Less than three months after the horrific “9/11” terrorist attacks in America, the world remained on high alert against any potential terror attacks.
It was against this tense backdrop that a cargo ship carrying raw sugar to Tate & Lyle in Britain was stopped and boarded in the English Channel on December 21st, 2001. A tip-off had been received that the ship, MV Nisha, was carrying material intended for a terrorist act, potentially for biological warfare.
The ship was stormed in a joint operation between the Metropolitan Police’s Anti-Terrorist Branch and the Royal Navy, with heavily armed sailors from HMS Sutherland taking her astonished captain and crew by surprise when they drew alongside and boarded at 8am. The 500-foot vessel was owned by an Indian-based shipping company and was heading for the Tate & Lyle sugar refinery at Silvertown, east London, where she was due to dock at 4pm the following day.
MV Nisha had sailed from Mauritius, but there were reports the vessel had also docked in Djibouti, close to Somalia, which was linked with the al-Qaeda terror network led by Osama bin Laden – the man believed responsible for masterminding the 9/11 attacks in America. Rumours quickly began to spread claiming the vessel had been boarded because it was carrying the deadly anthrax bacteria, which al-Qaeda terrorists intended to release in the UK, putting millions of lives at risk.
The chairman of the shipping company which owned the ship denied all knowledge of any terrorist plot. He said it had sailed to Djibouti to deliver American grain as part of a food aid shipment, and only later went to Mauritius to pick up the 26,000 tonnes of raw sugar destined for Britain.
"She was making a pretty standard voyage, but then we are told there are all these places that are supposedly linked with al-Qaeda," he said. “Obviously, there must have been some information that went to Scotland Yard and they decided to make double sure that there was nothing bad on board, which I think we must be very grateful for.”
An initial search of the ship revealed nothing untoward, but the captain was ordered to sail to Sandown Bay, off the Isle of Wight, and drop anchor there so that more detailed searches could be made. Once there, the vessel was meticulously searched for five days before police officers announced they were satisfied it posed no danger to the public.
Despite being initially sympathetic to the reasons for the search, the chairman of the Indian shipping company had become frustrated at the long delay, which cost his company tens of thousands of dollars in lost revenue. He threatened legal action against the Metropolitan Police to recover those costs.
The police did not respond directly to his comments, but stressed they had a duty to thoroughly investigate any plausible information relating to possible terrorist activity. Assistant Commissioner David Veness, head of Scotland Yard’s special operations, said his officers would remain vigilant and not hesitate to take similar action in future if there was a perceived risk to the public.
With the terrible images of 9/11 still raw in people’s minds, the public sided strongly with the police and had little sympathy for the shipping company’s financial losses.