A biological attack on a ship’s water supply, the sinking of a ship with a submersible parasitic device, a standoff attack using heavy artillery – this is not a list of plots from the latest action blockbusters, but three of six potential terrorist threats to cruise ships highlighted by a report on maritime safety.

The Maritime and Terrorism: Risk and Liability report, focuses on cargo vessels, ferries and cruise liners, and assesses a variety of targets and scenarios from a risk and potential liability standpoint.

One might question the need for such a report. A review of over 30 years of terrorist activity shows that less than 2% of international attacks have targeted maritime vessels. Does such a low figure not demonstrate that the risk is already being properly managed?

Henry Willis, a co-author of the report and a policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, the organisation behind its publication, says: “That statistic was actually the motivation behind the study. Since 9/11 we’ve seen a growing concern about terrorists increasing their seaborne activity, and we set out to assess whether such concern is warranted.”


Willis believes the group’s key finding was that much of the heightened security across the maritime industry has been too narrow. “Much of the attention has been paid to container shipping,’ he says, ‘particularly nuclear detonation scenarios. However, looking at the history of attacks, one can see that a more likely risk will come from a scenario that has lower potential for mass casualties but fits in more with the general profile of a terrorist group’s previous targets. Rather than using new attack modes, they are always more likely to do something similar to previous operations.”

Cruise liners certainly have many of the characteristics of favourite terrorist targets. “Terrorists are very interested in attacks that not only lead to loss of life but also provoke extreme emotion,” Willis says. “A large attack at sea would gain worldwide media exposure, and that is something that is very high on the terrorist’s agenda. Now that security has been heightened on land, there is the chance that some groups will go after targets perceived as softer.”

The report highlights the iconic status of cruise ships and the generally high number of Judeo-Christian passengers that they carry as further factors that make the industry a desirable target for al-Qaeda-style groups.


While Willis is at pains to stress that the report is in no way a critique of the cruise industry’s approach to security matters, it does highlight vulnerabilities that are inherent in its operations. Although acknowledging that security checks have become far more rigorous since 2001, the authors claim that ‘checks remain far less stringent than those employed for commercial aviation’.

They cite the fact that only 2% of people embarking on ships are physically inspected. Moreover, the report’s authors are troubled by the fact that bags are not being scanned before transfer to cabins.

“We’re acutely aware that screening large numbers of bags and passengers is difficult,’ Willis says. ‘Our assessment of this as a potential weakness is a reminder of the need for vigilance.”


“Any security system is only as good as its weakest link. It is not unusual to excessively focus on external threats.”

One potential danger that is particularly pertinent to the cruise industry comes in the form of the many service employees who have access to ships at overseas docks who may not have undergone comprehensive background checks. Maritime Terrorism: Risk and Liability refers to such individuals as “a ready conduit through which to smuggle and stash weapons or explosives for future attacks”.

Willis says: “Any security system is only as good as its weakest link. It is not unusual to excessively focus on external threats. But do that and you can be left vulnerable to attacks from within. This is something that needs to be addressed.”


The RAND report also discusses the risk associated with the fact that most cruise liners’ itineraries are public knowledge. However, Willis believes that this risk may be exaggerated. “Ships run on a regular or semi-regular schedule, and this eases the challenge for a terrorist group,” Willis admits. “But we also know where hotels and office blocks are going to be. It is not something to be unduly concerned about.”

This sentiment is rather typical of my conversation with Willis, who is keen to keep things in perspective. ‘While the industry and governments need to protect against the terrorist threat,’ he says, “the general public should not be forced into a state of panic. These scenarios may look shocking on paper, but it is important to remind ourselves that they are less likely than a whole range of everyday risks that we take for granted.”