Maritime terrorism and American policing

It’s encouraging to see that law enforcers are conducting a series of anti-terrorism training exercises this week at ports throughout California — from Oakland to Los Angeles, Long Beach, and San Diego. This tells me that at least some agency administrators are looking at the water for what it is: a potential entry point for a terrorist attack. Our shores and our waterways are America’s largest — and least protected — border.

Included in the more than 12,383 miles of U.S. maritime border, we have coastline on the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Arctic Oceans (remember that Alaska has 5,580 miles of oceanfront property), as well as the Gulf of Mexico. We have countless offshore islands, sounds, bays, rivers, and creeks along those coasts. We have the Great Lakes, which gives access to eight different states. We have Puget Sound and its access to almost the entire area of northwest Washington. We have numerous smaller lakes, rivers, and unnamed streams which cross between the U.S. and our neighbors to the north.

The lesson here is that America is not only vulnerable to attack from the well-known oceanic borders, but that our enemies will eventually learn of these other, smaller, lesser-known potential points of entry as well.

Learning from History, Looking Ahead
Regardless of what profession you practice, there will come a time when you will be expected to learn from the experience of others — or from history as the case may be. When it comes to our current war against Islamist radicals, I would suggest that we look history to determine the potential source of our next attack:

• On February 23, 1942 a Japanese submarine bombed the oilfields of Goleta, CA. Although no major damage or injuries are reported the citizens of nearby Santa Barbara or through into a near panic state.
• On June 20, 1942 another Japanese submarine surfaced near Vancouver Island, BC (which is separated from Seattle by nothing more than open water) and fired several rounds at the lighthouse. Again, there is little damage but the decision to turn off the light would have a major impact on shipping for the remainder of the war.
• On June 21-22, 1942, a Japanese submarine surfaced near the mouth of the Columbia River, Oregon and fired on Fort Stevens. Again, little damage was reported.
• Meanwhile, the Germans were just a busy on the East Coast. On June 12, 1942 teams were dropped at East Hampton, Long Island and Ponte Vedra, Fl with instructions to sabotage parts of the infrastructure deemed vital to the war effort. These included a power plant at Niagara Falls; aluminum factories in Illinois, Tennessee, and New York; mining of the Pennsylvania Railroad; the canals of St. Louis and Cincinnati; and the water supply for New York City.

While none of these attacks were successful military operations, their success in terms of a modern terrorist operation should be considered by law enforcement — you can bet that it’s being considered by the terrorists. The specific objectives of each operation were to either attack quickly, destroying whatever military targets possible and then slip away, or to conduct sabotage operations against specific targets.

In each case there was either little or no damage inflicted or the saboteurs were captured prior to completing their missions. But what if their targets had been the American psyche? What if these attacks were to take place today?

If determined to do so, there is no reason that a small group of foreign operatives could not cross into America via the vast maritime border. Once ashore they could either move to any one of several major cities such as Seattle, Chicago, Detroit, or Buffalo and conduct shocking mass attacks. Or they could melt into the local surroundings and make their way to the numerous hydroelectric dams, water reservoirs, transportation hubs or major recreational centers which are purposely located along these attractive waterways.

Before you dismiss the possibility of a successful modern maritime attack, consider the fact that this is exactly how the 2008 Mumbai attacks began. Ten gunmen crossed from Pakistan via a hijacked fishing trawler and used small rubber dinghies to reach shore. Over the next three days these gunmen were responsible for at least 10 coordinated shootings and bombings throughout the city and were responsible for killing at least 173 and wounding an additional 308 personnel.

Even if these attacks were unsuccessful, or discovered by authorities before being played out, the very fact that they were able to be put in motion would cause many who live along our nation’s waterways to be gripped by an immobilizing fear.

Furthermore, unlike the attempts of World War II, modern technology would make it near impossible for authorities to keep such an event secret. Thus, the fear would not be contained to only those areas directly affected but would instead cause a wave of fear which would resonate across the nation and terrorists will have accomplished one of their main goals — terror.

Perhaps there is one more lesson to be learned — this time courtesy of Paul Revere’s warning, “One if by land, two if by sea” — that may lead us all to dust off our lanterns.

About the author

Tom Burrell began his career in maritime enforcement in 1992 when he enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard, following his service in the USMC Reserves during Desert Storm. He would see service in Key West, (Fla.) Norfolk, Va., and New York City, both afloat and ashore with duties which ranged from drug and alien interdiction to recreational boating safety. During this time he would serve in a variety of positions including boarding team member, boarding officer, boat crew, coxswain, and master helmsman. Achievements include Coxswain “C” School Honor Graduate, numerous Humanitarian Service awards and involvement in several high profile joint operations — including the security for JFK International Airport during the United Nations 50th Anniversary.

In 1997 he left the USCG to pursue a position with the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission as a Waterways Conservation Officer, a position which would include posting in both the rural north central region, and later in suburban Philadelphia. In 2002 he was promoted to patrol supervisor for the South Central Region and received the PA DUI Association “Top Gun” Award for his efforts in apprehending boaters who were under the influence of alcohol or controlled substance. Tom is currently a Captain assigned to Headquarters. He is also an instructor in the areas of firearms, hand gun retention, handcuffing, OC spray, First Aid & CPR, and Boating Under the Influence Detection/Apprehension.

In 2006 Tom received his Associate’s Degree in Criminal Justice from Harrisburg Community College and in 2010 a Bachelor’s Degree from Penn State University. In 2007 and 2008 he was granted the opportunity to address the Northeast Association of Criminal Justice Sciences, during their annual conference at Roger William’s University in Bristol (R.I.), concerning the unique search and seizure authority of conservation officers. When not working or going to school Tom enjoys hunting and fishing near his home in south central Pennsylvania and spending time with his wife Amy, daughters Paige and Johanna, and son Ben.

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