SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Beneath the blackjack tables and bulging all-you-can-eat buffets, divers search cruise ship hulls for explosives. At the docks, workers screen passengers for weapons and contraband.
In the wake of the Sept. 11 suicide hijackings, security has been tightened aboard the giant vessels that can stretch nearly a quarter of a mile long and carry thousands of passengers.
In the United States, Coast Guard boats have been escorting cruise ships into port since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and cruise companies have been submitting crew and passengers’ names to the FBI and immigration officials for checks.
Governments forced the industry to implement minimum security measures after terrorists, hoping to smuggle weapons into Israel, hijacked the Italian cruiseliner Achille Lauro in 1985 and killed an American passenger.
A spokesman for Carnival Cruises said the company has gone to their highest security level since Sept. 11. Still, security experts say that with attention focused on air safety, cruise ships could be enticing targets for terrorists.
"When you protect air, land and other targets, terrorists are going to look for soft targets," said Rohan Gunaratna, a research fellow at the Center for Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at Scotland’s University of St. Andrews. "Cruise ships are considered prestigious because there is a perception that they are filled with wealthy Americans."
Gunaratna — who has been asked by various governments to work as a consultant and question terrorists from the Middle East, Latin America and Asia — said groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah and al-Qaida are being trained for maritime attacks.
Cruise ship officials say that since Sept. 11 they have added security personnel and increased staff, making their ships far less vulnerable than planes. They also say modern construction with watertight compartments makes ships difficult to sink.
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