai terror attacks and the huge uptick in piracy off the coast of Somalia got me to thinking -- how long will it be before a luxury cruise ship is commandeered by radical Islamic militants who torture and kill everyone on board, then scuttle the ship?
I'm not speaking about piracy, which is little more than sophisticated robbery. The pirate really is no more than a common thief. He may use terror tactics in order to get what he wants, but in the end he is only after money, either directly from the sale of the cargo he has captured, or in the form of ransom for the safe return of captured crews and/or cargo.
And I'm not speaking about kidnapping or politically-motivated hijackings at sea, such as the infamous Achille Lauro incident in 1985. Again, such actions may involve terror tactics, but their ultimate goal is usually formal recognition of the hijackers or some political undertaking such as a prisoner release.
What I am talking about is pure radical Islamic jihad, centered around the killing of infidels as a means of atonement for the sins of apostate Muslims, and perpetrated by radicalized holy warriors who believe that shedding blood is the only way to earn the blessings of Allah. These killers would have no interest in negotiation, except to buy time. They would never surrender. Their mission would be complete only when everyone aboard their target ship is dead.
According to authorities, the Mumbai attack began with the commandeering of a registered Indian fishing boat, the Kuber, perhaps because Indian Navy patrols had increased in the area. The terrorists slit the throat of the boat's pilot and sailed the boat into Mumbai unnoticed. In the wake of the attack, authorities found the body of the boat's pilot, and a satellite phone that had been linked to the terrorists.
Cruise ships have already come under assault. A month ago, gunmen in two speedboats opened fire on the luxury liner Seabourn Spirit as it sailed off the coast of Somalia. No one was killed, but the boat was hit with machine gun and RPG fire.
It seems to me that an all-out assault on a cruise ship would be relatively straightforward to carry out. A small convoy of boats could intercept a cruise ship after it sailed from port. They would then open fire on the ship, perhaps threatening her with weapons such as Stinger missiles if she does not comply with their demands. Then they would board her and begin their rampage of torture and murder. The fate of the passengers and crew would be grim, simply because there is no way to escape from a ship once it is at sea. Outside intervention by paramilitary forces could be stalled by threats to blow up the ship and sink it, with a loss of all hands. The killers would position themselves throughout the ship, making it impossible for those on the outside to know their numbers or locations. Eventually the ship would be blown up, resulting in the loss of all passengers, crew, and the terrorists, who believe that they are guaranteed eternity in Paradise because they died as holy warriors.
I believe that right now, such attacks are being planned. Can they be thwarted? Perhaps cruise lines could assign teams of highly trained guards to each cruise ship. They would serve as regular members of the ship's crew unless the ship was attacked; if an attack came, an armory would be ready, and they would defend the ship. Of course the best way to stop such an attack would be to destroy the boats full of terrorists before they boarded the ship. But this would require guns and gunnery teams, and being able to lay down 360 degrees of fire around a cruise ship from deck-mounted guns would be difficult. Or we could have navy gunboats escort cruise ships near coastal waters. But seriously -- would you want to vacation in a localized war zone?
And in order for such countermeasures to work, we would first need clear international anti-piracy laws that would give cruise lines the authority to use deadly force against anyone suspected of terrorism or piracy. Such laws would also have to protect against malicious retributive action in the case of an accidental death -- in a heated confrontation, there is a significant likelihood of another "London subway shooting" incident occurring.
Maritime terror attacks would be devastating to the cruise ship industry, and to the nations that rely heavily on sea tourism. Unfortunately, it seems to me that the likelihood of a terror attack by radical Islamists on a luxury liner is not a case of "if," but of "when."
- Michael Laprarie