Tackling the terrorist threat in ports

Employee screening is vital for port workers

Pinkerton’s Weynand Haitjema explains the options available to ports facing down sabotage from both within and without

With the terrorist threat level in the UK at severe – meaning an attack is highly likely – ports and terminals must consider the steps that they can take to help mitigate against a possible terrorist attack.

The UK is heavily dependent on the sea for trading, with around 96% of all import/export trade entering the UK via its ports. The sector contributes billions of pounds to the country’s gross domestic product. So where does this leave the UK’s ports in terms of a potential terrorist attack?

The good news is that ports are less likely to be a primary target of terrorist groups as they generally seek out locations with significant human traffic (such as concert or sporting venues, or an airport), thus maximising both casualties and media exposure for the attack. The bad news is that a port is considerably easier to enter and leave than, say, an airport: effective border security is much harder to implement than in an airport which has prescriptive routes and procedures for checks. This means that any fugitives may find it relatively easy to escape.

Oil and gas tankers are realistically the highest risk in a port environment. While human casualties may be minimal from a terrorist-planted explosion, the damage caused to the economy by disruption to operations – not to mention the possibility of pollution and long term environmental damage – could be catastrophic. Cargo ships prevented from entering or leaving a port because of an incident make no money, and the situation could have a serious knock-on effect on the international operations of multiple companies and organisations.

We know that it is almost impossible to physically secure the grounds of a port, so it becomes even more important that the elements that can be controlled, are controlled. For example, employee screening is absolutely vital for any workers on UK soil.

Screening staff

Workers have a critical role in port security. They are a company’s most important asset but are also potentially one of the biggest risks to cyber and physical security. Comprehensive screening will root out potentially rogue or disgruntled staff members who could be tempted by ideology, fraud, theft or bribery to attack and disrupt vulnerable cargo routes.

People can get very creative when they are trying to hide their backgrounds: a very common trick is not to mention a past name. In many countries, court records are stored by name, so you might not trace a previous criminal conviction. A vetting agency acting on the port’s behalf will delve deeper into an individual’s past through checks on a social security number, ID or passport number, which will provide more information on potential aliases.

It is also very important to check Terror Lists, which are issued by almost every government. The UK Government has a current list of designated persons believed to be involved in terrorist activity, easily accessible on its website. One of the benefits of using a screening company is that it has the ability to check lists from around the world.

Such measures are, however, impossible to implement when it comes to visiting crews on cargo ships. Despite the requirement for docking ships to show crew passports, fakes are very easy to obtain. To counter these risks, it’s now possible to invest in highly sophisticated new detection tools which can quickly spot 99% of false IDs. Such technology is not cheap, but what price the disruption and potential casualties from a successful terror attack?

Similarly, it’s worth considering awareness training for key members of staff on the ground, especially those handling cargo directly. They can be taught how to look for suspicious behaviour and signs that all may not be entirely in order. This training can also be combined with new predictive profiling techniques based on complex data about the origin of a ship’s cargo and its crew and other information.

Many ports now operate mobile scanners and dog teams to check containers for drugs, contraband and explosives. The terrorist threat extends beyond these measures with the potential to originate closer to home, but with vigilance and an enhanced security regime, ports can remain out of reach of terrorists.

With over 25 years’ management experience in security and safety, Weynand Haitjema serves as Pinkerton’s region managing director for EMEA. Pinkerton is a global provider of corporate risk management services, including security consulting, investigations, executive protection, employment screening, and protective intelligence.


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