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Suspected Jihadist Targets US Merchant Vessel

Joseph Tenaglia, Director and CEO of Tactical Defense Concepts (TDC), a maritime security consulting firm, reported the following incident, as told by the vessel security officer (VSO) aboard a US vessel homeported on the East Coast and involved in the telecommunications industry:

As the ship prepared for departure, the VSO noticed unusual behavior by an OS of Middle Eastern descent that had never before shipped out. As the ship rigged for departure the VSO noticed a new ordinary seaman (OS) in the fueling port; an unusual place for the OS to be. He mentally noted the incident, but consequently forgot about it.

Two day later, several crewmembers pulled the VSO aside and said that the same OS had asked where the water tanks were on the ship. The OS was insistent and asked three times. The OS also asked about the ship's ventilation system. The VSO again made a mental note of the incident.

The VSO then asked the Bosun if he observed anything unusual about the OS. The Bosun indicated the OS asked if there was ever a check of baggage. Again, this was considered an unusual request. The VSO notified the Master of his concerns and a room inspection was conducted. The search revealed the OS had in his possession life lifesaving equipment, an emergency escape breathing apparatus, survival guide, and some Islamic books. On the following day, while conducting his rounds, the VSO discovered some damage to the ship's emergency equipment including a broken lock on the CO2 actuator panel. The unusual event had no logical explanation.

The VSO casually noted the behavior of the OS, who did not associate with the other crew and did not engage in casual conversation. He also did not make eye contact and said few words. When asked why he decided to start shipping his flat response was "It was time". The OS was a US citizen but a check of his passport revealed he had visited countries in the Middle East. Based on his observations, the VSO contacted his Company Security Officer (CSO) via e-mail. Due to the sensitive nature of this incident, action was taken by US authorities.

TDC Analysis of the incident pointed to the overriding lesson that the maritime industry is a target. The behavior of the crew member in question was textbook "suspicious behavior" that deserved attention and reporting. The VSO acted in a prudent and responsible manner and could possibly have saved the vessel from an unknown calamity. It was not easy for him, he had to act on his "gut feeling" that something was wrong and he did the right thing. All subsequent information indicated that the OS was not really interested in pursuing a maritime career.

Note: CDR Joseph Tenaglia USN (Ret) is a former Special Operations Officer with a specialty in Explosive Ordnance Disposal (bomb disposal). His firm, TDC, conducts maritime security training, security assessments of ships and marine terminals and other related consulting tasks.