The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General recently released a report on DHS’ strategy to address small boat threats in U.S. waters. The report, “DHS’ Strategy and Plans to Counter Small Vessel Threats Need Improvement” (OIG-09-100), criticizes Customs & Border Protection (CBP), the Coast Guard and DHS policy for failing to write a complete strategy that includes measures of effectiveness and resource requirements. The criticism may be technically deserved, but there may be a good reason for its shortcomings.
The threat of a small boat attack in the U.S is real. Terrorist enemies are known to use means of attack that are tested and have proven effective in the past. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) guerrillas developed and perfected small boat attack methods that were emulated by terrorists around the globe. The USS Cole attack is an example. U.S. efforts to destroy al Qaeda and associated terrorist groups have prevented major attacks on the U.S. since 9/11 but the recent breakup of a domestic terrorist threat planning to use high explosives highlights the continuing danger. Past performance and the desire to use high explosives suggests that a small boat might be a preferred method of delivery for a terrorist attack in the U.S. The small boat could come from within the U.S., sail from a neighboring country or be launched from a mothership offshore. Current migrant and contraband smuggling activities to the U.S. using small boats prove that this avenue of attack is viable.
DHS leadership knows that understanding and control of small boat activity in and around the U.S. is key to addressing the small boat terrorism threat. But DHS leadership also understands that the small boating public is known for its vocal protection of privacy and independence, and the participation of the small boating public is absolutely critical to addressing the terrorist threat in our waterways. A top down grand strategy with draconian requirements would be strongly resisted by the small boating public and doomed to failure. Wisely, DHS leadership issued this first strategy as the first salvo in a long campaign to win the buy-in and participation of a group of loyal, but independent citizens desperately needed to be part of the solution. That is why the DHS Inspector General did not find many of the elements you might expect to find in a top-down strategy. The current DHS small boat threat strategy is the start of a bottom up solution. In the long run, this approach will have more success than a traditional top-down strategy. While this bottom up strategy begins to take shape, DHS must continue its aggressive implementation of Maritime Domain Awareness regimes and improve DHS operating agency coordination both internally and with State and local law enforcement to address the small boat attack threat.