Tuesday, December 12th, 2017

Maritime Security: Potential Terrorist Attacks and Protection Priorities

By Paul W. Parfomak and John Frittelli
Resources, Science, and Industry Division
Congressional Research Service

A key challenge for U.S. policy makers is prioritizing the nation’s maritime security activities among a virtually unlimited number of potential attack scenarios. While individual scenarios have distinct features, they may be characterized along five common dimensions: perpetrators, objectives, locations, targets, and tactics. Inmany cases, such scenarios have been identified as part of security preparedness exercises, security assessments, security grant administration, and policy debate. There are far more potential attack scenarios than likely ones, and far more than could be meaningfully addressed with limited counter-terrorism resources.There are a number of logical approaches to prioritizing maritime security activities. One approach is to emphasize diversity, devoting available counter-terrorism resources to a broadly representative sample of credible scenarios. Another approach is to focus counter-terrorism resources on only the scenarios of greatest concern based on overall risk, potential consequence, likelihood, or related metrics. U.S. maritime security agencies appear to have followed policies consistent with one or the other of these approaches in federally-supported port security exercises and grant programs. Legislators often appear to focus attention on a small number of potentially catastrophic scenarios.

Clear perspectives on the nature and likelihood of specific types of maritime terrorist attacks are essential for prioritizing the nation’s maritime anti-terrorism activities. In practice, however, there has been considerable public debate about the likelihood of scenarios frequently given high priority by federal policy makers, such as nuclear or “dirty” bombs smuggled in shipping containers, liquefied natural gas (LNG) tanker attacks, and attacks on passenger ferries. Differing priorities set by port officials, grant officials, and legislators lead to differing allocations of port security resources and levels of protection against specific types of attacks. How they ultimately relate to one another under a national maritime security strategy remains to be seen.

Maritime terrorist threats to the United States are varied, and so are the nation’s efforts to combat them. As oversight of the federal role in maritime security continues, Congress may raise questions concerning the relationship among the nation’s various maritime security activities, and the implications of differing protection priorities among them. Improved gathering and sharing of maritime terrorism intelligence may enhance consistency of policy and increase efficient deployment of maritime security resources. In addition, Congress may assess how the various elements of U.S. maritime security fit together in the nation’s overall strategy to protect the public from terrorist attacks.

Download Maritime Security: Potential Terrorist Attacks and Protection Priorities


  1. Introduction
  2. Characterizing Potential Maritime Terrorist Attacks
    1. Perpetrators
    2. Objectives
    3. Locations
    4. Targets
    5. Tactics
    6. Unlimited Scenarios
  3. U.S. Maritime Security Activities
    1. Maritime Security Exercises
      • PortSTEP Scenarios
      • AMSTEP Scenarios
      • Asymmetric Warfare Initiative
      • Other U.S. Attack Scenarios
      • Overseas Exercises
      • Emphasizing Scenario Diversity
    2. DHS Port Security Grants
      • Emphasizing High Priority Scenarios
  4. Likelihood of U.S. Maritime Terrorist Attacks
    1. The “Bomb in a Box” Scenario
      • Type of Bomb
      • Method of Delivery
    2. Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) Tanker Attacks
    3. Passenger Ferry Attacks
    4. Overall Likelihood of Maritime Terrorism
  5. Policy Issues for Congress
    1. Consistency of Terrorism Scenario Assessment
    2. Intelligence Gathering
    3. Responding to New Intelligence
  6. Conclusion


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