- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 4, 2004

MAASVLAKTE, Netherlands — Dockworkers strangely are absent behind the steel fence encircling Europe’s largest container port. Instead, hundreds of robot-run trucks and cranes shuttle among neat stacks of freight containers, making the terminal at Maasvlakte one of the most automated, and seemingly secure, shipping centers in the world.

But security measures for port facilities and ships here and across the seven seas sharply have lagged the strict rules enforced at airports and on aircraft since the September 11 attacks.

Now the United States is leading a rush to plug these holes, in the wake of FBI and other government warnings that shipping is at risk.

“There is evidence that the al Qaeda terrorist grouping has taken note of the value and vulnerability of the maritime sector,” said Tim Spicer, chairman of Aegis Defense Services, a British security consulting firm.

Maasvlakte, a town-sized terminal at the mouth of the Dutch port of Rotterdam, handles 3 million oceangoing containers a year, and any one of them could hold narcotics, contraband cigarettes — or a bomb.

With commercial ships transporting 80 percent of the world’s traded goods, security experts worry that vessels, ports and other links in the maritime economic chain might make tempting targets. A terrorist attack could sink a ship, cripple a port, panic markets and disrupt world trade.

Lloyd’s of London, the insurance market, considers an attack on a cruise ship “a high likelihood,” said Neil Smith, marine manager for the Lloyd’s Market Association.

A rising trend in piracy compounds concerns. Pirate attacks on ships in the first half of 2003 jumped 37 percent over the same period in 2002 — to 5.9 attacks per 1,000 vessels, or more than double the carjacking rate in crime-bedeviled South Africa, said Dominic Armstrong, head of research for Aegis Defense Services.

On March 26, men with automatic weapons boarded a chemical tanker sailing near the Strait of Malacca, the passage between Singapore and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The intruders disabled the ship’s communications equipment and practiced steering the vessel for an hour, then stole some technical documents and left.

“The possibility of terrorists linking up with pirates to hijack commercial vehicles containing … liquid natural gas or liquid petroleum gas and crashing it into a port is of great concern to Singapore” and other maritime nations, said the island state’s deputy prime minister, Tony Tan.

New year, new resolve

Security is about to tighten up with the new year.

Under U.S. pressure, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) — the United Nations agency that monitors shipping safety — is requiring port facilities, stevedoring companies and owners of ships larger than 500 tons to make detailed plans for responding to a terrorist threat.

This International Ship and Port Facility Security Code, announced last month, is the shipping industry’s biggest antiterrorist effort.

Europe Container Terminals, or ECT, will install an additional two miles of fencing and 15 more closed-circuit TV cameras at its Maasvlakte wharves. Unlike ECT’s existing 77 cameras, which monitor storage areas and approaches to the terminal by land, the new ones will watch for intruders at the water’s edge.

In February, ECT will add radiation detectors to guard against concealment of a radioactive “dirty bomb” inside a container. Rotterdam will become the first port outside the United States to use these detectors, in a deal with the U.S. Department of Energy.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security will take a separate step this month, introducing a “smart box” program to make containers more tamper-proof by encouraging shippers to use electronic sensors that show whether anyone has opened a container’s doors.

Still, some industry officials and security experts say too few companies and maritime authorities are doing enough to meet the new security code’s July 1 deadline. The Panama Canal Authority, for example, has yet to hire consultants to begin assessing shortcomings at the Western Hemisphere’s busiest strategic waterway.

Analysts say more needs to be done to upgrade security at ports and shipping firms in poor nations. About 55,000 ships and 20,000 port facilities must comply with the new security directive, and 32 countries are seeking technical help from the IMO.

“A smaller port in Central or South America — are they going to be ready in time? I don’t know,” said Chris Koch, president of the World Shipping Council, a shipowners association based in Washington.

Some shipping-industry officials worry that efforts to tighten security could backfire if businesses adopt unproven technologies. For instance, a computerized tag programmed with information about a container’s contents could help thieves select which boxes to plunder.

Experts have long warned that a terrorist group might try using a shipping container to smuggle a nuclear warhead or some other weapon of mass destruction into the United States or Europe. They say terrorists also might try to hijack a cruise ship or a tanker laden with oil or flammable gas, then rig it with explosives and turn it into a floating bomb.

The risk of a maritime terrorist strike isn’t just hypothetical. Suicide attacks killed 17 sailors on the American destroyer USS Cole in Yemen in 2000 and a crewman on the French oil tanker Limburg off Yemen’s coast in October 2002. Terrorists tried but failed to attack another U.S. destroyer before succeeding against the Cole, and authorities in Singapore and Morocco recently foiled similar plots.

Wide berth

To help deter attacks on civilian ships, cruise lines now require boats and unauthorized visitors to stay at least 200 yards from each ship when it enters a port. Passengers and crew members also need electronic identification cards to board their vessels.

Awareness of the vulnerabilities of commercial ports and shipping has intensified since September 11, and the United States is the driving force.

In effect, America is pushing its border security outward. Foreign ports now must notify U.S. customs of the contents of each container heading to an American port 24 hours before the container is loaded for shipment. Under separate agreements with 18 countries, U.S. customs officers work at overseas ports to help their foreign counterparts screen the contents of U.S.-bound containers.

China, Thailand and South Africa are among the developing countries participating in this Container Security Initiative, but prospects for security improvements elsewhere in the developing world are less encouraging. Some ports and shipping firms can’t afford the training and administrative changes required under the new worldwide security code.

“There will be quite a few ports, particularly in the Third World, and ships as well that won’t be in compliance by July 1,” said Roger Mortimer, a director of the British firm Maritime & Underwater Security Consultants.

U.S. screening

Port officials acknowledge that a container concealing a weapon of mass destruction might pass unnoticed through a smaller port in Africa or Asia, but they say large ports handling containers bound for America are better equipped to detect a lethal cargo.

In Rotterdam, for example, customs officers study shipping manifests for containers that still are at sea to decide which ones should be X-rayed or inspected upon arrival.

“If you have a shipload of bananas coming from Iceland, that raises questions,” said port spokesman Tie Schellekens.

Since the September 11 attacks, ports also have been more aggressive about refusing entry to containers they think might be dangerous. But even a well-secured port can do little to stop terrorists from hijacking a ship and sinking it in the port’s main channel to paralyze traffic and trade.

“The only thing that can prevent it … is intelligence and careful screening of all the unfamiliar vessels coming into your port,” said Fer van de Laar, safety manager for the International Association of Ports and Harbors. He conceded that terrorists are more likely to evade detection by commandeering a ship well-known to a port.

To inflict greater economic damage, terrorists could attack a strategic waterway such as the Suez or Panama canals, or congested shipping lanes in the Malacca or Gibraltar straits.

An average of 36 ships a day enter the Panama Canal, and an attack forcing the canal’s closure might compel many import-dependent U.S. firms to abandon just-in-time inventory management. Companies could end up spending billions of dollars extra just to keep enough inventory in stock.

By targeting the Strait of Malacca — a bottleneck for Middle Eastern oil bound for Japan — terrorists could force ships to take costlier, roundabout journeys between Asia and Europe.

Coordinated attacks on two or more maritime choke points could have a devastating global effect.

Yet new security measures are pushing up shipping costs and slowing deliveries. ECT’s expenses have risen $9.60 or more per container because of steps it has taken to comply with the new security code. Jan Gelderland, the company’s operations director, called the increase “really substantial” and said the average turnaround time for a container has increased to five days from 4.

As new rules proliferate, even the United States is struggling to keep up.

Governments have started requiring ships to install short-range radio transponders that will let authorities track the vessels’ movements close to shore. The deadline for large commercial ships is July. However, the U.S. Coast Guard needs to set up at least 250 land-based antennas and receiving stations so it can read the ships’ signals.

“It certainly won’t have a national system of shore-based receivers in place by July 1,” said Mr. Koch of the World Shipping Council. “But it’s trying hard.”

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