Thursday, February 11, 2016

Flag of Convenience Merchant Vessels May Carry Terrorist Supplies

Report Says Strange Behaviour Needs Investigation
Shipping News Feature
EUROPE – NORTH AFRICA – WORLDWIDE – With the terrible events across North Africa and the Middle East proving an ongoing headache there has been a call for the Portuguese based Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre (Narcotics) (MAOC-N) to be given an expanded brief to also investigate and intercept merchant vessels suspected of terrorist related activity. The unit was established nine years ago to deal with the trafficking of narcotics by sea and staffed by experts from seven EU countries and the US.

In that time MAOC-N has been directly responsible for seizing 80 tonnes of cocaine whilst intervening in the voyages of over 80 suspect ships. Now, a company owned by the Financial Times Group, has published a report compiled by Windward, an Israeli maritime intelligence company which collates shipping data from public and proprietary sources and uses algorithms to identify unusual or suspicious activities, citing cases of vessels which have behaved ‘erratically’ whilst sailing in waters known to support terrorist groups.

The FT says some specific cases identified in the Windward data are particularly worrisome. In the middle of last month, for example, one 76-metre cargo ship left Golcuk in Turkey, sailed to Misurata in Libya and then switched off its location and transmitting devices for three hours as it sailed close to shore along the coast of Tunisia before reassuming its stated course and going to Pozzallo in Italy.

In another instance a vessel left Genoa bound for Lisbon, but rather than take a direct route, the vessel took a 500 nautical mile detour to a point mid-sea off the coast of Africa, where it stopped, lingered, and then performed a U turn towards Portugal. FT postulates the possibility that the ship performed a mid-sea rendezvous with another vessel to transfer an illicit cargo.

Despite the introduction of the amendment to the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention - the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS Code) - which saw security of both ships and ports and harbours beefed up, loopholes can still be found, often in the places where stringent security matters most. This is in part due to the fact that although mandatory minimum standards for plans exist, many port authorities baulk at the cost of implementing serious upgrades. The cost of the security fence at the French Eurotunnel approach illustrates the measures which can become necessary and the expense of installing such a serious deterrent.

Success at sea can be achieved by a determined naval force using good intelligence as is evidenced by the spectacular changes in the rate of piracy off the coast of Somalia and throughout the Indian Ocean where operations such as EU Navfor Atalanta have swept away the scourge of piracy and enabled the World Food Programme (WFP) to continue its operations unhindered. Quoted in the FT article is Gerry Northwood OBE, formerly a Royal Navy captain and Commanding Officer of a Naval Task Group in the Indian Ocean at a time when piracy was still rife. Now Chief Operating Officer for Maritime Asset Security and Training (MAST) Services and Logistics, he warns:

“So far, the thing about maritime security, and particularly terrorists exploiting weaknesses there, is that it’s the dog that’s not barked. But the potential is there. The world outside Europe, North Africa for example, is awash with weapons. If you can get a bunch of AK47s into a container, embark that container from Aden then you could get them into Hamburg pretty easily.”

The Windward report found that of the 9,000 ships which passed through European waters last month, 5,500 sailed under a flag of convenience. The article concludes that the migrant crisis and a response to Daesh and other terrorist operations mean that governments are paying too little attention to what is occurring off their coasts and that last month alone 540 vessels entered European ports after passing through the territorial waters of terrorist hotspots Syria and Libya, as well as Lebanon, with unclear and/or uneconomic reasons for doing so during the course of their voyages.

With 70,000 kilometres of European coastline, organised criminals have often used surreptitious ocean voyages to ply a variety of illicit trades, something which stretches back over centuries. Today the practice may well be extending to a variety of terrorist organisations making the gun smuggling known to have resupplied the IRA from Libya in days gone past, almost literally a drop in the ocean.

Photo: Ghostly images of a gang smuggling drugs whilst under the observation of MAOC-N agents.