March 07, 2015

Transporting terror by sea

There’s none so blind as those who will not see, which is why writing this column is often frustrating. I feel saddened, not vindicated, when predictions I have made- sometimes years ago-come true. So it was with piracy on the African coasts and its links with terrorist outfits. So it was with my warnings over the years that Islamist terror would spread southward to Northern Africa and beyond. And so it has been, over the last year or so,  with my warnings that jihadists would inevitably use the Mediterranean refugee crisis to infiltrate into Western Europe.

Only now, after the Islamic State has explicitly expressed its intent to use Libyan boat people as a means to flood Europe with its brand of terrorists, is the shipping industry waking up to the threat. But it is probably too late; shipping, to borrow from Connery in a movie, is already between a rock and a hard case.

The hard case, of course, is the IS. Alarm bells have- belatedly, as usual- started ringing in the industry after a Ro-Ro ship found two western stowaways in Italy who were bound for Turkey and then to Syria to join the IS. This was not the first such incident; French and Italian ports have been used before by wannabe fighters wanting to go to Syria from Europe, especially after the aerial route has been strangled. Obviously, people are particularly alarmed at the reverse possibility; that returning IS fighters and other assorted jihadists will try to enter Europe as stowaways on commercial ships. This has added another dimension to the direct threat that the IS has made- exporting terror to Europe through the failed State of Libya. 

The rock is the refugee crisis, and that is is bad enough on its own. Six hundred commercial ships were called to rescue or assist the boat people- numbering around 200,000- in 2014. Merchant ship involvement has increased after the Italian navy stopped its Mare Nostrum sea patrols that were meant to assist the boat people; authorities said the operation was too expensive and was probably encouraging the migrants.  Last July, in an example that is hardly isolated, the Torm Lotte- a tanker with a crew of 20- picked up nearly 600 refugees, mainly Yemenis, Syrians, Libyans and Ethiopians. The small crew had a tough time controlling them, trying to prevent fights breaking out between the refugees and their smugglers, who had also been rescued. 

Shipmasters know how easy it would be for armed terrorists to board their ships this way.

Some shipmanagers and operators say that, given the IS threat, merchant ships should not be called in to rescue refugees in the Mediterranean any longer. This is a knee jerk reaction that goes against legality and one of the oldest traditions of the sea, and I hope Masters will ignore such directives if they are issued. The UN Refugee Agency’s view- that the safety of seafarers should be given equal priority to that of the refugees- is one I agree with, although it begs a stupid question: how do you ensure your crew’s safety when you pick up a few hundred people from a boat- even if they are all unarmed- when meaningful identity checks are impossible?

The industry response to this security threat has been along expected lines. The protection of commerce and ships is what worries people; the threat to crews is, as usual, largely ignored. This is reinforced by the fact that it is P&I clubs, not shipowners or managers, that have issued warnings about IS linked stowaways. Let me remind shipowners that should this game escalate, their ships are likely to be regularly searched  for stowaways by authorities at many ports around the world; those delays will come with significant costs. And that their calculators will threaten to burn big holes in their pockets should, for example, a tanker be taken over by a group of armed terrorists and used as a weapon for spectacular destruction.

By the way, I am now rolling my eyes after reading a news item saying that the IMO has invited the UNHCR to participate in a UN interagency meeting in London next month. One media report had a IMO spokesman saying, “We welcome the opportunity to engage with the IMO and other stakeholders on this complex emergent issue.”

Emergent? What can be predicted a year earlier by a solitary columnist of average intelligence and with zero organisational resources is emergent? What should have been- and probably was, for much longer- glaringly obvious to a UN organisation is emergent?

I will not insult the reader’s intelligence by giving reasons why the industry and its organisations like to pretend they did not see things coming. We see this time and again; suffice it to say that corruption goes beyond bribery, that everybody has their own agendas and that there is little will to solve the problem.

But I will offer a piece of advice to the gentle spokesman from the IMO, and that is this. Loosen your necktie, sir. It is restricting the flow of blood to your brain. 


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