A very real threat to today’s seafarers

Sadly, today’s maritime terrorism is a complicated and multi-faceted problem.  There are many potential perpetrators with an infinite number of associated possible or probable scenarios.  These depend upon whether the threat is targeted at vessels moving along sea lines of communication, or is a threat targeted at a maritime facility from the sea or from the shore.  Using the enormous volume of maritime trade to operate innocuously in the shadows, maritime terrorism threatens modern life because it feeds off economic trade like a parasite.  Terrorists take full advantage of a system founded upon trust and legitimate commercial behaviour to achieve their objectives.  But like any parasite it has weaknesses; in this case, it is highly susceptible to an alert and aware marine industry.

Maritime terrorism has not grabbed the same headlines as Somali piracy or the many terrestrial terrorist outrages that punctuate the new security era.  Seemingly, it is lost in the background noise of the world’s maritime economic system.  There are many reasons for this but the most commonly quoted is that terrorist groups are content to conduct certain aspects of their operations at sea in collaboration with their allies from organised crime, who have wider interests.

Recent history provide examples of how effective maritime terrorism can be both as a direct weapon in the terrorist arsenal and as a malignant influence upon our way of life.  Attacks against military forces, such as USS Cole, or those on commercial targets, such as MV Limburg and the city of Mumbai, go some way to reflect the spectrum of maritime terrorism.

The 2000 attack on USS Cole was an iconic episode in al-Queda’s early campaign against US interests East of Suez; it demonstrated the potential vulnerability of the US military to surprise terrorist attacks.  Media presentation was instrumental in al-Queda’s overall campaign as images of the stricken ship and her casualties played out across the Arab world.  The message was clear, if al-Queda could conduct such a devastating attack on the US military then they really were a regional force to be reckoned with.

The 2002 attack on the 157,000-ton crude oil tanker MV Limburg was different and conducted in the aftermath of the terrorist outrages of 9/11.  Here was an attack from the sea against Western commercial interests; at the time perhaps the opening salvo in al-Queda’s ‘guerre de course’ or ‘economic jihad’.  The impact was immediate: shipping insurance rates spiked, oil prices rose and there was considerable unease from the merchant marine as they continued to transit high risk regional choke points.

Attacks from the sea are a serious facet of the maritime terrorism puzzle.  The recent Mumbai attacks saw terrorists hijack a fishing vessel and use it as a delivery system for their commando assault on the city’s business district.  Here terrorists were able to bypass heightened security in an alerted port to carry out their wide-ranging attack against the economic heart of the Indian sub-continent.  The potential consequences were much greater than the immediate incendiaries and shootings, as it was believed the perpetrators were looking to enflame racial and religious tensions in the hopes of destabilising already problematic Indo-Pakistani relations.

Terrorist use of the sea does not have to result in an outrage or physical attack.  Many modern day security consultants observe there are considerable advantages in terrorists simply blending in with those who use the sea for legitimate purposes or by collaborating with organised crime to affect their desired outcome. There is strong evidence to show how the likes of PIRA, AQ and LTTE have moved personnel and equipment around by sea in support of their higher strategic and operational objectives.  With just two to three percent of marine containers being searched, the low odds of detection will always favour the terrorist or criminal achieving their objectives.

Just as with any military or political campaign, victory in the conventional sense cannot be achieved unless the wider populace is included in the strategy.  In the maritime domain, seafarers and those who work in the shipping industries need to be constructively engaged to counter the threats from terrorism and its associated criminal activity.  This has been made all the more difficult by the complexity of both the target community’s disparate nature and wider society’s increasing “sea-blindness.”  Today’s seafarers represent just a tiny fraction of the global work-force and are spread across more than 70 percent of the globe in small communities (crews) who are, by and large, isolated from the outside world for long periods of time.  Even those who work within related shipping industries can sometimes forget the cornerstone of their economic livelihood is maritime trade.

The process of engagement has to be conducted at many levels, ranging from political sponsorship of the maritime system to encouraging all involved with seaborne trade to report suspicious activity to properly resourced law enforcement agencies.  Seafarers must be educated about these serious threats and those in the shipping industry need to be encouraged to take more effective precautions to prevent themselves from becoming conduits of maritime terror.  If such a public campaign is to succeed, seafarers and those employed in associated industries need to be seen as allies rather than potential adversaries.  Sadly, elements of the legal apparatus, such as ISPS Code, almost treats law abiding seafarers as guilty criminals until they are proven innocent.  This inappropriate and draconian approach needs to change if industry-level engagement is to be enduring and ultimately successful.                                

The wider maritime industry could help resolve this trust-related issue by embarking upon effective security screening for all employees.  Here lessons can be learnt from international airlines and airports; employee screening and back-ground security checks are an accepted part of everyday recruitment and business.  Because the aviation business has been a victim of high profile terrorist attacks for 40 years it is leading the way in delivering unobtrusive employee screening and monitoring.  This proactive stance would allow a more rational approach to be taken with the personnel-related requirements of ISPS.  Accepting this would incur an additional cost for ship owners.  It should be seen as no more alien than the expenses of associated crew training or just another aspect of the costs required for securing an entry level position within the marine industry.

Educating seafarers and those working ashore as to what constitutes suspicious behaviour is something which could be routinely undertaken as part of ongoing training. This would ensure security issues are given the right level of attention along-side HSE or company sponsored working practices campaigns.  It is no longer acceptable for security to be relegated to a quick training presentation just before a ship’s ISM audit or a port facility’s ISPS inspection.  If the industry is to successfully involve the very people who will report unusual behaviour or suspicious events, then security education, awareness and responsibility should form a training trinity both at the personal and corporate level.

In summary, an alert maritime industry and an aware population are governments’ best weapons against the maritime terrorist threat.