An awful lot of cargo containers are received into the US every day. In a conversation I had with someone today about ISIS, they mentioned how easy it would be to sneak something aboard one of these cargo containers, as a very small percentage get inspected. Thinking about it, I know it wouldn't be "that easy" but what are the real barriers that might have to be thought around by our fictional terrorist?

Let's make the following assumptions:

The weapon is larger than a suitcase, but smaller than a car. Feel free to have some leeway here, as if size is really an issue, we can accommodate it somehow (using a smaller explosion and relying more on some other means to cause damage (nuclear or chemical weapon)).

We can transport the item to a port or package it in such a way that it doesn't immediately look suspicious. Alternatively, we have people working at the origin port, the workers can be bribed, or we have means of getting the item onboard.

We do not have anyone paid off or working in the US port. We do have someone who can pick up the package in a way that looks legitimate once it is off the vessel. Let's assume that all normal safeguards are working and in place as normal.

The item might let off some radiation or chemical traces that could be detected by scanners. We may have sufficient access to line the cargo container to prevent this from being detected unless opened.

We can bribe or threaten someone with a legitimate business connection in the US to get our item on a shipping container, and other items will be in the container.

How likely is it that our package gets into the port itself on the ship? How likely is it it will get off the ship and delivered to our operative? What sort of preventative measures (that are public knowledge at least) would stop it?

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    $\begingroup$ I believe only a small percentage are flagged for checking. There are also various sensors they use for examining cargo. In general though, the answer is the same answer to what prevents ANY crime from being committed. Human Intelligence. People get nervous, people get greedy, people get drunk, people get horny, people brag. People spill the beans or act so suspicious they get watched. "Terrorists" also have limited time, interest, money, resources, and contacts. So a lot of things are too difficult or complicated to do. And honestly most volunteer organizations are kinda sloppy. $\endgroup$ – user2259716 Apr 24 '17 at 18:59
  • $\begingroup$ This question is about how a 'fictional terrorist' can get a bomb into the US, and is thus on-topic. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Apr 24 '17 at 19:01
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    $\begingroup$ In it's current form "How likely is a plot" it's off-topic. If It was formulated "How likely is plot X where X is defined as ....." It would be on-topic. $\endgroup$ – sphennings Apr 24 '17 at 19:04
  • $\begingroup$ My friend's colleagues ;) But really. Not posting as an answer because it doesn't add much to @kingelodion 's answer. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Apr 24 '17 at 20:49
  • $\begingroup$ Not a total answer, but many major ports have sensors to detect fissionable materials ?neutron detectors? and the shipping containers have to pass through them. Seriously doubt they have any chemical sensors. If you plan to use chemicals, may be easier to source locally rather then trying to ship. $\endgroup$ – Blackbeagle Apr 24 '17 at 21:13

Shipping companies like to track their cargoes

Obviously, no shipping company wants to be held responsible for letting a container filled with bombs in to the country. The primary and first line of defense against such a container entering the country is the shipping companies themselves.

International logistics are complicated. Cargo ships from the big companies generally run 'rings' around the world; for example, they might go eastward from the Mediterranean through the Suez, stopping in the Middle East and India a few times, then through the Straits of Malacca. After a few stops in the Far East, they cross the Pacific, hit the US West coast, and then the Panama Canal. After the US East coast, they would then cross the Atlantic, do the Strait of Gibraltar, and continue around the world again.

The shipping company will plan for containers of stuff to meet the ship at its ports. If you have some non-time sensitive stuff to ship from Chicago to Beijing, the goods would go by truck or train to a busy US east coast port like New York, Norfolk, Savannah, or Jacksonville, then get loaded on to the ship, sail eastwards around the world to China, then offload at Tianjin or Shanghai and train the rest of the way to Beijing.

Given the complications of massive international inventories, cargo ship's inventories are run by computers, and by people who are paid to know what is on the ships and where it is going.

Specific ways shipping companies will detect terrorist cargoes

First off, lets understand that shipping cargo carriers are done by big business. The largest carriers in the world are almost 1000 times larger than the 100th largest. The top 10 carriers have 71% market share, and the top 30 about 90%. And this is worldwide carriers; the US is even more dominated by the largest carriers (who can afford to the trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific routes, smaller carriers tend to do regional routes like West Africa or Indian Ocean).

While your friend says that "a very small percentage get inspected," he may be correct only regarding official government agents. Shipping companies and merchant mariners need to know what is in their containers to they can properly store and stack them. Weight in particular is a great concern. A dead giveaway for a falsely registered container would be improper weight.

In addition to the ship operator's natural interest in knowing about the contents of a container, because modern companies are large multi-modal carriers, they usually have a good bit of knowledge about the provenance of the containers. Most shipping companies will vet their business relationships with land carriers (by rail or truck) to ensure that they will only be carrying legitimate business. Since the systems of most of these carriers are also automated, the ability to ensure the origin and contents of cargo is much higher than it was 20 years ago.

Lastly, big shipping companies simply won't take the risk of doing business with pariah countries. Apart from terrorism, no shipping company wants to be censured, fined, or criminally prosecuted for violating customs or sanctions. Given the sanctions against groups like ISIS (and also Iran, and others), shipping companies can't afford to let in containers that originate in those territories.


It would be very hard for terrorist to get a bomb onto a container onto a ship that was headed for the US. Shipping companies just aren't going to Latakia to pick up cargoes these days, and the the small regional carriers that do tend not to do much business with the United States because of the distances involved.

Even if terrorists could get a container through a smaller carrier to a big port like Jebel Ali or Istanbul, shipping companies simply wouldn't take a container of unknown provenance sight unseen at pier side. They would inspect the contents first then seal it and a load it.

The only likely way to get a bomb into the US is to completely disguise it as a non-bomb object. That, however, sounds more like the plot of a Bond movie than something ISIS is capable of.

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    $\begingroup$ Also customs DO check containers, coming and going, to make sure that the stuff inside is what the packing list says it is, in order to prevent smuggling. They might not identify the bomb, but they can spot items not on the packing list $\endgroup$ – nzaman Apr 24 '17 at 19:44
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    $\begingroup$ As someone who has shipped fossils around the world I can tell you that the trace amounts of uranium in certain fossil beds are enough to set off some sensors. I generally try to put a person on the ground for anything coming back into the states becasue inspectors can be very... not gentle when inspecting flagged containers. $\endgroup$ – John Apr 24 '17 at 22:20
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    $\begingroup$ There's another reason that shippers should darn well know what's in those containers, and that's undeclared/improperly declared hazmat/DG -- that stuff has a body count associated with it, even before you get terrorists involved. $\endgroup$ – Shalvenay Apr 24 '17 at 23:37
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    $\begingroup$ @john so are bananas. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Apr 25 '17 at 3:39

kingledion has already given a brilliant answer on how this terrorist might be caught by the shippers but there is also a very good reason why it might not make it that far. There are two use cases for a bomb in a shipping container:

  1. You're shipping the bomb for someone else's use
  2. You plan to blow up the bomb in the container

If you're shipping the bomb to someone else you run into all the problem of people checking the provenance and then some. Even assuming you make it past the checks that kingledion has identified then you need to deliver to container to someone who will not arouse the suspicion of the local anti-terror organisation and has the capability to deal with a container without it seeming odd. Which means you need a whole lot of people in that legitimate business concern and they all need to be sufficiently cowed. One person saying there's something suspicious going on and you've got the local police paying the container very close attention.

To be worth all this the bomb would have to be very special, otherwise homemade bombs would suffice. ANFO, and the like, is scarily easy to make at home. NBCR (Nuclear, Chemical, Biological, Radilogical) might be worth it but you would have a lot of extra scrutiny to get your hands on something like that.

If you plan to blow up the bomb in the container you run into another set of problems. First you're putting the bomb in a giant metal box. You will need a lot of explosives if you don't want the container, and everything else in it, to absorb the blast. It can be done but you'd be pushing up to and past the small car size. Second you're putting the bomb in a giant metal box. That metal skin is going to act as a Fraday cage and block out almost all radio signals. You can set a timer of have a switch that will trigger when you open the door, but that is the limits of your control. That leads on to the third problem. Containers spend most of their time with a bunch of other containers and very few people around. If you can't pick your target the bomb is most likely to damage the ship its on or go boom in a container lot and cause a fright but not much damage.

In conclusion shipping a bomb by container is hard to do and would be unlikely to bring any significant payoff that could not be achieved with homemade bombs. The more sensible option would be to stop by a farming supply store.

  • $\begingroup$ What is NBCR? I can’t find a definition for that. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Apr 25 '17 at 3:45
  • $\begingroup$ Nuclear, Biological, Chemical, Radiological, weapons of mass destruction essentually. Sorry I should have put in a definition. $\endgroup$ – Static Apr 25 '17 at 4:26
  • $\begingroup$ You still can and should. Follow my example that I already edited into your post. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Apr 25 '17 at 4:26
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    $\begingroup$ Trying to think like the bad guy for a minute here... While the objective damage made by a container bomb might be very limited, the blow to global trading (and thereby the economy) might be huge. Imagine an already protectionist POTUS issuing orders about draconic security on all ports handling containers to the US. Imagine the consequences for companies relying on global trade and logistics. Imagine the hit om Chinas economy... $\endgroup$ – Guran Apr 25 '17 at 8:30
  • $\begingroup$ @Guran Imagine the hit on the US economy of the scenario you describe. All but barring imports is going to have a massive impact on the economy at least in the short to medium term. $\endgroup$ – user Apr 25 '17 at 10:57

Not very much other than it being pointless.

You can probably add your item into a shipment with a cargo consolidator as a LCL type shipment. It's pretty handy when you're moving between countries, and it's harder for folks to work out it was your load. You wouldn't need a whole container.

That said, the average container is huge and any explosive big enough to burst through the container and do damage would also be easy to detect. Most ports have radiation detectors these days. Many common 'homemade' explosives also have a volatile component that's detectable.

It's probably possible to X-ray an entire container quickly with modern technology too. Those things are cool.

  • $\begingroup$ What's a LCL type shipment? $\endgroup$ – user Apr 25 '17 at 11:01
  • $\begingroup$ ... Less Container Load. Pretty much "I need space in a container but not all of it". Containers are pretty cheap too. $\endgroup$ – Journeyman Geek Apr 25 '17 at 11:02

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