by Nick Blenkey

In November last year, after making two U.S. port calls, in Miami and Key West, the German cruise ship Deutschland was sailing for New Orleans when the owners, Peter Deilmann Cruises, learned that, the ship had now been deemed a "high interest vessel" and that the U.S. Coast Guard wanted to inspect it. That would have meant an eight hour wait at the mouth of the Mississippi, and the decision was appealed. Reportedly, the appeal was denied—so the Deutschland gave New Orleans a miss and headed for its next port of call, in Mexico.

There are no reports of the Coast Guard setting off in hot pursuit, nor of the Mexican authorities paying it any particular extra attention. Which raises questions about why the ship was deemed a "high interest vessel" in the first place.

The decision to avoid New Orleans left a lot of local suppliers of tourism services out of pocket—including, according to press reports, "just about every German translator in town," bus operator Loews Express which had 14 buses reserved for Deutschland guests, and Cajun Pride Swamp Tours.

In this case, the shipowner was in a position to simply not expose a vessel to the rigors of U.S. port security measures. For the most part, though, owners do not have that option. The U.S. simply is too big a player in international trade for international shipowners to stay away en masse. And, there are signs that some owners are starting to find current maritime security measures an irritant.

The real issue, of course, is whether owners are convinced that the new measures actually serve a useful purpose. That raises the issue of whether there is, indeed, a maritime dimension to the international terrorist threat.

The short answer is: absolutely.

On New Year's Eve 2003, the Panamanian-flag tanker Pedoulas, carrying 90,000 tonnes of crude oil was ordered to anchor off the coast of Sydney, Australia, because police and security officials feared it could be attacked by terrorists in Sydney Harbor, where hundreds of thousands of spectators had gathered to welcome in 2004.

According to a report in The Australian, police had been monitoring the movements of a group of Islamic men, including a known militant, believed to be targeting two sites, Pier One Wharf near the Harbour Bridge and the Shell oil terminal at Gore Cove.

On New Year's Eve, as the Pedoulas was heading for Gore Cove, police were secretly keeping track of a small boat with a number men on board who were acting suspiciously in Sydney Harbor.

According to The Australian, the ship was held outside Sydney for 17 hours as a precaution, though the captain was not told the reason for the delay.

Police had been monitoring a group of suspected militants including one named by The Australian as a "Sydney man Saleh Jamal, now jailed in Lebanon on terrorism charges." The suspects took to the harbor in a small boat. They repeatedly cruised past Pier One and the refinery. Some senior police officers were convinced the men in the boat were preparing to detonate a bomb, but surveillance had failed to detect talk of explosives.

Subsequent checks of the boat found no link to explosives.

Four months later, Jamal was arrested in Lebanon and charged with preparing terrorist acts along with three other men.

If nothing else, this incident underscores the fact that security officials are treating the threat of major terrorist incidents involving ships as very, very real.


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