A recent Canadian assessment of the country’s maritime security vulnerabilities asserts that the threat to Canada’s maritime borders has increased. The report shows that Canada has no satisfactory plan to counter the national security threats posed by small boats in heavily trafficked maritime border areas.
The report specifically mentions the possibility of terrorists organizations such as al-Qaeda and/or their numerous global affiliates conducting vessel based improvised explosive device attacks (VBIED) against civilian or industrial targets. This type of attack involves complex organizational structure, planning and execution, but the recent popularity of this method in areas of the Middle East shows that many terror cells are capable of conducting and even coordinating massive VBIED assaults.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, however, assesses that al-Qaeda’s diminished organizational capacity and other geopolitical factors have lead the organization and its franchises to focus specifically on regional operations in the Middle East. Overall, the U.S. government assigns a very low-level of risk to the possibility of al-Qaeda on the Great Lakes.
Although al-Qaeda may be focused elsewhere, the Canadian report makes a valid warning that there is potential for exploitation. There is a risk in the millions of small boats that traverse the Great Lakes– they have easy access to major ports, bridges, nuclear power plants and civilian ferries. In fact, DHS has admitted that civilian ferries are perhaps the most likely to suffer a VBIED attack due to the heightened security around the other, harder targets.
The report notes that such attacks have been already seen in this hemisphere in Colombia and Mexico. It is possible that Canada’s recent steps to tighten their surveillance of small vessels on the Great Lakes will diminish the threat-level.
But until there is a joint-effort from both the United States and Canada, the vulnerability remains– and even if there isn’t anyone around to exploit it right now, that doesn’t mean this vital marine transportation hub will remain safe forever: The regional population sits at 32 million people and produces 50% of all U.S. manufacturing output and 66% of Canada’s.