Where will the terrorists strike next – is the Maritime community at risk?

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The French Oil Tanker Limburg ablaze following a terrorist attack in Oct 2002.

Gerry Northwood is COO of MAST, the leading maritime security company, and a former Royal Navy officer experienced in counter-piracy and counter-terrorism operations.

In light of the Paris terrorist atrocities and the unfolding situation in Mali, it can be argued that there is no room for complacency in any sector of society, or business. There are several governments in Europe, including Britain, who having examined the intelligence and back briefings surrounding the Paris attacks are thinking “but for the grace of god go ….” In protecting our businesses, as well as protecting ourselves and those we work with, I suspect that we all agree that we do not wish to trust to luck let alone God. As ISIS and other affiliated Islamist terror groups take the gloves off it really is time to take stock and examine ourselves for vulnerabilities. There is only one thing we can be sure of at the moment, that Islamist Terror groups will continue to attack western targets wherever they can be found, and that they will target those that are easy to get at.

Is the maritime space vulnerable? Despite the UK government beginning to think elements are (Click here for Daily Telegraph article), it is still easy to think that it is not, given that historically, there have been few and only sporadic attacks by terrorists on commercial shipping. The AQ attack on MV Limburg (pictured above) was probably the most notable, and occurred as far back as 2002. However, as the fight is taken to the Islamists, they will inevitably come under pressure to look for new targets and alternative means of movement. Events have demonstrated that nothing is off limits for the terrorist and we would caution that anyone who thinks that terrorists will not strike at shipping and associated targets, may be lulling themselves into a false sense of security.

Let’s examine what we know:

  • The sea routes from North Africa and Asia are being widely used by migrants to reach Europe, and among those migrants the authorities believe there are terrorist Jihadi fighters.
  • Terrorists such as those involved in the Paris attacks seem to be able to cross European boarders at will. That might change, but has probably not changed appreciably just yet.
  • There is freedom of movement of people between African and Middle Eastern states. Yes, some are found out and turned back, but borders are essentially porous, especially to those who are working to a plan.
  • The Middle East and North Africa is awash with military grade weaponry, mainly assault rifles like the ubiquitous Kalashnikov AK47 and variants.
  • When one route or activity is closed down, Terrorists and associated criminals are resourceful and agile enough to open up new routes and activities.
  • Terrorists rarely hit the same target twice – they mostly look for knew soft targets that have not been hit before and are therefore less watchful.
  • The Islamists are on the front foot and are at the top of their game. Their techniques have been finely honed in the killing grounds of Syria and Iraq, and their lethality and ruthlessness is driven by the fact that causing mass casualties is an aim in itself. This makes them very different from terrorist groups like the IRA who have been motivated by what we would regard as more conventional political objectives.

So what does the above mean? It means that assuming the worst is not a bad place to start. Back in the 1980s there was a time when everyone in the UK military was advised to check under their car for a bomb before getting in and driving to work. At that time, the targets were invariably soldiers, but Navy personnel checked their cars as well. Why? Because it is a logical deduction that if every soldier in town is checking his car, the terrorist will target the sailor who is not. The sailor might not be the first choice target, but for the terrorist the second choice might be good enough.

The same thing goes for the Islamist looking to find new targets against the west. As more robust security measures are implemented across Europe, and the ability of the terrorist to move through and across European boarders at will is curtailed, the terrorist will start to look for other targets. We should not underestimate their familiarity with the maritime domain. While those operating in Syria and Iraq are wholly “land animals”, those operating along the coastal regions of the Maghreb and around the Horn of Africa and Yemen, are amphibians. They operate in networks that commonly use the sea for trade and as a highway, and are accumulating maritime knowledge and experience.

Sadly despite a succession of AQ and ISIS attacks on the west from 9/11 to the Paris attacks, we tend to underestimate the terrorist threat posed by Islamists, or simply try to wish it away. To assume that they have potential to do real harm to maritime activity in the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean and particularly in the key strategic choke points – namely the Straits of Gibraltar, the Straits of Hormuz, the Suez Canal or the Bab El Mendeb Strait – may seem alarmist. However, is it not a better thing to take sensible precautions, than to be a victim of a terrorist attack?

Especially as in the event of an attack, all crew members (and passengers) will be at risk, particularly those on board vessels with hazardous cargoes. Well worked up security procedures and heightened levels of alertness at all times are considerably cheaper and more cost effective than a reactive crisis management programme, by which stage reputational damage might have been sustained.

Anyone who has spent time at sea knows that when things go wrong, whether it be the consequences of bad weather, machinery failure or crew error, they go wrong in a heartbeat. For this reason crew training and awareness, citadel drills and understanding of how quickly events can unfold are essential. There is no replacement for a good lookout and knowledge of pattern of behaviour, especially when approaching choke points, harbours or any constrained area. These are the most vulnerable places where terrorists have a good chance of accurately targeting a vessel.

The use of armed guards or unarmed security advisors provides extra support to the Master of the vessel, ensuring high standards of security awareness on board are maintained and that risk based mission planning has been conducted and applied to every aspect of the voyage.

In high risk areas such as choke points, and high density local traffic, crew members should not be working in exposed positions or in areas where they cannot reach the citadel quickly. Even if the terrorists are not intending to board, a bomb could be detonated alongside the vessel, which could injure personnel close by on the upper deck or in adjacent internal compartments.

Port authorities also need to think about how they control movements in the areas under their jurisdiction. A successful attack on a ship will require a lot of planning by the terrorist organisation, including reconnaissance on land and at sea. Authorities should be vigilant and overt measures should be taken to restrict the movement of unauthorised vessels in the area.

2 thoughts on “Where will the terrorists strike next – is the Maritime community at risk?

  1. If ISIS really had the capacity, they would have pulled off many more attacks on European soil at the same time. We have seen extreme attacks before, like the Madrid train bombings in 2004 and London bombings in 2005. And like maritime terrorism, there are far between these attacks. To my knowledge, the ISPS security level has not been elevated, by ships or ports in Europe. Be vigilant but do not overreact.

    1. Lars, Thank you for your comment and I agree, it is important that we do not portray ISIS as being 10 feet tall. Of course the gaps between attacks can perhaps be credited, at least in part, to national security services who have successfully foiled many potential attacks. This is no doubt the case with respect to the UK and the absence of further events along the lines of the London bombings in 2005. In the case of Madrid, the Spanish Govt pulling out of Iraq pretty much made it “job done” for AQ. After that, why go back for a re-match?
      Your point about ISPS code raises an important question. ISPS code is far from being the security protocol that it was intended to be. We should remember that it was implemented in a hurry post 9/11 and the standards applied around the world are far from consistent. In many places mere lip service is being applied. Our advice stands, now is a good time to review all aspects of physical security. Even if the threat appears pretty far-fetched, history keeps demonstrating that the unwary will be caught out.

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