Threats to CNI - Annual Assessment – Focus on Ports
Islamist terrorist group, Islamic State’s Central Africa Province (ISCAP), a group with links to ISIL, recently seized the seaport of Mocimboa da Praia, in the north eastern corner of Mozambique. The attack was reportedly launched from both sea and land, and over one hundred members of the security forces were reported killed during the assault and the remainder were forced to withdraw, leaving the port in the hands of the terrorists.
Only 40 miles north, and currently under construction, is the US$20billion, gigantic Mozambique LNG export terminal project run by the French oil giant, Total.
Although ISCAP is part of the Cabo Delgado insurgency, intent on establishing an Islamic state, the attack is a reminder, if one were needed, that ports and their infrastructure are vital strategic targets for both state and non-state actors.
90% plus of the world’s trade moves by sea and ports are the economic life blood of any nation, or any would-be nation. It is not just the dockside facilities themselves that are vital, oil terminals, power stations, water desalination plants and even airports are located in or very near ports.
But waterside sites are especially vulnerable.
What makes ports and waterside CNI so vulnerable is the multi-dimensional nature of their threat environment. Attacks can be launched from land and sea, both surface and subsurface, and increasingly from the air by attack drones. Or all of them at once!
I am not suggesting that a terrorist attack on the scale of Mocimboa da Praia is likely elsewhere, anytime soon, but it does illustrate how vulnerable ports are and that they are considered high value targets.
Ports are, by their very nature, busy bustling places with vehicles and marine traffic coming and going continuously. Making security incredibly challenging!
So, what are the threats?
From the air
In recent years, a combination of technological developments and geopolitical circumstances has made attacks on CNI, not just a threat but a reality.
The terrorist use of drone technology to attack coalition forces in Syria and Iraq was pioneered by ISIL and continues, with regular reports of attacks against Syrian and Russian forces. More recently Iranian backed Houthi separatists have deliberately targeted airports and oil and gas facilities in both Saudi Arabia and the UAE with drone attacks.
The Qasef1 UAS’s systems used by the Houthi’s are based on Iranian Ababil-2 airframe and are a technologically significant step up from the off-the-shelf systems available to other terrorist organisations (unless they are affiliates of Iran), but that doesn’t lessen the threat from drones.
During the war in Afghanistan, the average Improvised Explosive Device (IED) weighed in at around 23 kilos and was usually of the Home Made Explosive (HME) variety i.e. primarily made of cheap and freely available substances like ammonium nitrate fertiliser and sugar (ANS) plus a small detonating charge and a trigger mechanism.
HME IED’s of that size have the power to destroy 18-ton armoured vehicles throwing them several feet into the air.
There are plenty of off-the-shelf drones that can carry that sort of payload and more, such as the GAIA 190MP-Heavy Lift Drone, which claims to lift 35kg, and fixed wing systems like the GATH-y007 that claim up to a 40kg payload. They are both available for purchase on the internet.
These systems carrying explosive payloads are effectively cruise missiles.
We all recently witnessed the devasting explosion in the port city of Beirut, caused by the accidental detonation of stored ammonium nitrate. How many more ports deal with bulk shipments of ammonium nitrate, or store it, even temporarily? These stores, or the vessels themselves during loading and unloading, could be deliberately detonated by a drone attack. All you need is a little inside knowledge about what, where and when these cargoes are delivered.
Drones are difficult to detect anyway, but in the cluttered environment of a busy port it is even more problematic. Many port facilities are surrounded by commercial buildings and suburban homes, which is what made the Beirut blast so devasting, not just to the port and city but to the whole Lebanese economy.
This urban clutter makes detecting drones before they reach the port or CNI perimeter extremely difficult.
Many anti-drone systems rely on RF signals for detection and jamming but the terrorist may use autonomous drones using GPS or inertial navigation systems (INS) to counter RF. GPS spoofing systems can jam or seize control of drones relying on GPS for guidance, but won’t work on INS guided systems once it is in flight. Other drawbacks of these systems are that they are typically short range, and both can interfere with legitimate signal traffic in the area, so cannot be used in a continuous mode in urban areas.
However, both systems are valuable as counter unmanned aerial systems (CUAS) because they are passive, so no licence is required, and they can be turned on in the event of a confirmed threat. Some can also triangulate to identify the drone and controllers’ position.
That means radar detection, coupled with electro-optical and infrared systems (EOIS) are a necessity, as radars and EOIS provide continuous, long-range identification and tracking of multiple targets, whether they are autonomous or guided.
However, no system is fool proof and a clever attacker will have reconnoitred the target and may choose a low-level approach through busy streets to avoid detection, or at least delay detection and reaction times. So, careful positioning of sensors is critical and requires a detailed threat assessment to establish likely attack routes, identify dead ground etc.
When it comes to interdiction there are a whole raft of technologies, including RF and GPS jamming, anti-drone nets fired from launchers or other drones, capture drones and even birds of prey. In fact, too many to list here.
At the national security end of the spectrum there are, High Power Microwave (HPM) devices, that are designed to generate an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) to disrupt a drone’s electronics and lasers that again destroy electronics. And as the last resort, there are kinetic systems such as guns and missiles.
Not for the first time in this article will I say that there is no single technological solution to the drone threat, so a layered approach with each technology being used to its strengths is optimal, integrated into one overall security system.
On the ground
In terms of landside security threats, nothing much has changed. Still the most likely terrestrial threat comes from the terrorist’s old favourite, the vehicle borne improvised explosive device (VBIED). Why? Because of their potential payload and mobility, and their ability to blend in with regular traffic, until it is too late.
So, the key to security is limiting access points. Ensuring authorised access and VBIED mitigation methods such as serpentine barriers and vehicle stoppers like pop-up vehicle barriers, and inspections technology such as Under Vehicle Inspection Systems (UVIS) , Non-Intrusive Large Scale, X-Ray Detectors and Motion Detection Technology.
The extended perimeters of ports are a problem in that regular fences do not pose much of a problem to heavy goods or construction vehicles. To mitigate against a VBIED attack on the perimeter, old technology is probably best, such as a ditches, bunds, or concrete barriers.
Although it may not seem a high probability, single or teams of saboteurs should not be discounted, especially in the wake of Beirut blast. Terrorist groups cannot have failed to have noted the devastation and publicity the blast generated. It may start them thinking about the sheer number of flammable and explosive goods passing through ports that could potentially be detonated by a relatively small IED.
So, as well as fences and bunds, radar, CCTV, IR, radio frequency monitoring, seismic ground sensors, proximity sensors and microwave sensors, could all form part of that layered security approach.
The waterside security environment in ports is incredibly complex. There is a surface, sub-surface, river and/or seabed and waterside environment, that may not only include the port facilities themselves but many miles of estuary and/or coastline. All of which must be secured.
Ports raison d’être is to facilitate the free flow of maritime trade, which means keeping the goods, commodities and people moving, which makes for a difficult balance. Ports are often public facilities, meaning, in addition to merchant vessel traffic there could be numerous ferries, fishing boats, pleasure boats and workboats, constantly coming and going.
So, what are the threats?
Attacks from small craft has a long history. Probably the most famous of which was in October 2000, when the USS Cole, an American guided missile destroyer berthed alongside in the port of Aden, was attacked by two suicide bombers in a fibreglass boat. The explosion left a gaping hole in the port side and 17 sailors dead.
Since then, the number of attacks using small craft are again too numerous to mention but in May 2019, four commercial ships were damaged in the Fujairah anchorage in the Gulf of Oman. The ships were anchored in UAE territorial waters for bunkering in Port of Fujairah.
The findings of an Emirati-led international investigation into the attacks stated that a sophisticated and coordinated operation by divers from fast boats utilized limpet mines to breach the hull of the ships, concluding that a “state actor” was the most likely culprit.
A month later two oil tankers were attacked near the Strait of Hormuz while they transited the Gulf of Oman. They were attacked allegedly with limpet mines or flying objects, sustaining damage.
The use of divers in the May attack clearly demonstrates that divers remain a real threat, whether that is by attaching limpet mines directly to vessels or by laying mines on the seabed. In a port or estuary, the impact of an attack like this would be huge, especially if the perpetrators are able to “hole” the vessel below the water line and sink it in an estuary or port entrance.
Use of explosive-laden unmanned surface vessels (USV’s) launched by the Iran-backed Houthi’s has been a new feature of the current conflict in the Yemen. According to a 2015 U.S. Army assessment on threats from unmanned craft, “utilizing suicide drones is an asymmetric strategy which both allows Iran to compete on an uneven playing field and poses a risk by allowing operators to pick and choose targets of opportunity” and by extension, their proxies. Information about their success or otherwise is difficult to assess, but as with all such innovations, it will not have gone unnoticed by other terrorist groups.
The last category of threat are submersibles and semi-submersibles, both manned and unmanned. The US Coast Guard and partner organisations in the region, are almost routinely interdicting narco-subs heading for the US. Most of these are of the semi-submersible variety but are still very difficult to detect in that transition zone between surface and sub-surface. Most of them are made in crude jungle workshops in Central and South America, which puts them well within the capabilities of most terrorist organisations. According to a report in Forbes magazine, last November the first documented ‘transatlantic’ narco-submarine reached Europe. This marks a significant step up in capability and given the known links between organised crime and terrorists, it is a worrying development.
Once again, a layered approach to security including radar, sonar, electro-optics and diver detection systems are essential for high risk ports. It may prove necessary to segregate especially sensitive or vulnerable areas of the port, so floating security barriers, anti-diver nets and gates may be required. Halo Defense in the US have been particularly successful with sales of their waterside security barrier to the US Navy and most recently to the Bahrain military complex. Companies like Sonardyne and have successfully deployed diver detection sonar worldwide but other systems include Armelsan and Echorium Diver Detection from Koç Information and Defense Technologies.
Once detected, non-lethal and lethal mitigation measures need to be rapidly deployed, such as acoustic systems like WG Enforcer, which is designed to bring the diver to the surface, and of course depth charges.
The combined small craft and diver attack in May 2019, also illustrated another difficulty facing port security professionals. An innocent looking small surface craft being monitored by radar may not be flagged as a threat, however if a diver covertly goes over side or a mine is dropped and is picked up as a sonar threat, that surface vessel should automatically be flagged as a surface threat, because it may contain more divers, mines or be packed with explosives. But that only happens if both systems, radar, and sonar are properly integrated. The transition between environments and systems is a key difficulty, especially as port authorities procure multiple systems and technologies, air, land, and sea from different OEM’s and attempt to integrate them with legacy systems.
One company, MARSS Group specialises in solving this problem with their NIDAR Command and Control System. Developed in collaboration with the European Union, defence agencies and NATO, it is already deployed protecting high-risk ports. NiDAR is an open architecture C2 system that can integrate a number of new and legacy systems and sensors; air land and sea, surface, and sub-surface, into one touch screen smart system to manage a whole facility. AI and software algorithms autonomously and intelligently detect, classify, and respond to multiple air, surface and underwater objects determining potential threat levels, triggering alerts and controlling threat mitigation measures.
Finally, it must be said that there are any number of other possible threats, but we do not have time to cover them all within the confines of this article. However, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, the threat to ports and CNI is no longer theoretical, but a clear and present danger. So, if you are involved in national security or directly involved in port and CNI security and haven’t undertaken a major security review of your facility in the last couple of years. Perhaps it is time!
In this article, Editor of World Security Report and worldsecurity-index.com, Tony Kingham, gives his annual assessment of current physical threats to CNI, with a special focus on ports and waterside facilities.