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Seas of Change

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Terrorism at sea is not new and, whilst it is estimated that only 2% of terrorism attacks are classed as maritime terrorism, this figure doesn’t reflect the potential disproportionate impact that an attack at or from the sea could have. 

The first recorded terrorist incident at sea occurred in 1961, when a 12 man team (6 Portuguese, 6 Spanish) hijacked the cruise liner Santa Maria, sailing from Curacao to Miami.  This first attempt was quickly resolved by the arrival of a strong US Navy force.  The unplanned hijacking by Palestinian terrorists of the cruise liner Achilli Lauro in the Mediterranean in 1985 raised fears about the vulnerability of such ships and their passengers.  The incident led to the introduction of the UN Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation (SUA). 

In 2000 the USS Cole, an Arleigh Burke destroyer – at the time one of the most sophisticated weapon platforms on the planet, was attacked in the Yemeni port of Aden by a man with improvised explosives in a rubber boat.  There was a similar style of attack against the MV Limburg, a Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC), in 2002 when she was at sea; the explosion blew a large gash in the side of the ship.

In 2004, Superferry 14 was attacked with a home-made bomb by the Abu Sayyaf Group terrorists just outside Manila Bay in the Philippines;63 people were killed in the explosion and a further 53 drowned after jumping overboard.

Largely prompted by the 9/11 attack in the US, in 2004 the IMO introduced the International Ship and Port Security (ISPS) code, which was designed specifically to deter and defeat maritime terrorism. The provisions in the code are used globally today to significantly reduce risk of maritime terrorism, but the code is only as good as those who enforce it, and therefore complacency is our greatest enemy.

The failed attack on the Japanese VLCC, M Star, in the Straits of Hormuz in August 2010, could have been catastrophic causing a serious navigation and environmental hazard in one of the world’s busiest and critical maritime choke points. 

The terrifyingly well-executed terrorist amphibious raid on Mumbai in November 2008 demonstrated the vulnerabilities of ports to such seaborne terrorism, and has had a significant and long-lasting impact on the Indian perspective of maritime security. 

As the volume of trade moving around the world increases, by more than 4% year-on-year according to Clarkson’s, ports become the critical nodes of global trade, but equally more vulnerable to terrorism attacks. 

Terrorism at sea and in ports is international and, if it satisfies the ideological aims of a particular group, we are likely to see it being used more often and to devastating effect.

The terrorist is conservative looking for areas of weakness that can be identified and exploited; weak maritime security may give him the opportunity to exploit a vulnerability to devastating global effect.

The private maritime security industry must be more proactive and dynamic than the terrorist by identifying potential vulnerabilities first and finding effective ways to mitigate them.  As a service industry to the maritime industries we should be supporting them by keeping them ahead of the forthcoming security problems.

Article by Peter Cook, CEO – SAMI, as published in theBRIDGE  May 2015.


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