Petty-wise, pound foolish: Are breaches of ISPS Code minimally significant?

Maritime consultant Thomas Timlen explains why the downplaying breaches of international maritime security measures can have globally catastrophic consequences.

I sometimes wonder if anyone remembers the reasons why the International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) Code was developed at the International Maritime Organization and made mandatory for all merchant ships involved with international trade.

With an increasing number of people and organisations referring to unauthorised intrusions on board merchant ships as “petty incidents”, it seems that the concerns that lead up to the implementation of the ISPS Code may have vanished.

As a reality check, a quick visit to the dictionary confirms that the word ‘petty’ is an adjective used for events or things of little importance. Similarly the definition of a ‘petty crime’ confirms that these are minor crimes such as theft, trespassing, and shoplifting. Nothing that would threaten the safety and well-being of society at large.

Returning to the ISPS Code, its primary purpose was to prevent terrorists from using merchant ships as weapons of mass destruction in ways similar to what Mohamed Atta and eighteen other hijackers from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Lebanon did with passenger aircraft in September 2001.

To prevent such acts of terrorism, measures aimed at the prevention of unauthorised access are arguably the most important.

We are all painfully familiar with the resultant measures taken at airports. The ISPS Code requires related access controls for both seaport facilities and ships. To their credit, cruise ship operators had been taking such measures since the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro, long before the implementation of the ISPS Code in 2004.

Yet unauthorised boardings taking place today are routinely categorised as “petty theft” with “minimum significance”.

In view of descriptions indicating that unauthorised ship boardings are now deemed to be of minimum significance, one could be tempted to assume that the threat of terrorism involving merchant ships has passed.

A precarious conclusion to reach in view of the hundreds of terrorist acts so far this year as listed by Wikipedia, some notorious acts such as the August Bangkok bombing as well as many more that received less media attention.

If it is possible for thieves, often carrying concealed weapons, to board a merchant ship, then one must accept that terrorists can also board merchant ships with similar ease.

Once on board, terrorists are capable of causing consequences far more devastating than thefts of ships’ equipment and personal belongings of the crew.

If that’s not bad enough, it gets worse

It has also been observed that most ‘petty thefts’ take place within seaport limits, at the anchorages or alongside berth. In view of a terrorist organisation’s intent, and the need to execute the operation as quickly as possible, this is in fact strategically speaking exactly where terrorists would seek to commandeer a merchant ship.

In view of the speed restraints of merchant ships, commandeering a ship on the high-seas makes much less sense, as this provides defense forces ample time to intervene and prevent an attack if the operation is exposed via activation of a Ship Security Alert System or by other means.

An incident that took place in July categorised as “Petty Theft (Minimum Significant)” involved a 50,000 deadweight tonne chemical/oil products tanker. Whilst approaching the port of Singapore the crew discovered three intruders in the engine room.

After the ship’s alarm was sounded, the intruders escaped. Had they been on a terrorist mission, they would have had ample opportunity to place a concealed explosive device on the ship.

Has anyone considered that this ‘minimum significant’ incident may have been a terrorist reconnaissance exercise?

It has been said that discussions of the use of the word “petty theft” when addressing piracy and armed robbery have taken attention away from the development of solutions, in particular addressing the causes of such crimes rather than only managing the symptoms.

Placing the spotlight on the failure of the ISPS Code to prevent unauthorised access to merchant ships may serve as a timely reminder of even more grave consequences that the ‘petty theft’ arguments seem to have forgotten.


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  1. 100% agreed, Lars – not dissimilar to the irritating post 9/11 no liquids onboard planes edict

  2. It’s got lawyer speak all over it & apart from generating paperwork & employing yet more REMs, I find it hard to believe it serves any practical purpose.

  3. Perhaps the practical purpose that the ISPS code does highlight is the woeful under manning of some ships, which mean it is impossible for them to maintain a secure watch 24/7. When will the shipping industry realise that downplaying breaches of regulations only results in more regulations? The perverse pride so many take in circumventing regulations is the main reasons we are burdened with so many, often inappropriate, measures. It is just the rest of the world trying to get us to act like decent human beings. Lets stop celebrating our refusal to behave.

    1. Roger, it is valid to raise the manning issue in this context. As maritime security is a responsibility shared between the industry and governments, it is equally valid to consider the level and effectiveness of policing of the waters in the areas where criminal activity is known to take place. Looking forward, with talk now of autonomous ships coming into the picture, it will be interesting to see how SOLAS required Ship Security Plan responsibilities are allocated on ships with no crew. It may be that policing of anchorages will have to be ramped up in order to adequately protect the autonomous ships.

  4. As the article states, the ISPS.code^s “primary purpose was to prevent terrorists from using merchant ships as weapons of mass destruction”.
    Not to protect seafarers, ships, cargoes and port facilities. It was a code written and imposed on the shipping world by USA, a code which has no practical use.

  5. I had the opportunity to take part in the process that resulted in the ISPS Code at IMO, including the diplomatic conferece in Dec 2002. I agree with the auhor that breaches in security must not be treated as minor events. Never. Besides “terrorism”, a term that is not used neither in the ISPS Code nor in the SUA Convention, because of its various definitions and motivations, I prefer to use the expression “Illicit acts aginst ships”, which is a brader one. All illicit acts agains ships and port as well must be carefully verified and investigated. Maritime security, as maritime safety can not be treated as secondary issues.

    1. Marcos – looks like we were amongst the same crowd during the many IMO meetings, inter-sessional working groups and ultimately the diplomatic conference that adopted the ISPS Code.
      Your comment reminds me of the debate regarding Ship Security Alert Systems. Some national delegations at the IMO proposed that the SSAS should only be activated when terrorists were attacking ships, but not for piracy attacks and other crimes.
      Fortunately when industry asked how a seafarer would be able to tell the difference between a terrorist attack and a pirate attack, the penny dropped and it was agreed that the SSAS could be used whenever the security of the ship is under threat or has been compromised.

  6. UPDATE 2 OCT ’15
    I’d first like to thank all commentators for sharing their views – this has added depth and perspective to the issue.
    Two interesting things have happened since publication:
    1) On 30 September it was announced that two radicalised Singaporeans had been detained in Singapore under the Internal Security Act as they were attempting to travel to the Middle East to join ISIS, and
    2) Yesterday (1 Oct 2015) Singapore’s Prime Minister said that the Islamic State and jihadi terrorists posed a serious problem for South-east Asia and Singapore.
    These developments, taken together with the fact that there are Malaysians and Indonesians also seeking to join ISIS, all beg the question; How long will unauthorised boardings involving ships approaching Singapore’s seaport be categorised with the oxymoronic “Minimum Significant” (sic) label?

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