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Wednesday, 6 February, 2002, 15:17 GMT
Shipping fraud heightens terror threat
Oil tanker
Oil tankers could become targets for hijack
By Eric Watkins

Maritime certificate fraud is rapidly emerging as a key threat to the industry, and one that poses grave dangers for the wider international community.

Oil tankers or ships carrying liquefied gas could be hijacked and used by terrorists for suicide missions, according to a report issued by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB).


Background checks of crew lists may not be totally revealing of potentially undesirable visitors

Vincent Cannistraro, former CIA official
However, terrorists may not even have to hijack ships.

"Forged ship documents and crew travel documents can easily be obtained," the IMB reported.

That means terrorists can board vessels while appearing to be legitimate crew.

'Undesirables'

"Background checks of incoming foreign registered ships' crew lists by US authorities may not be totally revealing of potentially undesirable visitors among a ship's crew," said Vincent Cannistraro, former chief of operations for the CIA's Counterterrorism Centre.

Areas of concern
13,000 false certificates reported in 2001
90% of cases reported in the Philippines
44% of maritime bodies failed to respond to request for information
Evidence of official fraud in 10 out of 13 inspected countries

Mr Cannistraro's view finds support in a recent study by the UN's International Maritime Organisation, which found that more than 13,000 false certificates were reported last year.

"That figure may represent just a fraction of the total," says Professor Tony Lane of the Seafarers International Research Centre, which prepared the IMO report.

"A total of 97 maritime administrations were contacted for information on various aspects of the issue of unlawful practices associated with certificates of competency and equivalent endorsements," Mr Lane said.

He added that 54 responded to the questionnaires, giving a response rate of 56%.

With 44% failing to provide information, the number of fraudulent certificates may be considerably higher, but more ominously, the IMO reports that fraudulent certification involves officials within the maritime industry.

"In 10 of the 13 countries visited, it was evident that forgery was more than a backroom business," the IMO said.

"It was typically well-organised, with effective links to maritime administrations, employers, manning agents and training establishments."

Racket

A former US Coast Guard official and another man were recently indicted on conspiracy charges following an 18-month investigation into a false documentation racket run out of San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The pair allegedly masterminded a scheme to fraudulently issue hundreds of USCG licences and other documents to seafarers.


There is no way to detect a certificate that has been fraudulently issued by an authorised organisation

Tony Lane, Seafarers International Research Centre

As part of its investigation, the USCG had to recall several years' worth of mariners' licences and documents issued from San Juan after discovering that 650 licence blanks and a document production machine had gone missing.

USCG inspection teams identified a further 957 questionable merchant mariner documents and has so far confiscated 256 of them.

The Puerto Rico case points up the difficulties that arise from the fraudulent issue of authentic certificates.

Such a document will appear in the register of certificates kept by the administration that issued it and any subsequent check on that certificate will indicate that it was lawfully issued.

As a result, said Professor Lane, "there is no way to detect or defend against a certificate that has been fraudulently issued by an authorised organisation."

It is precisely that inability to defend or detect which now provides terrorists a new opportunity to strike anywhere around the globe.

See also:

04 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
Piracy terror attack warning
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