September 21, 2013

Thick skins and thicker red lines

I am convinced that one big reason that the maritime industry remains remarkably sanguine about attacks on ships and their crews is that managers and shipowners live and work far away and are never at risk themselves. Of course, another big reason is that ships are insured. Sometimes I feel that the only way of putting the security of our crews on a high agenda is to make it mandatory for a senior manager, owner or IMO official to sail on every ship passing through every piracy, terrorist or high-threat zone.

That the recent terrorist RPG attack on Cosco Asia in the Suez Canal was downplayed by the Egyptian army came as no surprise; that country would be economically crippled if the Suez were to shut down. The industry’s reaction was par for the course too- alarm at the economic repercussions and the possibility of thousands of miles of extra steaming; zero concern about safety of crews or the potential environmental catastrophe of such an attack.

Around another maritime chokepoint- the Bab El Mandab Straits at the entrance to the Red Sea- lies Yemen. The UK Government issued the highest possible security alert last month for shipping operating off the Yemeni coast last month (security was raised to the exceptional ISPS level 3, indicating a ‘probably or imminent’ attack). Despite the uselessness of the ISPS Code and the history in that region- the USS Cole and the tanker Lindberg suicide attacks both took place in and around Yemen- the rest of the industry did not seem to care about the enhanced threat. Just as it never cared that pirates and Al Qaeda lined terrorist groups in Somalia were hand in glove, and still are. 

Chokepoint attacks on ships are nothing new. Terrorist attacks planned in the Straits of Gibraltar have been foiled at the last minute. Decades old piracy attacks off Singapore and Indonesia have counted on the fact that the crews of mammoth ships passing through severely restricted waters in the Malacca and Singapore Straits are sitting ducks; ship Captains have close to zero room to manoeuvre. Anybody who has transitted the Suez Canal- or the Bosporus Strait or Panama Canal for that matter- knows how ridiculously easy it would be for a couple of guys to attack a ship there, whether sailing or at anchor. Few ashore appreciate the fact that parts of the Suez, for example, are only 300 metres wide, just a little wider than the lengths of the bigger ships that transit it. Hell, like those involved in the Cosco Asia attack, terrorists even have time to film the attack and post it on YouTube.

And let’s not forget the 8 year long Iran-Iraq war here. In and around another chokepoint- the Straits of Hormuz- the ‘tanker war’ of attrition during that conflict targeted merchant ships for years, raining French cruise and air to surface missiles on defenceless merchantmen and their crews. These were not terrorist attacks; these were calculated military attacks on innocent- usually foreign- cargo ships and crews made by two sovereign nations at war with each other.  Hundreds of seamen died, including a couple of my friends. Nothing happened. 

The globalisation of terrorism today and the spreading of anarchy tomorrow as humans fight for limited planetary resources are both inevitable. The sea-blindness amongst the general population, the callous thick-skinned disregard for crew security and the fact that ships are soft targets will not change either. I don’t know if attacks on ships and crews will increase in future, but I do know that nothing is set to stop these attacks from happening or to reduce the risk that they will occur, so the chances are high that attacks will increase. 

Shipping remains sanguine, uncaring or timid, and so our seamen are at the mercy of the whims of the nutters, whether in governments or outside them. We have not done anything to stop this; we probably never will. We are not even thinking about stopping it.

There will never be a red line drawn in the sand to stop atrocities committed against seamen. 


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