With a threat from terrorists and pirates ever-present, are there choppy waters ahead for cruise ship security?

Are terrorists like ISIS and pirates threatening cruise ship security?

With the threat of terrorist groups like ISIS and pirates and the hundreds of millions of dollars invested in every cruise ship, a pertinent question to ask in this uncertain world is just ‘how safe and secure are these vessels?’ Tim Compston, Guest Features Writer at Security News Desk navigates his way around the challenges of cruise ship security.

Although it is true to say, from the perspective of terrorism or even piracy, that to date cruise ships have escaped relatively unscathed, the risk has certainly not gone away. In fact some security experts would argue – as terrorist groups like ISIS continue to change their modus operandi – the danger is higher than ever before: “What we are seeing is that ISIS is going for incidents that will maximise casualties, maximise the amount of publicity, and the sense of horror,” cautions Gerry Northwood OBE (pictured below right), Chief Operating Officer at MAST, the maritime security specialist.

Learning lessons

Looking in more detail at scenarios where ships have been attacked or had narrow escapes in the past, Commander Mark Gaouette, the author of ‘Cruising for Trouble’ – and who was formerly director of security for Princess Cruises and Cunard Cruise Lines – explains in his book that cruise ships are still ‘soft targets for pirates, terrorists and common criminals’. To underline his point Gaouette cites several instances that have shaken-up the industry. Perhaps the most famous – or infamous – case of an attack was that on the Achille Lauro back in 1985 which was hijacked in the Mediterranean and saw a wheelchair-bound passenger shot dead: “After the hijacking’, writes Gaouette, “The IMO [International Maritime Organisation] used the Achille Lauro incident to model security provisions for cruise ships in a forerunner of the ISPS Code.”

On the terrorism front, Gaouette goes on to highlight the activities of al-Qaeda operatives who masterminded the attack back in 2000 on the USS Cole, the US naval vessel, in the Yemeni port of Aden and others who plotted to attack – but whose plans were ultimately thwarted – an Israeli cruise ship in Istanbul and the Queen Mary 2, amongst others.

To date the worst terrorist attack on a passenger ship, reveals Gaouette, remains the 2004 sinking of Superferry 14 in the Philippines which lead to 110 fatalities. This was the result of TNT smuggled on board. Piracy too is something that cruise ship operators have to factor in. Just a year after the Superferry 14 tragedy there was a close call for passengers on the Seabourn Spirit luxury liner, off the coast of Somalia, where, Gaouette says, the main protagonists were pirates: “No one was killed or seriously injured after the ship was hit by rocket-propelled grenades and fire from automatic weapons launched by pirates.” Interestingly, one of the defensive measures deployed by the Spirit’s crew – often referred to in media reports as a ‘sonic cannon’ – was, explains Gaouette, a Long-Range Acoustic Device, or LRAD for short: “The pirates fled after being subjected to the LRAD’s piercing tone. This non-lethal technology was part of Princess Cruise’s security model implemented fleet-wide earlier that year.”

Streaming video

With cruise ships having a wide array of video surveillance cameras on board, should an incident happen, the question arises of how to stream the resulting ‘live’ and usable footage to those on shore or to other ships who may be looking to organise a response. Marie Clutterbuck, Marketing Director, at Digital Barriers flags up the fact that at sea most communication from passenger cruise ships takes place over Satcom systems which are not only expensive but have limited bandwidth: “It can be challenging to transmit bandwidth-hungry live video, should the need arise.” Clutterbuck goes on to say that Digital Barriers has held discussions with leading cruise operators and port authorities with a view to having a full trial of the vendor’s EdgeVis Live technology up and running next year: “EdgeVis Live technology makes obtaining video feeds from vessels at sea both viable and cost effective. It uses around 60 percent less data than standard video transmission technology and continues to work at bandwidths as low as 9kbps.”

Screening matters

Returning to the thoughts of Gerry Northwood, Chief Operating Officer at MAST, the maritime security specialist, about the threats and challenges associated with protecting cruise ships, he singles out a recent multi-million dollar drugs bust when 95 kilograms of cocaine was found in cabin luggage on a Princess Cruises’ ship – MS Sea Princess – as a real ‘wake-up call’. At first glance the incident, which was uncovered when the ship berthed in Sydney, may seem far removed from terrorism, however the point which Northwood is keen to draw out is that if people can smuggle drugs on board then, worryingly, there is the potential for things like explosives and weapons to follow this path too: “I have been talking to the people that I know in the cruise ship area and they have all come back and confirmed that they are looking deeper into the problem and making sure that they are closing that particular, potential, gap in their security measures.”

He reflects on the lessons that have been learnt from airport security, for example, which can help ship owners to navigate a course through these challenges: “We have seen where vulnerabilities have been exposed that have allowed aircraft to be brought down by terrorist bombs with workers being nobbled at the point of baggage handling to allow a bomb to get on board.” Northwood explains that the last thing anybody wants to see is terrorists finding a way to smuggle a bomb on board which sits low in the hull: “Then you create a situation like the Costa Concordia disaster with catastrophic damage to a ship occurring in deep water.” He is also concerned about the potential for terrorists to create in his words ‘merry hell’ if they get weapons on board where there are thousands of people in one place.

Maritime escort

In terms of my own experience, a trip on a cruise ship in the Western Mediterranean this summer was a real eye opener regarding the attention being paid to security checks both in the port terminals themselves – like Barcelona – prior to embarkation, with airport-style security screening of passengers and carry-on luggage; smart cards provided and pictures taken, and stored, of all passengers for cross-referencing on embarkation. It was also encouraging to see Nepalese security personnel – ex-Gurkhas – much in evidence. From all of this activity one security-related element that really stood out for me was on the French leg of my journey which featured a close-in escort provided by a French Maritime Police launch as we sailed out of Marseille, with the police ushering small craft venturing too close to a safe distance.

With a threat from terrorists and pirates ever-present, are there choppy waters ahead for cruise ship security?

Speaking to Peter Bennett a consultant at Covenant, the security risk management consultancy, on my return to the UK about this specific aspect, he put the presence of such a high visibility escort into the context of the broader threat landscape: “The follow on from the surge of terrorist attacks in mainland Europe was a real concern over aviation, maritime, and major transport hubs, so, as part of this, we are finding more high visibility patrols around ships at the port facility interface where they are most vulnerable,” says Bennett. He adds that another consequence of this is that water-based special force training is high on the agenda, whether that be delivering a deterrent or being ready for an intervention, specifically a rapid response to an attack on a ship.

On-shore security

Away from the water, during our discussion, Bennett brings another cruise ship vulnerability to the surface which can, potentially, impact on passenger safety and security, specifically the fact that, while ships visit many interesting places around the world they dispatch a large proportion of their passengers on day trips: “They [passengers] go off in buses and that creates a target in itself and potential opportunities if the screening of passengers who are returning is not done properly or if there is an insider element.” A case in point here was, sadly, the targeting of tour groups at the Bardo National Museum in Tunisia.

Armed guards

Touching on the much debated question of whether it makes sense to have armed personnel on board, Gerry Northwood from MAST reveals that some ships now, openly, have an armed patrol when they are going through high risk areas like the Indian Ocean. The way this is handled, says Northwood, can vary from the discrete where there is screening to keep the guards hidden from passengers to the much more overt.

Beyond cruise ships, the case for having an armed presence on passenger vessels was in the frame this summer when a drill saw three French ‘sea marshals’ from the French marine police board a Brittany Ferries vessel by helicopter as it made its way from Portsmouth to Caen. Professor Anthony Glees, director of the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham in the UK believes that the deployment of armed ‘sea marshals’ is long overdue: “I think it is a very realistic idea and it should have been done before. We know that terrorists have tried to hijack ships as well as aeroplanes in the past.”

Critical thinking

Ultimately the necessity of those engaged in cruise ship security to think imaginatively is a point taken up by Commander Mark Gaouette in his ‘Cruising for Trouble’ book, which although published in 2010, still holds weight six years on: “While terrorism is still terrorism, the security available on cruise ships in the days of the Achille Lauro does not resemble the security model used on cruise ships today. Security models need to be evaluated against known threats and against what is plausible. Lack of imagination, as we have learned, is a precursor to failure.”

Sailing ahead, for security experts like MAST’s Northwood the issue for cruise line operators is not so much whether they are taking security seriously – as there is much agreement that they are – but rather their ability to remain nimble so that they can keep up to speed with the task of ensuring they close off any dangerous vulnerabilities before it is too late.

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