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Ship in a box!

Bahrain News
Sun, 17 Apr 2016
By Raji Unnikrishnan

A BAHRAINI fishing dhow is the centrepiece of a US Navy training facility that teaches sailors how to board suspicious vessels believed to be smuggling contraband including weapons, drugs and even people.

The dhow, which was previously a working fishing boat, is described as the “most prominent feature” of a Visit, Board, Search and Seizure (VBSS) complex at the US Navy’s base in Juffair.  

It opened just over a year ago and is a sign of the growing number of anti-smuggling operations being conducted in the Gulf, which have led to an increase in confiscated cargo – particularly heroin from Afghanistan.

Traditional dhows are a popular means of transport for the region’s smugglers, who modify them by adding secret compartments and installing false interiors to conceal space between the hull where contraband is stashed. 

“Missions of the VBSS kind in the region are increasing, which we are sure of,” said chief petty officer Matthew Peeples, who is the lead trainer at the facility. 

“We are actually increasing the amount of finds that we are making, but we are not sure if this is because of the increase in number of smugglers or we are getting more efficient at finding them.

“It is happening regularly and the big prevalence that we see is of heroin, mostly from Afghanistan, which has the best heroin in the world and it comes through the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.”

The search and seizure training centre where the Bahraini dhow is located is operated by the US Coast Guard Patrol Forces Southwest Asia’s Maritime Engagement Team (MET).

Chief petty officer Peeples, who is the MET team leader, said the Bahraini dhow – “described as a ship in a box” – was chosen because of its similarity to suspicious fishing vessels operating in the Gulf.

“The VBSS aims at training the team on handling the smuggling of weapons, drugs and other illicit stuff,” he told journalists during a two-day media trip to the Naval Support Activity (NSA) headquarters in Juffair.

“This dhow is the most prominent feature in our facility here, which has been at the NSA for 13 months now.

“It has 22 hidden compartments and is the newest facility that engages in training on VBSS.  

“The 14-metre fishing dhow was purchased from a Bahraini fisherman and has been put on the blocks here and modified to make it suitable for all types of training like anti-smuggling, illicit fishing and human smuggling.

“It helps because its features are exactly the same as the Bahraini fishing dhows we see in the waters here.

“When they (sailors) practise here they can make all kinds of mess so they can do their mission successfully for real.

“Inside the cabin itself and beneath the engine, the dhow can hide as many as 40 people.”

Chief petty officer Peeples said the facility aimed to simulate situations encountered during real-life boarding operations at sea.

“For example, the dhow measures 14.5m outside, but inside it measures only 12m – which means you have almost two-and-a-half metres missing in between, which proves it has hidden compartments,” he said.

“Trainees are provided tools like drilling machines and fibre-optic skills to find illicit materials in it.

“We have simulated weapons and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) set up in this dhow. When they (trainees) expect narcotics, they stumble upon massive shells with wires, which is one kind of training.

“We have all sorts of training so they do not get an adrenalin rush and are able to control their emotions.”

In addition to providing expertise to American sailors, the facility also offers training to those from other countries.

“We train Bahrainis as well and we are proud to say that Bahrain is our only customer in the Gulf that is part of this course,” he said.

“We are integrating ourselves with subject matter experts dealing with driving of these boats as well.”

Although he said there had so far been no cases of human trafficking encountered by boarding teams in the Gulf, he added it was an eventuality that sailors were being prepared for.

“We have not found any cases of human trafficking in these parts,” he said.

“However, we train for all possibilities as human trafficking is reported in the Mediterranean, Egypt and Lebanon – where there is a lot of human smuggling, especially from Syria.

“We train people to be able to handle any situation possible and, in case of human smuggling, it is also about how to take care of people, which is different from drugs – which need no food, medical care or evacuation.

“Dealing with human smuggling is harder than drugs, as it demands not only dealing with the illegal side but also the humanitarian side and we have to cope with it.”

The facility in Bahrain provides training to armed forces and agencies throughout US Central Command’s area of responsibility. Its work is being showcased to participants involved in the ongoing International Mine Countermeasures Exercise 2016, which is taking place in Gulf waters and is the world’s largest military exercise at sea.

It started on April 4 and involves international naval and civilian maritime forces from more than 30 nations spanning six continents, led by the US Navy. Participants will take part in training designed to protect international commerce and trade, consisting of mine-countermeasures, maritime security operations and maritime infrastructure protection.