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Egyptian Instability and Suez Canal Security (Part I)

Calm waters in a restless country. Can it last?
Calm waters in a restless country. Can it last?

The following article is special to our International Maritime Shipping Week. While we often discuss the threats to maritime shipping, this week looks at dangers arising from such global trade, and possible mitigations.

As months of massive opposition protests culminated on July 3, 2013 in a military coup against Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, the eyes of the commercial maritime industry were fixated on the Suez Canal. Though the general report from the vital waterway is ‘business as usual,’ the political and security situation in Egypt remains incredibly fluid. In the restless Sinai Peninsula, militant groups have seized a perceived moment of weakness to launch a fresh round of attacks against Egyptian authorities. In the major cities, including those along the Canal, pro- and anti-Morsi demonstrations and security crackdowns have turned violent, resulting in hundreds of deaths. Military deployments have been increased in the Canal Zone, but the balance between security and efficiency is a delicate one.

As an exercise in speculative analysis, this article examines the questions of who might attempt to shut down the Suez Canal, while the second installment will assess how such an objective could be achieved. Of particular relevance for International Maritime Shipping Week, is the possibility that a vessel transiting the Canal might unwittingly become a pawn in a scheme to close it.

Potential Perpetrators

There is no shortage of local and regional groups hostile to Egypt’s interim military government. As the military’s legitimacy and public support is largely based on the relative stability it provides, an attack on the Suez Canal would serve to undermine and embarrass the interim government, demonstrating to the world that the military is unable to protect the country’s vital interests. That said, the integral boost that Canal revenues provide to the Egyptian economy—accounting for some 2.5% of GDP—makes it unlikely that a political actor with aspirations to govern the country, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, would publically seek to disrupt the Suez Canal.

Riding West from Sinai

Militants in the Sinai Peninsula—a mix of local Bedouins, Palestinians arriving from Gaza, and handful of foreign jihadists—have engaged in low-level conflict with the Egyptian state for decades, but have dramatically escalated their attacks since Morsi’s ousting. The targets of militant attacks are usually symbols of Egypt’s political and military authority in the Peninsula, including security checkpoints, police stations, administrative buildings and army camps. Militants have also struck at critical infrastructure such as oil pipelines to Israel and Jordan, power stations, and the airport at El-Arish. An influx of weapons looted from Libya and the function of Gaza as a smuggling hub has meant that Sinai militants are increasingly well armed, brandishing unguided missiles, RPGs, mortars, and guided anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons.

Egyptian security checkpoints and military outposts are now subject to near daily attacks by Sinai militants.
Egyptian security checkpoints and military outposts are now subject to near daily attacks by Sinai militants.

As the Egyptian army attempts to crackdown on the militants, there are several indicators that Sinai insurgents may attempt to broaden their campaign and target the Canal Zone. On July 8, armed gunmen attacked the Port Said traffic police directorate and the city’s western seaport in a series of drive-by shootings that mirrored those seen in northeast Sinai. On June 25, a rocket fired from central Sinai landed in an empty area east of the Canal in what Egyptian officials speculate may have been a military drill by an insurgent group. It was also reported that another inaccurate rocket launch in early July was an attempt to hit oil installations in the city of Suez. In addition, Egyptian military sources claim that a cache of Iranian-sourced Fajr-5 rockets seized in Sinai on August 9 were part of a plot to attack Suez Canal facilities.

Forcing a closure of the Canal would be incredibly difficult, but options for disruption are many (see Part II). Regional security expert Ehud Yaari notes that even a lone jihadist in the Sinai could fire an anti-tank missile or RPG at a ship moving slowly through the Suez Canal. This would be unlikely to block the Canal, but may result in delays, increased insurance premiums, and demands for hazard pay for shipping companies.

An Escalating Circle of Political Violence

Two weeks ago, this author assessed that “there is a very low probability that the Muslim Brotherhood will abandon its current strategy of sit-ins and protests in favor of armed revolt against the military.” Recent events, however, have increased the likelihood of political violence spilling over into the Canal Zone. Clashes between Morsi supporters and security forces that left some 80 dead on July 26 were in fact only a preview of the carnage witnessed on August 14, when a police effort to clear protest camps in Cairo was backed by army units firing automatic weapons and sniper rifles. By August 15, the Egyptian ministry of health had recorded 525 dead, but other estimates put it hundreds higher. This event is likely to prove a watershed moment for Egypt and has already resulted in violent blowback from Brotherhood supporters.

Sites of the clashes between protesters and security forces (The Economist)
Sites of the clashes between protesters and security forces (The Economist)

Egypt’s interior ministry claims that 43 policemen were killed during the clashes, four of them captured and summarily executed in the village of Kerdasa near Cairo. Muslim Brotherhood supporters stormed government buildings in Cairo and Suez city, while violent mobs also set fire to some 18 Christian churches across the country.

Now facing an imposed nighttime curfew and state of emergency declaration, the official line from the Muslim Brotherhood leadership is to continue with demonstrations and marches.  “We will rise and rise again until we push the military back into the barracks and restore democracy,” tweeted Brotherhood spokesman Gehad El-Haddad.

The longer this cycle of protest and repression continues, the harder it will be for the Brotherhood’s leaders to prevent its members from engaging in violent acts. There are reports that some Islamists have fled mainland Egypt to join the insurrection currently waged in the Sinai. Other protest groups have threatened to block roads and railways, and attack security directorates and public facilities if the military continues to break up sit-ins or gatherings. These types of actions will have a direct effect on Canal operations. GAC Egypt, a shipping service provider, recently recommended that transiting vessels suspend crew changes and logistical deliveries until further notice.

The worst-case scenario for the Suez Canal would be if individual Islamists become so frustrated with the Egyptian government that they resort to economic destabilization by disrupting the Canal. It is also possible that continued military violence against Islamist protestors could lead other political groups, such as the Salafists (ultra-conservative Islamists), to abandon mainstream politics in favor of armed conflict.  If such groups flee the political system, it could equate to targeted attacks against the backbone of the Egyptian economy: the Suez Canal, the Suez-Mediterranean (SUMED) oil pipeline and tourist centers.

A protest camp cleared, but the battle for Egypt rages on
A protest camp cleared, but the battle for Egypt rages on

Eyes on the Canal

Though Canal traffic remains normal, the political violence that has spread to the Canal cities of Port Said, Ismailia and Suez is of great worry for the Suez Canal Authority (SCA) and Egypt’s military government. Reinforcements from the army, navy, and air force have been sent to secure the entire length of the waterway. There are also unconfirmed reports that the SCA raised the Canal’s security level to “extreme emergency” following the August 14 massacre. The exact nature of this perceived threat—including possible targets for attack and potential impacts of worst-case scenarios—will be the focus of this briefing’s second installment.

This article contains excerpts from the Delex Maritime Analysis Center’s “Suez Canal Security Tracker” series, co-authored by Delex analysts James Bridger and Jonathan Zinger. For more information about this product offering, please contact jbridger@delex.com

A National Strategy for Global Supply Chain Security

The following article is special to our International Maritime Shipping Week. While we often discuss the threats to maritime shipping, this week looks at dangers arising from such global trade, and possible mitigations.

At what cost certainty?
                                   Certainty at what cost?

Last year, the Obama Administration released its first-ever National Strategy for Global Supply Chain Security. As stated, the main goals of the strategy are to promote the efficient and secure movement of goods and foster a resilient supply chain. Maintaining a secure and resilient supply chain is certainly critical to ensuring the prosperity of the United States’ economy. However, existing legislation governing maritime cargo transit and port security directly contradicts the goals of this strategy.

In 2007, Congress mandated that 100 percent of the approximately 32,000 cargo containers entering U.S. ports each day be screened. The feasibility of this mandate has been questioned by security experts from day one.

In seeking to establish a workable alternative, Congress should consider supply chain realities in fostering a risk-based approach to maritime cargo security.

Given the extensive economic importance of the maritime supply chain, the vulnerability of maritime cargo to terrorist and other malicious attacks has long been a concern. With this concern heightened after 9/11, Congress and the Administration moved to create a risk-based approach to strengthen maritime security centered on analyzing cargo attributes, such as contents and origin of the cargo container, to single out high-risk cargo for further inspection.

By 2006, however, Congress turned sharply away from the risk-based approach with the passage of the Security and Accountability for Every Port Act, which called for testing the feasibility of scanning 100 percent of U.S.-bound cargo, a requirement that was fulfilled though the creation of the Secure Freight Initiative pilot program.

While the program showed that “scanning U.S.-bound maritime containers is possible on a limited scale,” major challenges existed in expanding 100-percent scanning to all 700 international maritime ports handling U.S.-bound cargo. These findings, however, would be disregarded, and Congress moved to mandate that 100 percent of all U.S.-bound maritime cargo be scanned by July 1, 2012—prior even to the pilot program’s completion.

Proponents of the 100-percent mandate have pointed to the supposed success of mandating 100-percent screening of air cargo. Besides the fact that this screening was limited to domestic cargo—screening of U.S.-bound international cargo proved much more difficult—and that a significantly greater volume of cargo transits through the maritime supply chain, another critical difference is that the air cargo security mandate called for the 100-percent screening of all cargo, whereas the maritime cargo mandate calls for 100 percent scanning.

While screening calls for cargo to be assessed for risk on the basis of contents, origin, and other attributes, scanning means that each of the approximately 10.7 million maritime cargo security containers entering U.S. ports each year must be physically scanned. The growth of maritime cargo containerization in recent decades means that typical maritime cargo containers often measure some 40 feet in length. One key issue regarding screening maritime cargo is, therefore, one of scale. While the basic technology exists to effectively screen cargo containers, the expanded technology necessary to perform this function on the larger forms of containerized cargo largely does not.

Cost and infrastructure are also important factors. A single x-ray scanner, the most common technology used for cargo screening, can have a price tag of $4.5 million, plus an estimated annual operating cost of $200,000, not to mention the roughly $600,000 per year for the personnel required to run the equipment and examine the results. Likewise, the mere placement of scanners can also cause logistical problems, as many ports were not built with natural bottlenecks through which all cargo passes. With today’s economy relying heavily on the timely and efficient movement of goods, such delays could amount to around $500 billion in total profit loss. And once scanning technology is installed, it may encounter multiple problems, such as incompatibility with previous technologies, outages due to weather, and insufficient communication infrastructure to transmit electronic data to the U.S. National Targeting Center-Cargo, where it is assessed.

A large part of the post-9/11 anxiety regarding maritime cargo security has centered on the “nuke in a suitcase” scenario, an extremely low probability event. The vast majority of cargo traveling through the maritime supply chain consists of legitimate goods. The 100-percent maritime screening mandate, however, fails to recognize this reality and instead treats every piece of cargo as a genuine threat.

Congress should rethink the 100-percent cargo security mandate and instead return to a risk-based approach to cargo security, centered on analyzing manifests and other data, to single-out only high-risk cargo for further inspection. Ensuring the security and prosperity of the maritime supply chain is simply too important for Congress not to get this right.

Emil Maine is a National Security Research Assistant at the Heritage Foundation, where he conducts independent research on U.S. defense posture. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own.

Gooey Kablooey: How Agro-Terrorists Will Destroy You By Destroying Your Food

 The following article is special to our International Maritime Shipping Week. While we often discuss the threats to maritime shipping, this week looks at dangers arising from such global trade, and possible mitigations.

It's the one to port
                           Cargo ships in San Francisco harbor. Is one of them out to ruin your dinner?

Sometime in 1843 or 1844, a ship most likely from Baltimore, New York, or Philadelphia landed in a European port. Among the seed potatoes in its hold was the North American fungus Phytophthora infestans. The resulting potato blight swept across Europe, and when it combined with the abominable agricultural policy in Ireland, the outcome was nearly a million dead and a 25 percent reduction in population if including emigration. 

Last year, around 25 million food shipments entered the United States, primarily by sea, but only roughly two percent of them were inspected by Food and Drug Administration agents, and nearly all of these inspections occurred on U.S. soil (the largest share at the massive port of Los Angeles). Meanwhile a 2012 report by the Centers for Disease Control shows that from 2005 – 2010 at least “39 outbreaks and 2,348 illnesses were linked to imported food from 15 countries”, and that “nearly half (17) occurred in 2009 and 2010.”

The fact is, importing foods to the United States is not only big business, it’s risky business. Food imports almost doubled from 1998 to 2007, with much of the growth in fruit, vegetables, and seafood; and agricultural inspections have struggled to keep up. While the Food Safety Modernization Act passed by Congress in 2010 allowed for the implementation of the computerized Predictive Risk-based Evaluation for Dynamic Import Compliance Targeting (PREDICT) system, a human inspection is still required to render a verdict. 

But there’s more. The introduction of blight or disease into the food supply of the United States would be a major long-term success for an adversary. That’s right, agro-terrorism is real and you should be worried about it. A subset of bioterrorism, agro-terrorism is the introduction of an animal or plant disease with the purpose of causing economic, health, and social damage. The seemingly low shock value of the topic means less public attention, but it is real enough that former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson gave a warning speech on its dangers—and was eviscerated for calling attention to the risk for adversaries. 

The problem is that the United States’ food supply really is vulnerable to agro-terrorism. In terms of targets, the agricultural sector is an easy mark due to modern livestock-raising methods; their feed preparation and distribution process; the geographically dispersed location of farms and ranches; and the relative safety of handling animal and plant pathogens by a human.

The low inspection-rate of imports coming by sea, and relatively smaller dollar amounts going to security for those imports, provide perhaps the safest vector for the undetected transmission of a pathogen. An adversary could rely on blind luck, transporting tainted food and hoping that it is added to a distribution system to achieve limited results. But an organized network could be more deadly by using existing sea routes for transport of contraband to smuggle pathogens to a recipient within the United States for more targeted distribution. Just as trafficked drugs or persons slip past the low inspection capacity of Customs and Border Patrol, pathogens infecting food could land in the hands of a determined adversary. 

What would the effects be of such a pathogen? Economically, the calculation is complicated. The 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak in the United Kingdom, probably caused by the illegal import of tainted meat that was subsequently fed to pigs, is estimated to have cost that government $13 billion, including second-order impacts to businesses and restaurants dependent on the sale of livestock. But this figure does not include the cost of lost exports from the meat embargo immediately imposed by Britain’s trading partners.

In the United States, where the CIA World Factbook estimates the agriculture sector makes up $172 billion of the nation’s 2012 GDP compared to the United Kingdom’s $17 billion, the second and third order effects would be even greater. A 2002 limited study by National Defense University estimated that an outbreak of foot and mouth disease restricted to only ten ranches in the United States would cost up to $2 billion in cascading effects. A widespread outbreak would be orders of magnitude greater.

The health effects for citizens are more obvious, if only because of the legend of the Irish Potato Famine in the mythos of America’s development. But as with all forms of terrorism, a small death toll is all that’s needed to cause widespread panic. A 2005 outbreak of E. coli related to bagged spinach killed but three and sickened about 250, yet spread fear (and excuses for subbing fries for salad) across the country. If such as scenario was followed by a public statement from the responsible party, with promises of additional attacks, the response could collapse confidence in the entire food system, resulting in wide-spread loss of jobs and cascading social unrest. 

So what’s an American to do? The short answer is “not much.” The sheer volume of transported goods, the importance of the human element to detect agriculture disease, and the necessarily quick transfer of perishable items make stopping agro-terrorism before it occurs a near impossibility. Like many other forms of asymmetric attack, a determined adversary will succeed.

One thing that can be done is preparation to mitigate the effects of such an attack. The long-delayed National Bio and Agro-defense Facility (NBAF) took another lurching step forward in the FY14 Homeland Security Appropriations Bill in both the House and Senate. Designed to be one of the most sophisticated laboratories in the world, it would study the most dangerous pathogens in hopes of finding antibiotics or resistants to limit the damage an outbreak could cause.

Multiple Homeland Security Presidential Directives also require Federal and local coordination preparations and plans to respond to an agro-terror attack. In most cases, mitigating the effects of such an attack will require identifying the pathogen, containing it, and then taking steps to destroy it before it can escape from the containment zone. These steps can only be taken in time with prior coordination and practice.

Finally, we need to do what the Irish couldn’t—be able to quickly tell which ship, at which port, and from which point of departure carried the blight. While impossible to inspect every cargo container, with a concerted effort the United States can establish a system that provides more efficient and effective tracking of the containers themselves over the course of their travels, from loading to unloading. Shedding more light on their journey creates a less-hospitable route for potential practitioners of malfeasance.

Sherman Patrick is a Senate staffer working on national security issues. The views expressed in this article are his alone.

Smashing Maritime Ratlines – A Team Sport

The following article is special to our International Maritime Shipping Week. While we often discuss the threats to maritime shipping, this week looks at dangers arising from such global trade, and possible mitigations.


A boarding near Cape Verde

U.S. Navy publications often describe the sea as a global commons; the idea being that the oceans represent a resource to be shared for the benefit of all.  The reality, however, is that although the world’s oceans facilitate billions of dollars of legitimate commerce and trade every day, criminal networks, insurgent groups, and transnational terrorist organizations exploit sea lanes for more nefarious ends. The same ports and ocean routes used by sailors for thousands of years also provide today’s afloat highways, over which both legal and illicit cargoes move. These routes – or “ratlines”, when used for illicit traffic – exist amid a complex international patchwork of intertwined economies, diverse cultures, and varying legal authorities and levels of governance.

Disrupting these ratlines requires teamwork and a networked approach.  Accordingly, a number of U.S. government agencies have responsibility of some sort or another for stemming the flow of illegal shipments at sea. Obvious players are Department of Homeland Security organizations, including the U.S. Coast Guard, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Navy, and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. The Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center is a relatively new agency charged by Congress to work against smuggling, illegal trafficking of people against their will, and terrorist travel. Many other agencies play an important role in supporting interdiction efforts with intelligence and law enforcement expertise.
Many readers are familiar with the efforts of the Joint Interagency Task Force South, at Naval Air Station Key West, Fla. This long-standing organization consists of several U.S. agencies working with numerous partner nations to counter narcotics trafficking moving through the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific into North America. In addition to this major drug transit zone, lesser-known maritime facilitation routes throughout the world move people, money, and materials illicitly for both financial profit and malign intent.

One example is Islamic foreign fighters who leave their home country and travel over sea, land, and air routes to train and take up arms in conflict zones. The foreign fighter pipeline has supported numerous jihadi battlefields, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Chechnya, Bosnia, Kashmir, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, and Syria. The relatively short ocean crossing connecting Yemen and Somalia, and their long coastlines, has resulted in significant foreign fighter flow between two countries, further destabilizing the region. Estimates of the number of foreigners who traveled in the late 2000s to train and fight with Somalia’s Al Shabaab militant Islamist group range from 200 to more than 1,000. Several of these foreign fighters were westerners from the United States and United Kingdom, including the first known U.S. suicide bomber. The problem garnered significant attention, such that the African Union’s commissioner for peace and security pressed the U.N. Security Council to authorize a naval blockade in order to prevent the entry of foreign fighters into Somalia. 

pic_03A more-obscure maritime ratline involves Afghani hashish and heroin smuggled from Pakistan’s Makran Coast to the Gulf States and East Africa. These smuggling routes reflect a nexus between criminal drug-trafficking and the funding of ongoing conflict and corruption in Afghanistan. In 2009, a U.S. Navy cruiser patrolling in the Gulf of Aden seized a skiff carrying 4 tons of hashish with a street value of $28 million. In all, international naval forces operating in the Indian Ocean seized 53 tons of drugs along the “hashish highway” in 2008 and more than 22 tons during 2009. This success notwithstanding, a lack of maritime patrol and reconnaissance assets combined with lax customs laws, and competing priorities of the various countries involved make narcotics interdiction along these sea routes a challenging proposition.

A different facet of illicit maritime networks is the transport of weapons and bomb-making materials into war zones. This usually involves a combination of legitimate businesses from source countries where electronics or other “dual-use” improvised explosive device (IED) components are produced and witting smugglers, who ship the goods sometimes hidden in legitimate cargoes.

In an operation a few years back (in which this author was personally involved), a non-DOD intelligence tipper on possible maritime facilitation of IED components was passed to a U.S. military special operations task force, which pushed the information to conventional naval forces. The Navy teams interdicted the vessel of interest, boarded it, and conducted an exhaustive search. Though they did not find the incriminating cargo, irregularities in the cargo manifest warranted further investigation. The ship was allowed to proceed to the next port of call where the host nation’s authorities, assisted by U.S. officials, conducted additional inspections. Through these searches the dual-use material was found and host nation authorities seized the cargo, with disruptive effects on the IED network. Moreover, because the effort required coordination between at least five U.S. government agencies, multiple DOD commands, and several countries, valuable lessons were learned that will pave the way for success in future counter-maritime facilitation actions. 

Above all, countering illicit maritime networks requires open and flat communications at multiple levels – both interagency and international. Traditional command-and-control structures that are comfortable to most military operators are not appropriate for an interdiction effort involving multiple agencies and countries. Rather, early and frequent meetings – such as secure teleconferences – will foster an environment of collaboration and coordination.  Because maritime targets are dynamic, rapid dissemination of intelligence and intent is necessary for a successful interdiction. In the above example, only about 12 hours passed between the initial intelligence tipper and the vessel’s identification, boarding, and interdiction. In some cases, the vessel of interest must be intercepted and boarded before it passes into territorial waters. At other times, coordinating for partner nation authorities at the next port of call to inspect the cargo ashore might be more feasible. 

Africa Partnership Station 2012Differing security classifications and communication systems between agencies and countries complicate the flow of information, but these obstacles can be overcome by persistent outreach and liaison. While advances in technology have certainly helped ease information-sharing blockages, it is often viewed as a panacea. Nothing beats the information flow that can be achieved from a closely tied liaison network working towards a common end state. Along these lines, countering illicit maritime facilitation requires a careful balance between various military, agency, and partner-nation equities. Sometimes these equities are competing; in other cases they are complementary. Law enforcement agencies often require that the chain of custody for any evidence seized during a maritime interdiction be carefully preserved in order to build a legal case against an individual facilitator. These efforts are sometimes at odds with the exploitation of a seizure for intelligence purposes and the need to maintain operational security. Meanwhile, a partner nation may see broadcasting the results of a successful interdiction effort through information operations as a way to gain legitimacy in the eyes of its population. Finally, internecine struggles and political friction between various institutions often stifle coordination despite the best efforts and intentions of those involved.

The maritime facilitation networks of criminals and terrorists present serious challenges to the security interests of the United States and friendly governments. Disrupting these ratlines requires a thoughtful and integrated approach by various organizations focusing on all aspects of the interdiction problem: intelligence, legal, diplomatic, and physical.

CDR Chris Rawley serves in the special operations community. He led boarding teams during maritime interception operations against oil smugglers in the Persian Gulf and coordinated operational level maritime interdiction efforts in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. He is the author of Unconventional Warfare 2.0: A Better Path to Regime Change in the Twenty-First Century and blogs regularly at Information Dissemination. The above opinions are his own.

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