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.