Safe Travels? Mont St Michel and the Sea Marshals

Author: Ian Millen, Chief Operating Officer, Dryad Maritime

Last week witnessed a highly publicised maritime security exercise with the cross-channel ferry, Mont St Michel, boarded by French Sea Marshals whilst on a passage from Portsmouth to Caen. The exercise with the Brittany Ferries ship was ‘.’

Following the exercise, I was interviewed by Sky & BBC Television news on the subject of maritime terrorist threats and the use of Sea Marshals in this exercise. Whilst interviews are necessarily reduced to short sound bites, I thought it might be useful to document some of the thinking drawn from the interview with Dryad Maritime to prompt some wider debate on the subject in the form of the Q&A below; which is representative of those questions asked by television and print media.


What’s the likelihood of a terrorist attack at sea?

Acts of maritime terrorism are relatively rare, but that doesn’t mean that there couldn’t be a threat to ferries or cruise ships.  Whilst maritime terrorism accounts for less than 1% of all terrorist acts, there are some notable events, both successful and thwarted. In 2004, the world’s deadliest case of maritime terrorism saw a bomb and subsequent fire kill 116 people on the SuperFerry 14 off the Philippines. Plans to target ferries have also been foiled, such as by the Basque separatist group Eta’s attempts to place vehicle-based bombs on Spanish to UK ferries in 2001 and 2007. Other serious incidents have been successfully resolved, as in the case of the 200 passengers held by pro-Chechen hijackers on a Black Sea ferry in 1996 before the incident was brought to a peaceful conclusion.  We have to go back even further to 1985 to the most well-known act of maritime terrorism in the case of the Italian liner, Achille Lauro, which was hijacked by Palestinian terrorists enroute from Alexandria (Egypt) to Ashdod (Israel), resulting in the brutal killing of an American passenger. Whilst acts of terrorism against ship passengers are rare, especially when compared to the vast number of victims in land-based acts of terrorism, history can point to a number of events where ship passengers have been the target of terrorist acts, although relatively few at sea.


Is there any intelligence to suggest ISIS or other terrorist groups could shift to maritime targets?

If there is any hard evidence of emerging terrorist plans to target ferries, cruise ships or other vessels, such intelligence is best dealt with by those whose job it is to uncover such plots: the national security and law enforcement services of the nations likely to be targeted.  What we have seen is terrorist propaganda that urges a move to maritime targets, either to interrupt western maritime trade or to use the maritime domain to enable the movement of terrorist fighters and their supporting materiel. Such claims must be taken seriously, but put into the context by examining the actual capability of such groups in assessing whether they are able to carry out such threats.

In early 2015, sensational claims in the media about ISIS in Libya were made, suggesting that they would use their strongholds along the Libyan coast to launch attacks against transiting superyachts or merchant shipping off the coast. A detailed capability assessment of the terror group, conducted by Dryad Maritime, showed that the group was heavily tied down in fighting ashore and had little by way of capability to attack ships at sea, although the inshore threat in support of fighting on land was a real one. The subsequent deteriorating position of ISIS in the coastal regions of Libya and the heavy presence of naval forces monitoring the situation ashore and assisting with the rescue of Mediterranean migrants have only diminished the threat further. With the latest reports of US military strikes on ISIS strongholds, it seems that things are not getting any better for ISIS, and the prospect of launching maritime attacks off the coast of Libya, or smuggling weapons and fighters amongst desperate migrants is lessened.

All of the above does not mean that plans do not exist; terrorist atrocities have continued to surprise us and have proved to be difficult to predict. There is no reason to believe this situation will change and so all options need to be considered and prudent planning needs to take place, with appropriate action to counter such threats.


Why are ferries and cruise ships attractive and vulnerable targets?

Like any form of mass transportation, ferries carry large volumes of passengers; hundreds of people concentrated in a relatively small space.  By their very nature, their operations feature fast turnarounds. They run to tight schedules and rely upon the speedy embarkation and disembarkation of passengers and vehicles. Such operations put a lot of pressure on security measures and any increased levels of security, especially on vehicle checks, can quickly result in severe backlogs, long delays and commercial penalties. Such a situation was in evidence recently when French border controls were stepped up in Dover, resulting in significant delays and miles of traffic tailbacks as holidaymakers and freight attempted to cross the channel.

Ferries and cruise ships are also predictable. The former run to regular schedules and the latter to well publicised itineraries, so their locations are known. Transiting through choke points, such as harbour entrances or narrow straits, can make them vulnerable to terrorist action, albeit from small arms or rocket grenades which are limited in their effectiveness, but can nevertheless achieve the aim of a successful terrorist act. But it is in the ability to buy a ticket, negotiate security and be amongst large numbers of passengers at sea and, therefore, at some distance from normal law enforcement protection that gives the most cause for concern.


Mont St Michel 2


What are the keys to success in combating maritime terrorism?

Countering terrorists and their acts of violence is best done through a layered and intelligence led approach; the latter of which stops them from getting to the point of attack in the first place. For every successful terrorist act that results in an examination of intelligence failures, there’s a vastly larger number of plots that are foiled before they are executed. This is achieved through diligent intelligence gathering and law enforcement activity by police forces and intelligence agencies. Effective action is also heavily reliant upon international cooperation and intelligence sharing, something that must continue in Europe whatever the outcome of the UK’s BREXIT process.

The next layer of defence comes from effective port and ship security, aimed at preventing terrorists from boarding vessels with weapons and explosive devices should they get to the port of departure. With the advent of the International Ship and Port Security (ISPS) Code, alongside traditional border controls in some areas, we have the ability to identify suspects and ensure that they do not embark with the means to conduct acts of violence. Whilst the ISPS code moves maritime transportation closer to aviation style security, the sheer volume and associated pressures make this less effective than the equivalent measures when boarding an aircraft.  Sadly, as evidenced by the recent atrocities in France where knives and vehicles have been used to diabolical effect, a terrorist group does not always need guns or bombs to conduct acts of violence. Put simply, security measures in ports and on board ships need to be diligently applied and quality controlled by well-trained and well-motivated security staff.

Should law enforcement and traditional security fail and a terrorist act takes place, the quality of the response is vital in reducing the impact of the situation and ensuring the safety of those affected. This is achieved through the execution of well-constructed, and regularly exercised, security and crisis management plans – in ports and on board vessels. It is also important to draw upon the assistance of additional support from the police and military to deal with such situations. Last week’s exercise by French forces at sea boarding the Mont St Michel with a helicopter insertion is an example of how such forces need to be capable of taking control of a vessel to protect passengers and crew and bring a terrorist act to a successful conclusion. Such a demonstration of capability can act as a deterrent and is a confidence building measure for passengers. Rather than a pure capability demonstration of the boarding of a ship underway – let’s remember that it was pre-planned and unopposed – the boarding of the French-flagged vessel in transit was likely as a result of jurisdictional issues outside of UK territorial waters. If so, this is clearly an area for Anglo-French bi-lateral cooperation should such security measures become commonplace. The last thing we need is exploitable ‘seams’ between different security methodologies.



Last week’s security exercise with a cross-channel ferry was clearly aimed at countering a terrorist threat against a relatively vulnerable mass transportation target. This exercise is one of a number that have been conducted by security forces in recent months, albeit with greater publicity on this occasion. Such publicity may also be aimed at serving a different need, that of shoring up public confidence in the ability of the state to protect its citizens. This is particularly important in the current climate and following recent events on the European continent. Whether any plans to attack ferries or cruise ships are in progress is unknown and very much a matter for those who are charged with protecting the public, but there is no doubt that there are vulnerabilities to be addressed if passengers and crew are to be kept safe.

The ISPS code can go so far, but those of us that travel internationally have seen varying degrees of security and border control that sometimes give cause for concern. Whilst we can never completely remove the threat of those that wish to harm us, there’s plenty we can do to reduce the risk of a successful attack and, as I said in my recent TV interviews, ‘It is incumbent upon everybody who has a duty of care to passengers and crew on vessels to ensure that we do prepare in the most diligent way possible to counter these threats if they emerge.’ The French security exercise in the channel last week is an important element in such preparation.


Click on the below images to watch Ian’s interviews with Sky and BBC Television news:

Sky News – Armed Sea Marshals Set For French Ferries


BBC South Today – Sea Marshals


That’s Solent TV – The Changing Face of Counter-Terrorism At Sea