September 10, 2008

Warlords, Drug lords and the new anatomy of ship security

In January this year, this column carried a piece (ISPSo Facto) which highlighted the farcical unworkability of the ISPS code as applied hurriedly and without thought to seagoing ships today. My opinion remains that the ISPS code is overwhelmingly impractical and unworkable in its present form.

For those of us who thought that we could cheer up because things could not possibly get worse, we now have some news. They probably will; I can see the writing on the wall. New threats are emerging or old ones dramatically escalating in different areas of the world. Let us look at just two such areas today: the Horn of Africa and the US East Coast.

Piracy, or more accurately, hijackings of ships, has been an unpleasant fact on the Somali coast for almost a decade and a half. The difference between the time I was plying on the coast (Red Sea/Yemen to Kenya/Tanzania) and now is that the killing zone has moved north and threatens the entrance to the Red Sea, and indirectly traffic through the Suez Canal.

In the last four months, seven ships have been hijacked off the Horn of Africa. A third of recent piracy attacks worldwide have been in this area which is a critical shipping route, situated as it is at the entrance to the Red Sea. Four ships were hit on the same day recently; close to a hundred crewmembers were kidnapped on that one day alone. The number of reported attacks on ships has tripled this year; industry experts believe that many incidents remain unreported.

In the past, ransoms up to millions of dollars have been paid for safe release of ships and crews. Past (and present?) Somali links with Al Qaeda make this anarchic country, with no government since 1991 and in the grip of warlords, a particular cause for concern.

And before I forget, one more thing has changed: owing largely to the fact that the shipping industry has done nothing except ransom ships (and crews, though they are always collateral damage to the industry) with millions of dollars each (ransoms for European ships are higher, which should tell us something about the value of skin colour), the IMB in Malaysia recommends ships now stay 200 miles off the Somali coast, compared to the 100 recommended when I was on a liner service there last a few years ago. We think that this is acceptable progress and good risk management after a more than a decade in that hostile environment.

Threats in the United States emanate from an old enemy that has learnt new tricks: The US Coast Guard says that in this year alone, they have detected twenty seven semi submersibles headed for the United States, each carrying up to ten tonnes of cocaine. This is greater than the number of such known submarines in the last six years combined, and represents a dramatic escalation in the drugs trade and consequent security concerns. The number of submarines undetected is, of course, anybody’s guess.

Eighty feet long and with a military design (fingers are pointed at ex Soviet Union technology and technicians working in manufacturing facilities in the river estuaries of Colombia), these sleekly designed drug subs, each with a crew of two, twin silent propellers and with a profile above water only eighteen inches high (just enough to take in oxygen and release exhaust), can carry drugs thousands of miles and at a decent speed directly from Colombia to the US coastline. These semi submersibles, almost identical to military submarines, mark a significant advancement in the ability of drug smugglers to pose a serious threat to the United States. This method of smuggling cocaine is a generational leap in drug smuggling and does not need corrupt officials ashore to be successful. To make this nightmare complete, these subs are undetectable by radar and not visible except at very close range.

And by the way: these submarines are abandoned after drug drops on the US mainland even though each costs several million dollars to manufacture; the street price of the drugs each one carries is worth tens of millions of dollars on the streets of the US and so a few million can be written off without discomfort.

Officials in the Department of Homeland Security are very worried at the increased sophistication of these drug subs. Officials fear that the submarines can easily deliver terrorists or weapons, including unthinkable and unspeakable ones, into the USA.

I guess what these stories are telling us is that the threat perception of a few years ago is already redundant, and that the ISPS code cannot cater to the rapidly escalating security scenario; hell, it can barely cater to normal operations at the best of times.

We have been often told of the links between terrorism and organised crime. Hawala linked to Dawood Ibrahim, the ISI and the WTC bombers. LTTE cadres are carriers into Europe for Columbian drug lords. Indonesian terrorist and separatist groups in Aceh linked to the Bali bombings and Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda linked to everybody’s aunt including terrorists in the Philippines. The Taliban being opium financed and created by the Pakistani ISI. Past links between the IRA and the Columbian drug lords.

What are the chances that these links will get stronger? Should we not assume that they already have? And if so, what do we think will happen?

I expect the immediate threat to shipping around the Horn of Africa to be resolved by military force of some kind, though partially; Somalia has a 3200 mile coastline. I also expect that boarding of hijacked merchant ships on the high seas by military commandos will become more of a possibility, as will some in house measures, including the use of armed security personnel by some owners; at least one is already doing so. Insurance may well get more expensive, too.

Around the US Coast, and given the fact that those mini subs are alleged to get logistical support from private vessels at sea, I expect an increase in overt and covert surveillance, combined with perhaps raised vessel reporting and other requirements. I expect that the US will take action on this quickly; they have a hole through which a few hundred tonnes of anything can be brought in annually, breathing or otherwise, and seemingly at will.

I expect new legislation in many countries and pressure on the IMO to strengthen existing security resolutions, the end result of which will be to increase operating costs somewhat, reduce again the Master’s authority in the open sea while increasing his responsibility and contribute to fatigue of already stressed out crews. Daily ISPS checks of the ship at sea, anybody?

In short, I expect more of the same post WTC attack (if you are not with us, you are against us) kind of responses. In addition, I expect they will be as unworkable and as unsuccessful as those, because, to repeat while getting blue in the face, ships crews are ill manned, ill equipped, ill trained and too overworked to deal with security, terrorism and organised crime in any meaningful way. Asking them to do this is like asking pilots and cabin crew to be responsible for security at JFK.

There is one thing we can do this time around, however. The shipping industry can engage countries like the US and organisations like the IMO and help them in bringing about changes that are practical and workable. Whether in Somalia, the US today, or another region tomorrow, we should not be caught flat footed as we were last time, when ill conceived and hasty regulations were stuffed down our throats. Industry bodies must engage the IMO and Marine Departments of countries meaningfully; regulations once written tend to be etched in stone, so it is much better to have a hand in shaping them. India, too, must strengthen the quality of its IMO contingent.

If all this hoo haa results in elements of ship security being outsourced to professional outfits, then we are also looking at an upward pressure on freight rates, besides insurance costs. That is another piece of math the industry could do well to flesh out, starting now.

Incidentally, this is also a good time for the maritime world to try to tweak the present ISPS code to make it workable.

Finally, Masters of vessels bound for the Gulf of Aden or down the Somali coast would do well to start exercising their minds with some, “What if” scenarios, two hundred miles off the coast or not. Scenarios like, “what do I do if six men with grenade launchers and AK47s knock on my door right now?”

Lie back and enjoy it?


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