Maritime Traffic, Pirates, Smuggling and Dark Beacons

Maritime traffic is hardly considered a top priority and it should be. For illicit activities on the high seas, there is major intelligence value when it comes to smuggling and pirates.

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— Israeli navy veteran Ami Daniel points at his computer screen and explains why the ship he was tracking should have been stopped and searched. It sailed near the Libyan port of Tobruk and waited four days more than a mile off the coast without ever docking, then moved west to Misrata, which it had never visited before.

Next came Greece, where it waited another four days offshore.

Whatever was on the ship — possibly drugs, weapons or people — likely eventually made its way to Europe’s shores, he said.

At a time of deep concern over migrant smuggling, Daniel said his company Windward has the ability to pick up such suspicious maritime behavior that would otherwise go unnoticed.

Ninety percent of the world’s trade is via the oceans, and ports simply cannot check even a fraction of all the containers. For that reason, they try to narrow it down with watch lists of ships.

But with turbulence in northern Africa and the collapse of Libya, smuggling networks have taken advantage of the situation while also becoming more sophisticated, Silvia Ciotti, head of the EuroCrime research body, explained.

And with the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees across the seas, resources in Europe have been stretched threadbare.

The same smugglers taking desperate migrants and refugees into Europe also take contraband goods, Ciotti said.

“One day it is drugs. One day it is weapons. They do not care,” she said. If a ship’s activities are unusual — turning off its radar or visiting an at-risk port — it will be flagged. More here for ToI.

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The company is Windward, a rather new company that did get an interesting investor, former CIA director, General David Petraeus.

Using what it calls activity-based intelligence, Windward, a five-year-old maritime data and analytics firm here, probes beyond the ship-tracking services available on today’s market to validate identities of ocean-going vessels.

It compares their patterns of behavior and past associations with other ships —even where they loaded or didn’t load in specific ports of call.

“Nobody knows who’s the real owner of 75 percent of the world’s vessels,” said Daniel. “The reason is, for business reasons, they are registered under various flags of convenience by a lawyer who has one share and nobody knows who’s on top of him.

“So the tools of looking at data bases or registries are great in theory, but not in practice.”

The same holds true, company executives here say, for the Automated Information System (AIS), satellite-supported tracking system initiated in recent years by the US Coast Guard and now required by ocean-going vessels and passenger ships. Specific findings from the report showed an increase in GPS manipulation of 59 percent over the past two years; that 55 percent of ships misreport their actual port of call for the majority of their voyage; that large cargo ships shut off AIS transmissions 24 percent longer than others; and that 19 percent of the ships that “go dark” are repeat offenders.

To illustrate this point, Windward conducted an analysis specifically for Defense News, in which the company employed “reverse engineering” of a known arms smuggling incident to highlight similarly suspicious behavior by a ship that managed to evade detection by law enforcement authorities.

Its baseline case was the Haddad, a 39-year-old, Bolivian-flagged cargo vessel that embarked from Iskenderun, Turkey, in early September. It was ultimately seized by Greek authorities south of Crete with a cache of some 5,000 shotguns and a half million rounds of undocumented ammunition.

Using the route plied by the 66-meter Haddad, which sailed along the Turkish coast en route to Libya before being stopped, Windward came up with a similar profile of another ship which, for a variety of legal and proprietary reasons, it preferred to call Vessel X.

Like the Haddad, Vessel X was more than 30 years old and around the same size, about 75 meters. It left the same Turkish port on Aug. 19 — less than a month prior to Haddad — bearing a flag of convenience, this one from the South Pacific island of Vanuatu.

A day later, Vessel X stopped in an area near the Turkish shore where there was no other port in the area or any other reason to stop at that location, company analysts found. More here from DefenseNews.

Meanwhile, pirating is back in the news.

Somali pirates just hijacked a commercial ship for the first time in five years

WaPo: In 2010 and 2011, groups of armed Somali men were hijacking merchant vessels off Somalia’s coast at an almost daily pace. Thousands of hostages of myriad nationalities were taken, and billions of dollars were lost on ransoms, damages and delayed shipments.

The crisis was so severe that a naval task force with more than two dozen vessels from European Union countries, the United States, China, Russia, India and Japan banded together to restore order to one of the world’s busiest shipping routes. They largely succeeded. In 2015, there were 17 pirate attacks near Somalia, down from 151 in 2011. Many of those attacks were on smaller fishing boats from nearby countries, mostly by disgruntled Somali fishermen, but not commercial ships.

Until Tuesday.

Somali officials acknowledged that the Aris 13, an oil tanker, had been escorted to the Somali coast by at least eight and perhaps as many as dozens of armed men on two small skiffs. Reports from organizations that monitor piracy could not conclusively identify which flag the ship was flying or where it was owned, but Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that eight of its nationals were on board as crew. The ship was on its way south to Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital.

The attack originated in the Puntland region, which is semiautonomous. “The vessel’s captain reported to the company they were approached by two skiffs and that one of them could see armed personnel on board,” an unidentified Middle East-based official told the Associated Press. “The ship changed course quite soon after that report and is now anchored.”

The U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet oversees anti-piracy efforts along Somalia’s coast. Concerns about piracy’s reemergence in the region have been growing in concurrence with greater exploitation of Somalia’s waters by foreigners engaged in illegal fishing. Deprived of a livelihood, some Somali fishermen have turned back to hijacking to get by.

Salad Nur, described as a “local elder” by the Associated Press, said that the men involved in Tuesday’s hijacking had been searching for a commercial vessel for days on the open water. “Foreign fishermen destroyed their livelihoods and deprived them of proper fishing,” Nur said.

Piracy is also on the rise on the other side of Africa. Armed groups based along Nigeria’s coast have made that region the most dangerous for seafarers. That coast is also a major oil shipping route. Now that oil prices have dropped, pirates there have taken to kidnapping crew members for ransom rather than siphoning off oil, as the abductions have proved more lucrative.

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