Report Finds Flaws in Merchant Ship Terrorism Alert System

June 25, 2008

A terrorism alert system installed in thousands of merchant ships after the September 11, 2001 attacks is flawed because it does not immediately notify local security authorities of an attack, said a report on the system.

The Ship Security Alert System (SSAS) was unreliable and too slow to prevent an act of terrorism, said the report by the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

“Acts of terrorism are executed with little or no time to organise preventive or mitigating actions, therefore every second is critical,” said the report by security analyst Thomas Timlen.

The report said a ship mayday distress alert, which is globally monitored by maritime authorities, would generate a more rapid response to a terrorist attack.

Timlen said the SSAS was the “weak link” in a suite of anti-terrorism measures, such as tighter port security and tougher anti-piracy moves, implemented post 9/11.

The SSAS, which has been mandatory on merchant ships since 2004, sends a silent alarm when activated, but the alert is not sent to security forces in the vicinity of the ship.

Instead, the terrorism alert is first sent to the ship’s owner, then passed to the ship’s flag state, both of which could be on the other side of the world, and finally to authorities nearest the ship.

“A disadvantage is that the alarm is silent and I think they need to rethink that. Facing a catastrophic event we want as many people nearby to know,” Timlen told Reuters on Wednesday.

Before security authorities are notified of an attack, the ship owner must first confirm the alert with the ship due to a high number of false alarms, and then the flag state decides which security body is notified, further delaying the alert.

“The initial stage of the process could take time to complete, during which time no one in the vicinity of the ship has any knowledge of a potential terrorist act underway,” said the report.

Another factor delaying the alert is that once an alert has been verified, the flag state then must decide which security body is notified and this varies between countries.

“Perhaps the greatest concern is the fact that few, if any, of the flag states have systems in place that facilitate the requirement to immediately notify the nearby coastal state upon receipt of a ship security alert,” said the report.

“For ships positioned near highly populated areas, critical infrastructures or alongside large passenger ships, expediency is of the utmost importance if there is to be any hope of saving lives.”

The report said some in the maritime industry consider SSAS “almost useless” as it does not provide detailed information of the threat faced by a ship, hindering the security response.

Since the introduction of the SSAS there have been no cases of a ship using the alert during a terrorist attack, but ships have used the system when attacked by pirates. Ships under attack often contact nearby navy and maritime authorities directly.

Only one ship has used the SSAS as its only alert, when attacked by pirates. The Danish ship Danica White was boarded by pirates off the Somali coast in 2007, surprising crew and giving the captain only enough time to press the SSAS button.

The report said the captain assumed his alert had been sent to the Danish navy’s headquarters in Denmark, but there was no record of the alert being received by the Danish navy, yet tests of the system later revealed no faults.

The Danica White attack showed that “the security alert systems are not reliable enough to be considered as a sole means for acquiring assistance”, said the report.

The report said the European Union and Asia were well placed to implement a more coordinated response to SSAS, citing Asia’s cooperation against piracy since 2004, and that there was a degree of cooperation between Canada and the United States.

But many regional arrangements were of “an ad hoc nature and involve so many parties that the goal of achieving a rapid response to prevent acts of terrorism may not be achievable”.

(Editing by David Fogarty)

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