Expect to see much discussion on the effectiveness or otherwise of Ship Security Alert Systems over the next few weeks with the scheduled publication of a study by former BIMCO International Liaison Officer Thomas Timlen, now visiting research fellow in the Maritime Security Program at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies. The study’s conclusions are not likely to be a surprise – SSAS as it now operates won’t be particularly useful in countering the predicted terrorist seizure of a ship, any more than it’s proving helpful in countering piracy off Somalia.A shot across the bows of anyone basking in the warmth of misplaced complacency about SSAS was fired at a conference in Singapore on 7th December 2007 at which Timlen warned that a terrorist attack leaves little time for active response to the threat. The past 12 months have been an active demonstration, with the help of pirates working for Somali warlords, that SSAS need a re-think.
Of course, the pirates themselves, and certainly any terrorists planning to take a ship, are well aware of SSAS, a system that can trigger a covert alert from at least two places aboard ship, provided the crew know how to use it, think about using it, have time to use it and do so in a situation of fear and intimidation for which seafarers are not trained.
Then there is the issue of getting that alert to a force capable of responding quickly and appropriately.
In the case of the taking of the Danica White the master thought he had triggered the SSAS but had not. He appears to have pushed the test button on the system rather than the alert. Another seafarer iknew where the second alert button was situated and had the opportunity to use it but didn’t while yet another didn’t know where the alert was placed.
A US dock landing ship, the Carter Hall raised the alarm when it noticed that the Danica White was heading for Somali waters. By the time it got the response it could do little more than sink the small boats the pirates used to board her and give up the chase when the vessel entered Somali territorial waters.
The human element, in that case, was the weak link in the chain.
Freelance maritime affairs writer Andrew Guest asks the pertinent question in the title to a feature article on the Bimco website: SSAS: is anybody out there?
Guest points out that the alert cannot be received by vessels in the vicinity but goes to the relevant maritime administration and the company operating the ship, usually thousands of miles from the action. The alert has to be verified but even in cases of false alerts it has proved difficult to contact the vessel concerned. Such was the case with the Italian ship Jolly Turchese in mid December. In the case of a genuine alert the crew is hardly likely to be able to confirm that a seizure is under way.
Says Guest: “In one incident involving a small tanker boarded by robbers in waters off Nigeria, the officers later explained they had been under “close observation”. Faced with armed men and perhaps with too little time to act, few if any are going to risk their own safety by doing anything suspicious.”
Even with an alert, the question arises over the appropriate response, an issue clouded by realpolitik and rules of engagement. In an attempt to stabilise that poor and wretched country, the US backs the largely powerless Puntland government. Encroachment upon Somalia territory weakens even further the mandate of the government it seeks to support. It is likely, too, that the tragic, and militarily punishing, events depicted in the book and film Blackhawk Down still colour US strategic and tactical thinking about engagement in Somalia.
Guest also refers to a North Korean cargo vessel, the Dai Hong Dan, taken by hijackers, an incident highlighted by those who think seafarers should be armed: “In one incident where a naval vessel did take action by dispatching a helicopter, the crew were reportedly able to exploit the distraction caused among the hijackers to over-power them. In this case, however, the crew had access to weapons, something which both seafarers’ unions and shipowners have generally not supported.”
And understandably so. North Korea requires all males to undergo military training, including weapons handling so the crew were familiar with the use of guns in a way that very few other nationalities are. The Philippine educational system, which provides around a quarter of maritime manpower, has its Reserve Officer Training Corps, a left-over from the time the islands were an American colony, to which a number of Filipino seafarers undoubtedly at one time belonged, but few ROTC members have any experience in weapons handling or military tactics.
It should also be noted that the ship had a well thought-out plan in case of boarding by pirates. The crew took control of the engine room and the steering gear and were therefore able to prevent the ship from entering Somali waters and keep it in a position in which US military engagement was possible.
The ship, too, was carrying nothing more hazardous than sugar. Does one really want boatloads of weapons-incompetent Dirty Harry’s ferrying oil, LNG, ethylene or any of the other hundred and one disastrously explosive or polluting cargoes? And who will be held responsible for major pollution resulting from an action that goes wrong?
The Golden Nori carried a highly explosive cargo, which limited the response that could be taken. Nobody could fire a shot or indulge in fanciful heroics. All that could be done was to lay siege to the vessel. The pirates from the Golden Nori allegedly left the vessel when they were paid off. Some of those pirates have been arrested but those who benefitted most, the warlords, will remain free.
The BIMCO feature follows the same advice MAC offers in its commentary on the Danica White incident: “The recent spate of hijackings has helped focus minds on the issue of how companies manage their security risks. It shows the need to keep crews both trained and well-informed in security matters and underlines the responsibilities of the operator to ensure not just compliance with mandatory requirements but that everything possible has been done to protect the safety of employees, particularly when they sail in dangerous waters… Companies should also ensure the SSAS is working and crews know how to use it, even if it might be regarded by them as something they are unlikely to have the opportunity to use. Even if the SSAS were to be successfully used, crews might also believe the chances of it resulting in either the thwarting of the hijack or their swift rescue are slim. Such scepticism could at least help keep them even more alert to the risks of a hijack.”
More recently, American Shipper cites Timlen in an article headlined: If a silent ship alert is activated, who would hear it? “Silent security alert systems may offer little hope in thwarting or minimizing the devastation resulting from a terrorist attack onboard a ship… If the ship is positioned near a densely populated area, residential and/or commercial district, or alongside a cruise ship with thousands of passengers, no one on shore will be alerted and therefore no opportunity to evacuate will be available,” Timlen told Shippers’ NewsWire, “… If ship security alert systems made direct contact with the actual responders, such as nearby naval forces, this would improve response time significantly in comparison with how the system is set up now”.
Timlen, of course, is waving the ‘terrorism threat’ flag, it’s a good way of gathering the grants so necessary for funding research projects. Certainly, the seizure of a ship by terrorists is possible but largely irrelevant: the mere fear generated by, and response to, that possibility is sufficient to suit the terrorist’s purpose. Terrorists don’t win when they blow things up, they win when those cultures and societies they target surrender their core values in response to threat.
There’s no evidence that Somali piracy, or piracy off Indonesia, the Philippines or in the Straits of Malacca, or off Nigeria, or anywhere else is connected with Al Quaida or any other terrorist group any more than it has been for the past eight centuries.
Be that as it may, it’s probably a useful flag to wave – nobody puts money into studies of piracy and how to prevent it, which is why it’s been referred to as “the industry’s dirty little secret”.
Can piracy be eliminated? Probably not. It doesn’t have a single common ideological focus or centre of power, it’s a technique for the acquisition of resources. Indeed, piracy and kidnap for ransom was an established way of doing business among legitimised powers east and west, north and south, well into the mid-19th century. When the remains of the Magellan expedition to the Philippines, a financially successful venture, returned to Spain in 1526 its first act off Borneo was to hijack a merchant ship captained by a Manila datu and hold him to ransom.
Forceful neutralisation of the warlords that run piracy in countries with weak central governments, elimination of corrupt military officials who permit and sometimes collaborate with pirates and actively participate in piracy, the eradication of ‘respectable’ big business people who hire and fund piracy, none of whom are much affected whether or not their pirate boats are blown out of the water, is a tall order in the 21st century. The fall of empires worldwide in the latter end of the 20th century created numerous weak and unstable states in which piracy flourishes and the zeitgeist is such that sending a gunboat to eliminate the centres of piracy regardless of public opinion is not an option.
The IMO and the UN have both called for action to end to piracy, but its a sprawling geopolitical challenge to do so.
None of which is much help to you, at the pointy end, looking down the barrel of an M16 or an AK47, or at an RPG pointed at the cargo tanks of your LNG carrier. Your life is worth more than the million or so dollars that might be paid for your release.
The biggest deterent to pirates is an alert crew, an alert bridge team, lights, high pressure hoses and ship manouvers, not firepower, SSAS or warships. Establish a strategy in case of attempted boarding by pirates, perform anti-piracy drills and ensure that each seafarer on your ship knows what to do, and what not to do, when threatened with boarding. Establish what you will do in case of boarding and what each member of the crew is going to do.
And disabuse your crew of any false sense of confidence that when the bad guys take the ship some aquatic version of the 7th Cavalry will come thundering over the horizon when the SSAS alert button is pressed. It probably won’t.