MIAMI (AP) – The Cypriot-flagged tanker Berlina was drifting near the Caribbean island of Dominica earlier this year when tracking technology showed it was stopping on course and in two minutes turning from 180 degrees.
It was an incredibly fast pivot since the 274-meter (nearly 900-foot) vessel needed about 10 times longer to perform such a maneuver.
Even more intriguing: Around the same time the Berlina was reporting its location at sea, it was physically spotted loading crude oil into neighboring Venezuela despite US sanctions against such exchanges.
Meanwhile, nine other vessels, some connected to the same owner of the Greece-based Berlina, were digitally monitored moving nearby at identical speed and direction with sudden draft changes, indicating they had sort of loaded with crude although apparently at sea.
The Berlina’s Impossible Voyage could represent the next frontier in how rogue states and their enablers manipulate GPS-like tracking systems to hide their movements while circumventing sanctions, according to maritime experts.
In recent years, as the United States has extended economic sanctions and tracking technology has become more widely used, companies have adopted a number of techniques to evade detection. Most involve a darkening vessel, disabling its mandatory automated identification system or “spoofing” the identity and registration information of another vessel, sometimes a sunken or scrapped vessel.
Windward, a maritime intelligence agency whose data is used by the United States to investigate sanctions violations, has conducted a detailed investigation into the Berlina. He considers the movements of the Berlina and the other ships to be one of the earliest examples of orchestrated manipulation in which the ships went into obscurity for an extended period of time while officers off the ship used machinery to hide their activities in giving the impression that they were transmitting their locations. normally.
Military personnel around the world have been using the same electronic warfare technology for decades. But only now is this happening in commercial shipping, with serious implications for national security, the environment and maritime safety.
“We think it’s going to catch on really quickly because it’s so efficient and easy,” Windward co-founder Matan Peled said in an interview. “And it’s not just a maritime challenge. Imagine what would happen if small planes started adopting this tactic to hide their true location? “
Under a United Nations maritime treaty, ships over 300 tonnes have been required since 2004 to use the automated identification system to avoid collisions and assist with rescues in the event of a spill or accident at sea. Tampering with its use is a major violation that can have consequences for a vessel and its owners.
But the Maritime Security Mechanism has also become a powerful mechanism for tracking vessels engaged in rogue activities like illegal fishing or transporting sanctioned crude oil to and from places subject to US or international sanctions like Venezuela, the United States. Iran and North Korea.
In the ensuing cat-and-mouse game, the advent of false-trail digital ghosts could give the wrong players the upper hand, said Russ Dallen, head of Miami-based Caracas Capital Markets brokerage, who follows maritime activity near Venezuela. .
“It’s pretty clear that the bad guys will learn from these mistakes and next time around they will leave a digital trail that looks more like reality,” said Dallen. “The only way to verify its true movement will be to have a physical view of the ship, which is time consuming and expensive.”
The Berlina never reported a stopover while floating in the Caribbean. Nevertheless, on March 5, the draft indicated by its identification system dropped from 9 meters to 17 meters (30 feet to 60 feet), suggesting that it had been loaded with oil.
Is this a manipulation or a malfunction?
While the Berlina’s journey remains a mystery, Vortexa, a London-based energy cargo tracker, determined that the tanker loaded at the Venezuelan port of Jose on March 2, then headed for Asia. In addition, Windward has also confirmed the delivery of crude through two sources.
Two months later, on May 5, the Berlina unloaded its crude on a ship-to-ship transfer to a floating storage vessel, the CS Innovation, according to Vortexa. CS Innovation remains off the coast of Malaysia where the transfer took place and has undertaken a number of ship-to-ship transfers in the interim, making it almost impossible to know where Venezuela’s oil will end up.
Adding to suspicion, the Berlina and at least four of the nine other ships involved in the Caribbean voyage earlier this year are linked to the same Greek company, according to Windward. And all 10 vessels changed flags – another common ploy used to make it more difficult to track vessels – to Cyprus in the four months before handling fleet tracking information.
The PA was unable to find the contact details of the manager or owner of the Berlina ship, both based in the port city of Piraeus, near Athens.
Peled said Berlina’s activities may never have been detected without a tip received from an external source that she did not identify.
But the know-how acquired through the investigation allowed him to identify other recent examples of location tampering, including one in January when a ship he did not identify was spotted in the process of load Iranian crude on Kharg Island as it broadcast its position at sea elsewhere in the Persian Gulf.
While the US government has additional resources to uncover such deceptive practices, it will require additional effort.
“This suggests the length at which rogue actors are willing to go, to hide their activities,” said Marshall Billingslea, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorist Financing under the Trump administration and former Assistant Under Secretary of the Navy. “This is a worrying trend and given the sheer volume of shipping traffic it will introduce a lot more noise into the system.”
Joshua Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman