Will you be ready?

Will you be ready?

At 2:17 on a Wednesday afternoon, the container ship XYZ enters the outer harbor of the Port of Long Beach. It has just completed an 18-day voyage from Port Kelang, Malaysia, where it took on cargoes transshipped from Karachi, Pakistan; Chennai, India; and Belawan, Indonesia. Due to backlogged conditions in Long Beach, the ship must wait an additional six days before it can dock at Pier J-243, where longshoremen wait to unload its cargoes.

Stowed above its decks among the hundreds of random containers is one with a manifest saying the box contains used oil-drilling equipment. Among the container's contents are various sections of drill shafts, miscellaneous tools and a working electrical generator. The generator, however, is more than it appears. It has been cleverly engineered to conceal 500 pounds of high explosives, together with 55 pounds of cesium-137, a low-level radionuclide. The "dirty bomb" has been rigged with GPS tracking sensors and a detonator that utilizes a cell-phone triggering mechanism.

Roughly 1,600 miles away, in a small apartment building in Lawrence, Kan., the progress of the XYZ is vigilantly monitored by a team of three al-Qaida operatives using laptop computers and an Internet GSP tracking program. The ship is actually one of three carrying compromised containers, but is the last of the three to arrive at its port of call. By plan, the two other ships have arrived 72 hours earlier at New York and Baltimore, with their deadly containers already offloaded and awaiting a delivery that will never take place.

At 5:51 p.m., the container on the XYZ is hoisted into the air by a terminal gantry crane and swung out over the pier for lowering onto a chassis. The movement registers on the terrorists' GPS tracking software, which they have been watching closely. By detonating the container while in the process of offloading, they know they can increase blast damage, human casualties, radiological dispersion and psychological terror.

The explosion instantly kills five dockworkers and four of the ship's crew, while spreading a blanket of contamination the diameter of three football fields. Seconds later, the containers in New York and Baltimore are triggered. Similar to the FAA grounding of all aircraft on Sept 11, 2001, the attacks force an immediate closure of U.S. ports and borders, and commercial shipping comes to a standstill. The economic damage runs in an order of magnitude to the attacks on the World Trade Center.

Why this scenario could happen today:

-- Somewhere along a cargo's end-to-end journey and multiple touch points there will likely be at least one person, procedure or facility that will represent a potential area of vulnerability and exploitability. If we know anything about terrorists, we know that their modus operandi is to patiently observe, probe, test and rehearse, with the desired result in this case being either the compromising of someone else's container, or hiding a bomb within a "legitimate" shipment of their own. (ABC News demonstrated this point by successfully smuggling depleted uranium into the U.S., two years in a row.)

-- Passive radiation detectors - including the Personal Radiation Detectors currently worn by U.S. Customs - can be defeated with only a moderate amount of shielding. They are also incapable of distinguishing between the readings produced by an actual dirty bomb and the "false positives" produced by commercial items that emit naturally occurring radiation, such as bananas, cocoa powder, drilling shafts, kitty litter, porcelain and clay tile. (Remember the Palermo Senator?) In the words of one radiation expert, "It would be like trying to find a needle in a haystack."

-- Active detection systems are much more accurate but will only be as effective as the number of containers that they can screen. Therefore, the technology must be coupled with a strategy that spreads the workload "upstream" into smaller originating ports vs. trying to perform this task solely or principally at the mega-ports participating in the Container Security Initiative.

The Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington think tank, estimated the chance of a successful dirty bomb attack within the next 10 years to be as high as 40 percent, with other experts predicting some form of weapon of mass destruction attack as "inevitable." Trade-dependent companies should prepare by developing new security-influenced business models and supply-chain contingency and consequence-mitigation plans. If the next attack happens on your watch, will you be ready?

William G. "Jerry" Peck is president and founder of Global Trade Management Solutions. He can be reached at (815) 462-1732, or via e-mail at wgpeck@global-trade-ms.com.