Security has risen on the maritime agenda, as violence and civil unrest in the nations surrounding key waterways and shipping chokepoints swells
Disruption to shipping in Yemeni waters, air strikes against ports and vessels in Libya, and the increased reported threat to shipping from militant Islamists in the Mediterranean have all increased concerns over security challenges facing maritime interests in 2015. Although attacks on maritime vessels have been limited, the closure of ports in Yemen earlier this year highlighted the disadvantage faced by companies that operate reactive, event-driven risk management and business continuity practices.
The potential for major disruption from an event such as the closure of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the intent and capability of militants to target underway vessels is uncertain. However, adequate monitoring and preparation for these events and any changes to the threat environment could help companies protect assets, mitigate their exposure to business disruption and prevent associated financial loss.
Violence in Yemen has had a profound impact on operators, with most companies entirely suspending port calls in the country. The majority of ports, including the key commercial port of Aden and the LNG terminal in Balhaf have been closed. The few ports that have remained operational during the conflict have been severely affected by the imposition of a maritime blockade by Saudi-led coalition forces and inspections on all vessels entering Yemeni waters. These inspections can take up half a day and some vessels have reported having to wait for authorisation to berth for up to seven days, adding major costs to operations. Additionally, the devastation to port infrastructure caused by the violence suggests operations will be subject to further disruption post-conflict.
“It is essential to monitor regional developments and ensure business continuity plans factor in closure of ports and necessary route changes”
The conflict also presents direct threats to vessel security and crew. On April 9, an Indian ship captain in Aden was killed after mortar and rocket fire struck the city’s dockyard. Although not directly targeted, the death exposes the threat to crew from collateral violence, particularly onshore. Unconfirmed reports of anti-aircraft fire against vessels off the coast of Shokra on 12 April further indicate the threat in Yemeni waters.
Heavy fighting, involving airstrikes, has also taken place on Birim Island in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. Although Houthi fighters have given no indication of intent to disrupt shipping in this critical waterway, the nearby deployment of Egyptian naval forces and extent of efforts by the Saudis not to see Birim fall highlights the importance placed on the area.
Recorded air strikes in Yemen in past three months, including the targeting of alleged weapons caches on Birim Island.
Further east, vessels have also been subject to threats from Iranian naval activity. The temporary seizure of the Maersk Tigris and the firing on the Singaporean Alpine in May have suggested Iranian naval forces are becoming more belligerent. Although vessels accused of entering Iranian waters in the Middle East Gulf, the Gulf of Oman and the Strait of Hormuz have long been subject to intimidation by Iranian naval patrols, the recent events come amid widening regional tensions linked to the Yemeni conflict. Should conditions deteriorate and Iran become increasingly drawn into the conflict, it is possible that Iranian naval forces could seek to circumvent existing blockades and either engage Saudi deployments or increasingly target commercial vessels in the region. Such a scenario could severely impact commercial traffic in the Gulf of Aden and Gulf of Oman.
The conflict in Yemen has also allowed al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to strengthen its position in several southern and eastern parts of the country. AQAP has proven its capability to hold the port of Mukalla in Hadramawt province already this year, and has benefitted from reduced counter-insurgency operations by the military as fighting with Houthis has intensified. AQAP in Yemen has demonstrated its intent to conduct mass casualty attacks against global economic and maritime interests – as seen by the 2000 USS Cole attacks off Aden – and although not new, is set to remain a longer-term threat to critical infrastructure and economic activity in Yemen that should not be ignored. AQAP could exploit the current conflict to conduct reconnaissance on potential future targets, including ports, which as well as being targets, could be used as a means of securing funds through illegal trading.
Beyond Yemen, the threat to maritime interests from both conflict and extremism are most apparent in Libya, which has continued to suffer from violent instability and a rise in the presence of Islamic State affiliated militancy in 2015. The civil conflict has seen several vessels and ports routinely targeted in air strikes. On 10 May military forces shelled the Tuna-1 Turkish bulk carrier in waters off Derna and on May 24 warplanes attacked the Anwaar Afriqya product tanker chartered by the Libyan National Oil Corporation in waters off Sirte, killing one person on board. In both incidents, Libya military forces claim to have issued threats to the targeted vessels before conducting attacks, something crew on board the Tuna-1 vessel have since disputed. In this case, the Turkish Foreign Ministry even suggested the vessel was in international waters when attacked. This potential for miscommunication, as well as the severity of the attacks, present clear risks to vessels operating in or near Libyan territorial waters, especially around ports that lie outside of government control, such as Derna, Misrata, Tripoli and Sirte. With little prospect for short-term resolution to the conflict in Libya and military forces loyal to the internationally recognised government willing to attack vessels it perceives of supplying weapons and reinforcements to rival forces, this threat is expected to persist.
Several media reports have also suggested that Islamic State militants are planning to use their North African presence to launch attacks against maritime vessels – both commercial and privately owned – transiting the Mediterranean. The group has expanded its presence in Libya and has developed relationships with several established militant organisations in multiple North African countries in the past 12 months. As well as the threat from attacks, reports warn that militants could exploit popular migrant channels into Europe in order to conduct attacks, thus compounding and complicating an existing threat linked to stowaways that vessel operators face.
The motivation for a maritime attack is certainly present. The impact of such an event would likely be huge and could potentially affect western economies in the event of a major disruption to shipping. Furthermore, militant groups have expressed an explicit interest in carrying out such attacks. Importantly however, most regional militant groups lack maritime experience. Attacks at sea would require a high degree of planning and long-term reconnaissance, even in parts of Libya and Yemen where militants have increased capability over 2015. With the exception of the USS Cole attacks, previous efforts to target vessels such as the suspected al-Qaeda attacks at Karachi port in September 2014 have failed and past concerns over growing maritime units within the AQ network have not manifested in any attacks. Furthermore, the strong presence of regional navies in the Mediterranean and demonstrated willingness of Egyptian and Saudi military forces to protect the Bab el-Mandeb Strait illustrate a willingness to directly intervene to protect key commercial routes.
Despite this, it is essential to monitor regional developments and ensure business continuity plans factor in closure of ports and necessary route changes. Port closures in Yemen earlier this year highlighted the need for a proactive approach to risk management as opposed to event-driven measures which can endanger staff and vessels and result in significant financial costs from disruption to business. These risks can be partly mitigated by regularly assessing vulnerability of operations to external geo-political factors and changing regional threat dynamics, as well as ensuring that crisis management and staff training guidelines include non-traditionally maritime threats.
James Hilton is a director with Protection Vessels International, www.pviltd.com, part of Protection Group International, a British risk mitigation business, who is committed to protecting personnel, reputation, assets, and profits (http://pgitl.com/).