By JOSHUA GOODMAN
MIAMI (AP) – The Cypriot-flagged tanker Berlina was drifting near the Caribbean island of Dominica earlier this year when safety signals it is required to transmit showed it stopping in its path and make a 180 degree turn in two minutes.
It was an incredibly fast pivot as the 274-meter (nearly 900-foot) ship needed about 10 times longer to perform such a maneuver.
Even more intriguing: Around the same time in March, the Berlina was ringing this spot at sea, she was physically spotted loading crude oil into neighboring Venezuela despite US sanctions against such trade.
Meanwhile, nine other tankers, some linked to the same owner of the Greece-based Berlina, were sending signals that showed them moving nearby in the Caribbean at identical speed and direction – and with sudden changes in weight indicating that they had been charged one way or another. full of crude without ever touching the port.
The Bernina’s Impossible Journey may show the next frontier in the evolutionary methods used by the Red States and their catalysts to trick satellite tracking systems so that they can bypass sanctions without detection.
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, 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 US government 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 ships fell into darkness for an extended period of time while officers outside the ship used remote computers to transmit fake locations.
Military personnel around the world have been using similar electronic warfare technology for decades. But it is only now appearing 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 real locations? “
Under a United Nations maritime treaty, ships over 300 tonnes have been required since 2004 to use an 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 offense that can result in official sanctions for a vessel and its owners.
But this maritime security system has also become a powerful mechanism for tracking vessels engaged in illegal fishing or transporting sanctioned crude oil to and from places subject to US or international sanctions such as Venezuela, Iran and Korea. North.
In the cat-and-mouse game that followed, the advent of digital ghosts leaving false leads could give the wrong players the upper hand, said Russ Dallen, head of brokerage firm Caracas Capital Markets, based in Miami, which tracks maritime activity near Venezuela. .
“It’s pretty clear that the bad guys will learn from these mistakes and next time they’ll leave a digital trail that looks more like reality,” said Dallen, referring to some of the anomalies that Windward detected, such as the sudden turn to 180 degrees. . “The only way to verify its true movement will be to get a physical view of the ship, which is time consuming and expensive.”
The Berlina never reported a stopover while floating in the Caribbean. Nonetheless, on March 5, the draft – indicating the level at which it passes through the water – 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.
Was it 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 during 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 Venezuelan 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 the 10 vessels all transferred the countries in which they were registered – another common ploy used to make it more difficult to track vessels – to Cyprus in the four months before handling fleet tracking information.
The Associated Press could not find contact details for the director or owner of the Berlina ship, both based in the port town of Pireaus, 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 falsification of location, including one in January, when a ship he did not identify was spotted in the process of load Iranian crude on Kharg Island while it was broadcasting an offshore location elsewhere. in the Persian Gulf.
While the US government has more resources than commercial companies to root out such deceptive practices, it will require additional efforts.
“This suggests the length to 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. the huge volume of maritime traffic will introduce much more noise into the system. “
Joshua Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman