Terrorism expert: Al-Qaida not a big threat to cruising right now

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The potential for a different kind of cruise safety crisis reared its head last week with the release of al-Qaida’s “Future Works” document, which mentions the possible seizure of passenger ships.

Discovered in a digital storage device carried by an al-Qaida suspect who was arrested last year in Germany, the document is widely considered to be the result of a brainstorming session that contains no specific threats.

Still, the combined mentions of “al-Qaida” and “cruise ship” was enough to capture the attention of cruise industry leaders.

CLIA, while unaware of any specific threats to its member cruise lines, released a statement saying: “We are taking this report seriously. CLIA staff and the representatives of the association’s Security Committee, which is made up of security officers and other officials from our member cruise lines, are working with appropriate law enforcement representatives and other government officials to ensure we have the most up-to-date information.”

CLIA said it wants to “reassure cruise-goers” that its member lines have thorough and effective security protocols in place that help to ensure the safety of passengers and crew.

As a matter of course, cruise lines do not discuss or comment on their security procedures publicly.

Consumer media outlets in the U.S. and Europe reported the content of the al-Qaida documents at a time when the cruise industry is struggling to regain its footing in the marketplace after a series of public relations setbacks: the Costa Cruises’ Concordia incident in January followed by two shipboard fires, one on the Costa Allegra and one on the Azamara Quest.

Cruisers and potential cruisers, however, should not lose sleep over the al-Qaida document, according to at least one terrorism expert.

JosephYoungWhile al-Qaida’s sketchy blueprint of a cruise ship seizure appears to include hostage-taking and executions, according to German journalists who have had access to the documents, that scenario is very unlikely to unfold anytime soon, said Joseph Young, a professor at American University in Washington and a terrorism expert in the university’s School of Public Affairs.

“Over the years, [al-Qaida has] had lots of big ideas, but right now, operationally, their central leadership is weak,” Young said. “It’s fairly implausible that these bigger kinds of strikes are going to happen. This data, along with data that was found after the bin Laden [raid last year], contains a lot of wild ideas.”

Young’s academic focus and expertise is on the cross-national causes and consequences of terrorism.

“If I were going to be traveling in the next year, I wouldn’t have a problem getting on a cruise ship,” he said. “It’s a softer target than an airplane, but it would be hard for me to believe that al-Qaida can pull off an attack like that now.”

While such an attack is not impossible, he said, a cruise ship attack would require “a level of detail and planning” that the group is not capable of at the moment.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO), a United Nations agency that describes itself as being “responsible for the safety and security of the global shipping industry,” issued a statement saying that it “cannot speculate on the veracity of media reports of terrorist groups considering a range of options for attacking civilian targets, which may include cruise ships.”

The IMO further stated: “Countering terrorism is a function of government, as is the assessment of the specific threat to individual targets.”

According to the IMO, “It is for governments to assess the threats to ships and port facilities under their jurisdiction and to determine and promulgate the security levels applicable to those ships and port facilities.”

Follow Donna Tunney on Twitter @dttravelweekly.

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