Port police in the Italian city of Gioia Tauro heard an unusual noise coming from a cargo container. On opening it they discovered a well-dressed man drilling ventilation holes. He was equipped with a bed, a toilet, water supply, satellite phone, laptop computer, cameras and maps. He also had security passes to various airports.
“Container Bob,” as police dubbed him, was obviously up to no good, but as an Egyptian-born Canadian citizen he knew his way around and hired a smart lawyer. He was freed on bail and promptly disappeared, possibly headed for some kind of terrorist action.
His container, while unusually luxurious, writes The Atlantic Monthly correspondent William Langewiesche, is one of many millions that are shipped around the world each year that could hold almost anything, including a nuclear device. Because inspection of a container can take hours, only two percent are opened, though some can be scanned by x-ray machines or checked for faulty paper work.
This is made to order for terrorists, says Mr. Langewiesche, and al-Qaida has moved into the business. Osama bin Laden is said to own or control up to 20 freighters, which may carry explosives amid seeds and cement. In 1998, one of his vessels, looking like an ordinary merchant ship, delivered the bombs used against the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
There is no shortage of regulations to deal with all of this, says Mr. Langewiesche. The International Maritime Organization, a U.N. agency based in London, has issued hundreds of safety rules that then seem lost at sea. “The ship owners are reacting with I think legitimate skepticism to many of the new regulations that are being imposed,” he says. “They shrug their shoulders, raise their eyebrows, roll their eyes and say, “Oh well, more paper work. We are used to this – that’s for sure. And so they do the paper work.”
This gap between fantasy and reality, says Mr. Langewiesche, is what drove him to write his article filled with graphic accounts of vulnerable ships imperiled by storms, terrorists and piracy. “I was doing another piece on ship scrapping in India and Bangladesh of all things,” he says, “and became aware of the disconnect between regulation and reality on the high seas. I found that disconnect to be pretty interesting and sort of significant of other disconnects that go on in life. So I decided to look into it. It became nearly a one-year project.”
It is little understood, he writes, that the ships rarely come from the homeports printed on their sterns. These so-called ports can even be located in landlocked Bolivia or the Mongolian desert. Required to register under the flag of a sovereign nation, ship owners tend to look for one with lower fees and less scrutiny.
A ship full of would-be terrorists was captured by Italians in the Mediterranean. It had been renamed five times in three years. It was flagged in Tonga and owned by a Greek who operated it through a company based in Romania and the U.S. State of Delaware. Try following that.
This complexity - the vastness of the problem - has deterred people from coming to grips with it, says Mr. Langewiesche.
“For the most part,” he says, “people are not aware of it because the ocean is so big. You stand on the shoreline and you see about three miles out. Beyond that lies much of the world and it is out of sight, and as I say in this piece, it is largely out of control.”
No question terrorists will soon be going to sea, says Neil Livingstone, Chairman of Global Options, an international risk-management firm and author of nine books on security and terrorism. His firm represents the so-called Liberian fleet with over 700 ships and headquartered in the U.S. State of Virginia: “Terrorists are always going to look for the soft target and as we close up the vulnerabilities at airports around the world, as we take additional steps to make it more difficult to strike at other vital transportation nodes, the terrorists are going to see that there is a real problem with shipping today, that it is too vulnerable, that cargoes can be diverted, ships can be attacked, and they are going to go after them.”
But Mr. Livingstone says much can be done to stop the terrorism and the related piracy that is now infesting the South China Seas. It is possible to track by satellite every ship in the ocean, but success against pirates and terrorists depends on cooperative captains with appropriate electronic equipment aboard. “Already we are using that technology to keep in touch with most major 18-wheel trucks in the United States,” he says. “They are all linked to various satellite systems so that they can communicate and so that the company owners can essentially monitor where those trucks are on any given day and how much progress they have made. There are a lot more trucks out there than ships, and we can do it with ships.”
Mr. Livingstone adds that retired U.S. Navy Seals and special operations officers from a variety of countries are now accompanying major ships and pleasure craft to foil possible terrorist attacks. The human element is vital, says Mr. Livingstone. All the technological wizardry in the world cannot make up for inattentive captains on unreliable vessels. “Our problem right now is many of the marginal operators of ships from some third world countries, in particular, are disasters waiting to happen. They are in many cases not as safe as they should be. In many cases, they are operated by crews that are not very well trained. And the people who own those ships do not want to put any more money into them.” Mr. Livingstone says crews tend to come from places like Bangladesh and Pakistan, where there is desperate poverty and people willing to work for little pay. They do not operate the ships with the efficiency and professionalism of more experienced seamen.
But Mr. Langewiesche says this kind of criticism can be carried too far: “To the extent that many of them come from Islamic countries – Pakistan, Indonesia – or could be confused with people who come from those countries – Filipinos - they are actually bearing the brunt of a lot of these security concerns in terms of restrictions on their movements - automatically suspect because they are Pakistanis, and they do not like that, and they are right not to like that.” Ultimately, terrorism must be addressed not only at sea but also in political decisions on land, says Mr. Langewiesche. “It is not just a question of sea-borne terror and I think that actually many things can be done. It is just that they may not be done on the sea or on the shoreline. There are certainly fundamental political things that can be done, which we are primarily not pursuing right now in the United States.”
Foremost among those political actions, says Mr. Langewiesche, is some fair settlement of the Palestinian issue, which leads to Muslim rage around the world and thus to terrorism on land or sea.