Hundreds of ships are sailing into European waters after suspicious manoeuvres near terrorist hot spots, prompting fears that they are smuggling people and weapons with impunity.
An investigation by The Times has uncovered how cargo ships and other large vessels routinely switch off GPS tracking so that they can disappear, falsify their identification or veer off their usual course.
Figures compiled by Windward, a maritime data and analytics company, revealed that in January and February 40 ships entered Europe from Libya, close to where Islamic State is operating, after “going dark” by ceasing transmission of their location. Twenty vessels travelled through Syrian or Lebanese waters and made dubious stops for up to six hours before reaching the Continent. This amounts to hundreds of ships a year if the data is extrapolated.
During the same period vessels from elsewhere went dark on 2,850 occasions before entering Europe, while 45 cargo ships came to British waters after turning off their tracking for more than 24 hours. More than 300 vessels entered European seas with invalid shipping registration, including 50 that came to British waters.
Such behaviour fuels concerns of illegal activity, with experts warning that cargo ships may anchor in foreign waters to pass people, weapons and drugs to smaller vessels while avoiding detection by maritime authorities.
Going dark for nefarious cargo
Nestled one nautical mile off a tiny island in the Hebrides, the enormous cargo vessel must have looked out of place compared with the tiny fishing boats dotted across this small corner of the Atlantic. But its incongruous appearance was not the only thing worthy of note about the Cyprus-flagged reefer, designed to store large quantities of fish, which was making the penultimate stop in a decidedly suspicious journey.
For three years it had operated primarily between northern Europe and west Africa, but in mid-January it deviated from its normal route to visit Ukraine before entering the Mediterranean Sea. As it sailed towards Gibraltar, according to the maritime analytics company Windward, there were 12 days of questionable manoeuvres as it drifted off course and deactivated its tracking system on multiple occasions.
Neither the crew’s specific activities nor intent can be established but Windward’s Israeli-based analysts noted with concern that the ship “went dark” for 28 hours inside the area of the Port of Oran in Algeria, a region notorious for the tracking of arms, migrants and narcotics.
According to Ami Daniel, Windward chief executive, the high risk of collision makes it extremely ill advised, not to mention illegal, for a ship to turn off its automatic identification system (AIS) in the middle of such a busy strait. He was also concerned by the vessel’s next movements as it stopped off Islay, the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides, for 11 hours. There were no major ports in the area and “no incentive” for it to be there, he said, raising the prospect it may have been involved in illicit exchanges such as of drugs or weapons.
About the same time but more than 2,500 nautical miles away, an oil tanker sailed from Libya to Greece but not before making two unusual stops in which it drifted for seven and fifteen hours respectively. It raises the possibility it was meeting another ship for an illicit exchange. Another ship leaving the Libyan port of Tobruk in February stopped for two days off a tiny tourist resort in Crete, raising concerns it may be involved in people smuggling.
The questionable movements of these and hundreds more ships illustrate the concerns of maritime experts about maritime security vulnerability.
Agencies in Britain and the rest of Europe are gathering vast amounts of intelligence before intercepting suspect vessels. The sheer scale of dubious activity, however, compared with the amount of resources, has resulted in concerns that some vessels are operating with impunity.
Organised crime groups have long exploited vulnerabilities in ocean security to move drugs, weapons and people. There are now fears that terrorist groups, including Islamic State and al-Qaeda, are doing the same.
Windward compiled data for The Times which revealed that in January and February alone, ships disappeared off the radar by halting transmission of AIS on 2,850 occasions before entering European waters. Some may have had technical difficulties but the majority of absences were likely to be deliberate, experts say.
According to Windward there were more than 300 vessels that entered Europe with an invalid International Maritime Organisation number — the equivalent of a car registration. More than 60 per cent of ships used flags of convenience, a legal mechanism which conceals the ship’s home country.
There was troubling data focused on terrorism hot spots including Libya and Syria. In January and February there were 160 ships that entered Europe from Libya, 40 of which conducted suspicious manoeuvres such as switching off AIS. More than 230 travelled through Syrian or Lebanese waters to reach Europe, of which 20 stopped outside territorial waters for between three and six hours.
Mr Daniel said: “This behaviour we would define as anomalous and can be an indicator of illicit activity.”
Some of the activity could be legitimate, he said, and risk profiles were developed for ships depending on the types and numbers of questionable manoeuvres. Another worrying trend is the ability of ships to falsify the data that they are transmitting while en route, and come up on tracking systems as a different vessel.
It is impossible to say how many vessels have been intercepted and searched. Security sources emphasised that British capability had vastly improved with the establishment in 2014 of the Maritime Intelligence Centre, which tracks shipping data and sifts information to flag vessels to be stopped.
One source said: “The nature of the coastline makes it difficult. We are an island and cannot patrol everywhere. But not all of these ships will be carrying out illegal activity. Some ships will stop in unusual places while they wait for work, and only move on once it comes in.”
Frank Francis, seconded from the National Crime Agency to be head of the maritime analysis and operations centre in Lisbon, a partnership between Britain and six other EU states, has used the analysis of AIS data and other tools to seize more than 500 tonnes of drugs from more than 140 vessels since 2007. He emphasised: “Just because [a vessel’s activity] looks suspicious it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is.”
Gerry Northwood, chief operating officer at Mast, the maritime risk management consultancy, said that the British authorities had carried out increasing levels of counter-terrorism and counternarcotics maritime intelligence work.
He added: “There’s always that risk that something will get through. The terrorists only have to get it right once. We have to be wary — the UK has a long and complex coastline which is difficult to watch all the time. Those who are adventurous and innovative will have a good chance of getting through.”
Mr Northwood warned, however, that cargo shipments to the UK were “nowhere near 100 per cent verified”.
“The UK’s ports still have much work to do when it comes to the inspection of containers and cargo, and many of those in Europe look to the UK’s approach to shape their own.”
The Times spoke to various former senior naval officers who expressed concern that the resources were simply too small for the scale of shipping.
Lieutenant-Colonel Ewen Southby-Tailyour, 75, questioned why British vessels were being sent to chase pirate ships around Africa when “there has been a significant reduction in ability to patrol our own waters”. A keen sailor, he said he never saw patrol boats. “There’s no better deterrent than their presence, speeding up and down the coast. It’s like a bobby on the beat.”
Q & A
How many vessels are there in European waters?
More than 2.2 million ships called in to the EU’s 28 main ports in 2015, a rise of 1.7 per cent compared with the previous year.
What is deemed suspicious activity?
Travelling on false International Maritime Organisation (IMO) numbers, the shipping equivalent of a car registration. Ships can also “go dark” by cancelling their automatic identification system (AIS), which transmits their location using GPS. They disappear off the radar and cannot be tracked, unless a satellite is specifically focused on the area. This is like finding a needle in a haystack, however, because of the number of other vessels using the same route.
Is it illegal to turn off transmissions?
AIS should always be in operation when ships are under way or at anchor. It may be switched off only when there is an imminent threat — from pirates, for example. This should be recorded in the logbook and the AIS should be restarted as soon as it is safe.
How do you decide if something is suspicious?
Intelligence agencies, law enforcement bodies and even private companies develop risk profiles for ships based on their previous activity, manipulation of safety transmissions, ownership structure and other factors.
Who is responsible for security at sea?
The IMO has a mandate to manage threats but it does not carry out operations. It adopts regulations and develops guidance for states to handle security threats. Member countries are obliged to ensure that the rules are complied with. Vessels in international waters can be intercepted by states. Once a ship is inside territorial waters, the country concerned is responsible although a nation can act on behalf of others who provide intelligence.