Sea Containers May Be a Vehicle for Transporting Terrorism

For Release

September 8, 2003

Terrorists could use containers on ships to transport weapons and dangerous materials, or could use the containers themselves as weapons of mass destruction, according to a report issued by RAND Europe.

Approximately 90 percent of all cargo is shipped in containers, amounting to some 250 million moves annually. The report warns that if sea-container traffic is interrupted—either by acts of terrorism or attempts by governments to counter terrorism—the global economy will be seriously damaged.

The report, titled “Seacurity”: Improving the Security of the Global Sea-Container Shipping System, states: “The potential threat of terrorists using containers poses a large risk to our economies and to our societies. Since 11 September 2001, the awareness of terrorists' actions has clearly risen. This increase, however, has not been as substantial in all fields as it has been in the air transport sector. Ultimately, this means that the marine sector—and specifically the container transport sector—remains wide-open to the terrorist threat.”

Kevin O'Brien, senior policy analyst at RAND Europe (Cambridge, UK) and one of the authors of the report, said: “It is generally acknowledged that the terrorists will choose the way of least resistance as well as choosing targets that result in widespread media coverage. This coverage is most likely to be provided through attacks resulting in many casualties. Although sea-containers have not been a target in the past compared with air travel, there is no reason why they shouldn't be targets in the future. In fact, some terrorist groups like the Tamil Tigers have actively attacked maritime targets as part of their overall efforts.”

Maarten van der Voort, an analyst at RAND Europe (Leiden, Netherlands) and another author of the report said: “The issue of sea-container security is clearly an accident waiting to happen. There is clearly a long way to go to raise awareness of the security issues surrounding sea-containers. We need to plan a strategy of overcoming economic disincentives that quite clearly prevail in the current economic climate. The consultation and this resulting report clearly show the need for governments, authorities and public and private stakeholders to cooperate and work together.”

The report follows consultation with world maritime security experts at a workshop organised by RAND Europe in partnership with the Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the European Commission.

The study identifies one clear challenge: a container changes hands several times on its way from its origin to its destination, causing multiple parties to be responsible and liable for the container's contents. Although forwarders, transporters and carriers do accept responsibility and liability for a container, they are dependent upon data provided in the bill of lading, which can be falsified or otherwise fraudulent.

Tracking the whereabouts of a sea-container is also very difficult, the report points out. The real origin of a container can be hidden from officials at the destination, helped by corrupt officials at intermediate ports who are willing to falsify documentation.

Policing ports is another issue, as ownership of the ports is often vague. Most ports are not owned and operated by national governments, which makes the imposition of legislation difficult.

Cost is another problem. Due in part to the low margins within which the industry operates, the ports themselves are reluctant to undertake security measures, such as physically searching or X-raying containers, as this slows down the processing of arriving containers.

Estimates are that the contents of less than 2 percent of all containers are checked to verify what is inside them. This has serious implications in the light of new global terrorism, the report warns.

One of the key issues in sea-container security is that there is currently confusion about ownership and responsibility for the problem. So far there has not been one single stakeholder who can clearly be identified as being responsible for implementing countermeasures.

In the United States, approximately nine governmental agencies have some role in national security regarding the maritime sector, but so far none has taken control over the problem. In Europe, there is even less clear ownership of the problem, with each country taking responsibility for its own national security issues. There is currently no single European body that deals with port and maritime security.

According to the experts who contributed to the report, one of the main barriers to addressing these issues is the distinct lack of awareness of the threat both in the United States and Europe, particularly in the private sector, which overwhelming dominates the sea-container business.

One solution put forward by the report is a “risk analysis” software tool developed by the European Commission's Joint Research Centre in partnership with the European Anti-fraud Office. The package, called “Contraffic,” is able to perform a risk analysis on the likelihood that a container is transporting illicit material.

Another solution put forward is to use “active” seals rather than “passive” seals, which the majority of containers currently use. Passive seals do not physically prevent entry into a container as would a lock, but merely indicate whether or not the container has been opened. Active seals are more sophisticated, incorporating several options from showing what is in the containers to signaling the whereabouts of the container using GPS (Global Positioning System).

The RAND Europe report goes on to suggest that a possible solution to the problem of ownership could be found by making one party—either the shipper or the receiver—responsible for the container's transport. This party would be present at the point of origin where the container is sealed and the point of destination where the cargo is received. However, the main motivator for a private investor is theft prevention—there is little financial motivation to invest in the prevention of global terrorism.

The report also suggests another solution may be to encourage companies with a vested interest in container security to invest in more sophisticated security such as seals. One way of encouraging shippers to buy these seals may be to introduce a security tax, such as is already in place in airports.

The report “Seacurity”: Improving the Security of the Global Sea-Container Shipping System, is available online. A printed copy (ISBN: 0-8330-3440-5) can be ordered online from RAND's Distribution Services (or call toll-free (877) 584-8642 in the U.S., (310) 451-7002 from outside the U.S.).

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