Is Cruising Safe? A Chilling Look at an Industry Under Siege


A member of Spanish Guardia Civil stands guard, as the MSC Splendida cruise ship, some of whose passengers were among the victims of a terrorist attack in Tunisia, arrives at the port of Barcelona on March 20. (Photo: Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

This week, I attended an annual trade show where tens of thousands of members of the cruise industry meet in Miami Beach to discuss trends in the world of cruising. The executives present a “state of the cruise industry” speech. The CEOs of Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL), and MSC Cruises discussed building bigger ships and expanding into new markets such as Cuba and China.

The CEO of NCL remarked that “Libya, Syria, Egypt, and Lebanon could be more lucrative than Cuba.” The convention audience politely applauded and the other cruise executives smiled.

I couldn’t help tweeting “have you heard of ISIS?”

The following day, fanatics targeted cruise-ship passengers, killing or injuring 38 people from Costa and MSC cruise ships visiting Tunisia. The victims were in tour buses attending a museum as part of excursions marketed on the Costa Fascinosa and MSC Splendida. News accounts indicate that the terrorists waited for the buses to arrive from the ships and then “hunted the tourists down.”

When I was a child, I lived with my family in Libya. The Libyan people were peaceful and friendly. The country was beautiful. We have friends in Libya today. I always dreamed about traveling there and showing my family where I grew up. But it’s inconceivable now because of the risk of jihadist violence.

As a maritime lawyer, my advice to travelers contemplating cruising to North African countries is the same, for these reasons.

Related: Following Tunisia Attack, is North Africa Safe for Tourists?

As a history major, I look at this issue with a historical perspective. The Palestinian Liberation Organization’s (PLO) attack on the Achille Lauro cruise ship in the Mediterranean in 1985 instantly comes to mind. The PLO hijacked the Italian cruise ship after it left Port Said, Egypt. Leon Klinghoffer, an American Jew from New York, was sailing on the cruise ship with his wife. Four heavily armed PLO terrorists hijacked the cruise ship and targeted Jewish passengers. There were over 20 nationalities of passengers booked on the cruise, but the terrorists stated that U.S. citizens would be the first to be executed if their demands were not met. They picked Mr. Klinghoffer, who was disabled and in a wheelchair. The terrorists shot him in the chest and head, then forced two crew members to dump him over the side of the cruise ship.

The terrorists demanded that the captain sail the ship to Syria and that Israel release 50 Palestinian prisoners. After a two-day drama, the hijackers surrendered, in exchange for a pledge of safe passage out of Egypt to Tunisia. But when an Egyptian jet tried to fly the hijackers away from justice, U.S. Navy F-14 fighters intercepted the jet and forced it to land in Sicily. The terrorists were taken into custody by Italian authorities. The four terrorists were convicted and sentenced to jail.


The cruise ship Achille Lauro, which was hijacked in the Mediterranean, off the Egyptian coast. (Photo: AP Photo)

Terrorism against tourists has continued since Achille Lauro. But religious terrorists won’t agree to surrender and be arrested any longer; they seem more likely to blow up themselves and anyone around them.

Former Director of Security at Princess Cruises, Commander Mark Gaouette, authored a bestselling book “Cruising for Trouble: Cruise Ships as Soft Targets for Pirates, Terrorists, and Common Criminals“ in 2006. He points out that Islamic extremists have taken steps to target cruise ships since the 1990’s. Gaouette has also worked for Homeland Security and is an expert on the subject of cruise-ship safety and the threat of international terrorism. Gaouette wrote that terrorists are targeting passengers, yet cruise lines are not taking adequate steps to protect passengers from harm.

This week, he criticized the cruise industry’s weak security measures. ”I believe the risk management process failed to properly assess the extremely volatile situation in North Africa,” he told IHS Maritime. ”At a minimum, more security should have been required for that excursion in the form of armed police or military escort, and armed presence at the museum itself.”

Related: How the Cruise Industry is Coping with ISIS Attacks on Passengers in Tunisia

Rescue workers evacuate children and adults after gunmen opened fire at the Bardo museum in Tunisia’s capital on Wednesday, March 18. (Photo: Ali Ben Salah/AP)

In 2012, CNN revealed a disturbing story regarding Al Qaeda’s planned attack on cruise ships. CNN’s article was titled “Documents Reveal al Qaeda’s Plans to Seize Cruise Ships.” The CNN article explained that an Al Qaeda operative was caught with encoded digital data, which, once deciphered, revealed some of the terror group’s “most audacious plots and a road map for future operations.”

The terrorist group had far-reaching plans to conduct operations in Europe and to kill cruise-ship passengers in the Mediterranean as part of its reign of terror. The terrorists would “start executing passengers on those ships and demand the release of particular prisoners.” The plan would include “dressing passengers in orange jumpsuits, as if they were al Qaeda prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and then videotaping their execution.”

The South Florida Business Journal, here in Miami, also covered the story, stating: “the Coast Guard, cruise ship and facility operators, and law enforcement officials generally believe waterside attacks are a concern for cruise ships. Agency officials and terrorism researchers also identified terrorists boarding a cruise ship as a concern.”

In 2012, I published an article titled “Mideast Violence is Reminder of Vulnerability of U.S. Based Cruise Ships.” I included reference to numerous studies by security companies and U.S. governmental organizations, which have studied terrorist organizations and concluded that terrorism against cruise ships is likely.

The Center for Terrorism Risk Management Policy published a comprehensive study in 2006 about terrorism against shipping companies. It concluded that targeting and killing cruise ship passengers was a likely scenario.

The World Cruise Industry Review publication concluded that a likely terrorist scenario is the hijacking of a cruise ship and its passengers: “A cruise ship is boarded and commandeered, while perpetrators hold and potentially injure or kill passengers if demands are not met — as in the Achille Lauro attack.”

Related: They Fell Overboard … and Lived! Craziest Cruise Survival Tales

In 2012, I wrote a second article “Can Cruise Ships Keep Passengers Safe in the Middle East?” I was concerned with protests in Egypt and Libya and threats of violence against tourists. After dictator Colonel Gaddafi of Libya was killed, the country went into chaos and, in my assessment, became more dangerous to U.S. citizens than ever. There were violent demonstrations in North Africa on the anniversary of 9/11 and the U.S. Ambassador to Libya in Benghazi was murdered.

I wrote that “the current strategy (of cruise lines) seems to be to simply skip ports in Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia until things calm down. But that’s a short-term fix; when the street protests are over, there remains the risk of jihadists plotting a cruise ship to target. Will the cruise security teams be ready? If terrorists can over-power several heavily armed U.S. Marines and kill our Ambassador in Libya, does anyone really think that they are safe sailing on a Holland America Line or Princess cruise ship sailing into Tunis or Port Said?”

Later in 2012, newspapers in Cyprus and Israel reported that security forces in Cyprus thwarted a planned terror attack against Israeli cruise ship passengers. Cypriot security forces seized a powerful explosive in the port of Limassol. The explosive was described as capable of causing “massive damage.” The newspapers stated that the perpetrators intended to target Israeli tourists visiting on cruise ships to Cyprus which is a popular tourist destination for Israelis.


A damaged bus after a deadly explosion near the Egyptian border through the bus filled with South Korean sightseers. (AP Photo)

In February 2014, a bomb exploded on a bus carrying South Korean sightseers near an Egyptian border with Israel. You can watch the violent explosion on Live Leak. There have been other tourists targeted on buses carrying tourists in Egypt over the years.

Last month, I predicted that it was only matter of time before terrorists would launch an attack targeting cruise passengers in Morocco, Tunisia, or Egypt. In my article “ISIS Poses Terrorist Threat to Cruise Ships in Mediterranean,” I wrote:

“We have all seen the stories on CNN about the gruesome killing and beheading of innocent aid workers and journalists by ISIS in an effort to terrorize the televised world. In the last two weeks, we have also read stories about the barbaric burning-alive-in-a-cage of the Jordanian pilot and the beheading of twenty-one Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya …

As we sit in front of the television in our homes here in the U.S., we all feel safe from the terrorists, don’t we? The beheadings are, after all, over there, in foreign places like Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and other unstable Arab countries.

But when U.S. citizens decide to fly to Europe and go on a cruise vacation with their family in the Mediterranean, are they placing themselves in harm’s way? In a word, yes …

Families thinking of cruising in the Pacific Northwest (Seattle, Vancouver, Alaska) may be reasonably safe from an ISIS attack. A terrorist attack seems extremely unlikely to happen in the Caribbean. But sailing into a port in Morocco, Tunisia or Egypt on a cruise ship? It’s not a matter of if. It’s just a matter of when.”

Cruise lines have an obligation to avoid potentially dangerous ports and to warn of dangers throughout the entire cruise. The comment by the cruise executive this week about how potentially “lucrative” the North African ports may be to the cruise industry, without any recognition of the history of danger there, is a scary indicator of the mindset of the cruise industry today.

Jim Walker is the editor of Cruise Law News and a Miami-based maritime lawyer.