Assessing and confronting the challenges of port security



Stuart Flynn, Vice President Business Development, Securewest International


One of the main by-products of the horrific attacks in the U.S. on September 11, 2001 was the dramatic refocusing of attention on global transportation networks that the world’s economies remain so dependent on. The use of aircraft as guided missiles made the unthinkable a reality.

As time has elapsed, this security spotlight has fallen sharply on the maritime sector (through which the vast majority of the world trade mentioned above is moved). The result has been the exposure of a series of weak points in the industry, some of which are ripe for exploitation by various groups including terrorists.

Whatever the chosen method is, two facts stand out. Firstly, there is no doubt that ports present attractive targets for potential attacks. Human costs aside, a terrorist attack that shuts down a major port would do significant harm to national economies. Secondly, security at ports is vital as a first line of defence. Yet port security remains weak in many countries, having had comparatively little financial support in the post 9/11 years.

Even in the U.S., port security has been described by Dr Stephen Flynn, Snr Fellow for National Security Studies at the Council for Foreign Relations, as ‘grossly under funded’, with some major U.S. ports receiving over the past six years roughly what has been spent every 2.5 hours in the Iraq war.

In one of the world’s biggest emerging economies, India, a recent security review of ports set alarm bells ringing with protective measures shown to be severely lacking. Indeed, only one of the main ports in India had installed x-ray technology – a distinct disadvantage when trading with the U.S. for a start.

But, is there a need for such spending, are there genuine threats, are there other measures that port facilities and vessel owners can take to help themselves? As a company that has worked in this field for many years now, Securewest International firmly believes the answer to all of these questions is ‘yes’.

Identifying threats

Firstly, it is imperative to look at the threats. We have established that ports in general lack the security cover they deserve and that they are vulnerable, but what form exactly does that threat take? Yes, containers do present a clear target for terror organisations but quantifying exactly what is and where the main threat to ports
will come from is a much more complicated matter, and directing the majority of the security funding budgets towards container security initiatives in turn leaves other areas of port security (such as port surveillance) starved of vital financial backing.

So, does the strongest threat come from within the port via containers, or from external terror forces using mines and small boats? The latter is certainly there for all to see. Across the world’s seas, the practical and financial benefits brought by small boat attacks on shipping and maritime facilities (be they suicide missions or
rocket attacks) remain an attractive proposition to militants and pirate groups.

Once taking control of a vessel, it is often held to ransom but could also be turned into a ‘Trojan horse’ and taken into a port. For some port authorities, the biggest terrorist threat is the risk posed to the logistical system rather than an attack on the port’s infrastructure itself. In other words, the port was more likely to be
used by terrorist organisations to help attacks elsewhere than by being directly attacked itself.

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