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Known unknowns on tanker terrorism

Security consultant Lars Bergqvist questions why shipping was not put on high alert prior to the tanker attacks off Fujairah last month.

The recent maritime attacks at Fujairah anchorage, involving four tankers, got worldwide coverage in the media. The heart of the matter is, could these attacks have been stopped if Port of Fujairah, and the ships calling the port and anchorage, had been forewarned?

A sea voyage has always been a risky adventure, where a vessel could encounter maritime perils like wars and pirates. Up to date information about weather and navigational hazards has always been of utmost importance for the merchant navy in order to avoid danger or to mitigate the impact of it.Risk analysis is nothing new, the technique has just been more formalised. An important tool for executing a safe voyage is passage planning, where all the important factors that my have an influence on the voyage are included.

To be valuable, information cannot be too old when it reaches the ship. Prior to terrestrial radio communications, a ship could only get information when in port or during the occasional encounter with other ships on the high seas. Through the Lloyd’s Agency network information about the situation in ports around the world could be gathered, and promulgated in the daily newspaper Lloyd’s List.

However, the invention of the radio by Italian electrician engineer Guglielmo Marconi had a tremendous positive impact on maritime safety. In the early 1900s, more and more merchant ships were equipped with maritime radio, and as an example RMS Titanic received ice warnings from ships in the vicinity. Although these warnings did not help to avoid the demise of the mighty liner, Safety of Life at Sea Convention is an important legacy of the disaster.

To further improve broadcasts of safety information, the satellite technique was utilised and in 1979 the intergovernmental organisation INMARSAT was established.With new user-friendly equipment, the radio officer could be made redundant and new procedures to communicate and receive information were implemented, known under the acronym GMDSS.

Maritime information and intelligence

In the SOLAS Convention, Chapter V, Regulation 4 it is stated that “Each Contracting Government shall take all steps necessary to ensure that,when intelligence of any dangers is received from whatever reliable source, it shall be promptly brought to the knowledge of those concerned and communicated to other interested Governments.” This regulation is referring to the document; Guidance on the IMO/IHO World-Wide Navigational Warning Service adopted by the Organization by resolution A.706(17), as amended.

Hence there is a system developed, obliging administrations to broadcast reliable information about any danger ships may encounter. These dangers can be navigational dangers concerned with safety of the ship, but also security related threats like piracy and terrorism. These broadcasts are received onbord via NAVTEX and INMARSAT-C.

Regardless, a professional navigator should be proactive and consult as many sources of information as possible. What for many years was the only source of maritime piracy information, the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre in Kuala Lumpur, has now been followed by a plethora of governmental and non-governmental agencies, as well as commercial companies providing maritime security related data.

Some of the non-commercial organisations have a global coverage, whereas others are only covering specific hotspots like West Africa, Southeast Asia and Gulf of Aden/Indian Ocean. Apart from IMB-PRC, which is broadcasting their ‘Live Piracy Report’ a few times per week via INMARSAT-C, most of the organisations are only posting information on their websites. The round table of shipping associations has created a website that lists most of the organisations, although not all.

There are also commercial companies publishing information on maritime security for the shipping and port industries. These companies can broadly be divided into two categories. Firstly, there are companies that are providing reports free of charge as a promotion tool for their main business, like selling maritime security equipment or providing armed guards. Secondly, there are companies whose main business is to provide information and reports, and consequently charge fees from their clients for the service.

A prudent company security officer or ship security officer can also find an abundance of maritime security information from think tanks, academic institutions, shipping newspapers and professional organisations. In addition, it is a requirement by the ISPS code to gather intelligence about the areas a ship is destined to.


Although with all the information sources available, as described above, the four tankers were caught off guard at the Fujairah anchorage. Information may provide a general description of a threat, for example that the Gulf of Guinea is a dangerous place due to the frequency of piracy incidents, but what is missing is intelligence, not that something may happen but that something will happen. I believe it is extremely difficult to know when a crime of opportunity will take place, like maritime piracy. However, terrorist attacks are planned mostly some time in advance by groups that are often under surveillance. The US Maritime Administration had a few days before the Fujairah attacks warned US flagged ships about the possibility of an attack, hence intelligence was available. In hindsight, it could be argued that US alllies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also should have been warned. Further, although sailing under a Norwegian flag, Andrea Victory has an American owner.

Fujairah is an important commercial hub for the United Arab Emirates, with a large maritime activity of bunker operations, ship-to-ship transfer, supplies of stores etc. To declare a MARSEC level 2 and admit that there is a security threat would have been bad for business. Similar, for a flag state to elevate MARSEC level is requiring a confirmed threat.

Unfortunately, I am of the opinion that next terrorist attack will come as unnoticed as the Fujairah incident.


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  1. This was not a terrorist attack – the idea was to change political situation and attract media for this purpose. If it was a terrorism – those 4 tankers had been destroyed like MT Limburg in 2002.

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