Terror on the High Seas – A Spreading Plague
Today’s sea pirates could not be more different from the romantic buccaneers of old Hollywood movies; they are organized in ruthless armed gangs, some of them paramilitary in nature and backed by powerful figures in various Third World regimes. Some belong to organized criminal organizations. These lawless gangs are equipped with the latest technology and weapons, computer equipment, satellite positioning and satellite gear. They have speedboats that can evade the sparse patrol vessels plying vulnerable sea-lanes.
Terrorist groups like al Qaeda have found piracy a convenient vehicle for their own deadly purposes.
In the first six months of 2002, six crewmembers were killed by pirates worldwide, four of them in Indonesian waters, according to a report from the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Center based in Kuala Lumpur. Indonesia has the most dangerous waters for international shipping, with 44 pirate attacks in its waters in the first half of 2002 and nine more in the nearby Strait of Molucca. In general, the bureau reports, pirate attacks the world over have risen 3.6 percent compared with the same period in 2001, with India, Bangladesh and the southern part of the Red Sea named as other hotspots. Captains have been warned to give the coast of Somalia a 100-mile berth.
The threat may seem remote, but the latest weekly piracy report published by the International Chamber of Commerce shows how mundane and prevalent it has become:
09.08.2002 at 0505 LT at Samarinda anchorage, Indonesia, six pirates armed with knives boarded a bulk carrier from a cargo barge alongside. One pirate approached the Forecastle area and greeted the duty a/b in a friendly manner. A/B thought he was one of the stevedores. When the pirate got close he took out a knife and threatened the a/b. Other pirates joined in and tied up the a/b. They stole a large quantity of paint together with a life raft and left in a speedboat.
Master contacted port control but received no reply.
That was not the only incident. This week, ships are issued warnings for the entire coast of Somalia, as well as ports and anchorages in Bangladesh, India and Indonesia. They are advised to stay clear of the Indonesian coast of the Malacca Straits, where the coast near Aceh is particularly risky for hijacking.
The unresponsiveness of local authorities is a recurring refrain in the ICC reports.
Many authorities are calling for this scourge of the sea to be fought with the same degree of toughness as global terrorism – particularly when they sometimes converge.
Panithan Watthanayakorn, an expert in regional affairs at Chulalongkorn University, reports that al Qaeda is among the international terrorist organizations responsible for an increase in piracy against ships carrying radioactive materials through the inadequately patrolled Malacca Straits between Indonesia’s Sumatra Island and Malaysia. Mainly they are looking for substances such as uranium and plutonium oxide for use in “dirty” bombs, he said. According to the Maritime Bureau, there were 649 cases of piracy in the straits last year. The crews of commercial ships have no way of defending themselves.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s maritime expert reports that the threat is far from being confined to economic damage or to one world region. He supplies a graphic example:
On September 14, 2001, the Malaysian vessel Mayang Sari set out from the port of Kota Kinbalu in northwest Borneo for the Indonesia port of Batam, towing a cargo-laden barge. The September 11 attacks in New York and Washington were the main topic of conversation among the captain and its crew of nine. Four days into the voyage, what appeared to be a local patrol boat sped toward the ship as it passed near the island of Natuna. The boat pulled up alongside the Mayang Sari and before the cargo vessel’s captain and crew could react, masked gunmen clambered aboard. After a brief struggle that ended with the fatal shooting of one of the Mayang Sari’s crewmen, the pirates tied up the rest of the crew and seized the ship.
Within minutes, a variety of equipment — sophisticated satellite communications gear, laptop computers, night vision goggles and weapons that included anti-tank missiles and a large quantity of equipment still in its original US army packing — was transferred to the fake patrol boat. The barge was untied and sunk with an explosive shell.
The Mayang Sari changed direction toward the Philip canal in the Straits of Malacca, perhaps the most congested waterway on earth and a main transit point between east and west. Under the cover of darkness, the ship’s smokestack was repainted in different colors. With a few dabs of paint, the ship’s name was shortened to Yan.
Some 66 percent of the world’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) traffic passes through Indonesia’s Strait of Molucca. Each carrier is a powerful floating bomb. Half of the world’s crude oil traffic transits the straits, posing a potential ecological threat comparable to the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska.
Experts estimate that naval piracy and fraud accounted for $16 billion in damages last year. The hijacking of vessels with or without their crew doubled in recent years. The pirates are frequently extremely violent, and some 20 seamen are murdered at sea and even more wounded each year. In just one incident, pirates killed the entire 20-man crew of one vessel they seized on the high seas.
Pottengal Mukundan, a senior official of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), says hijacking a vessel requires enormous resources and meticulous planning, including a mother ship carrying weapons and fake documentation for the vessel and crew. Mukundan says individual pirates do not have those kinds of resources and he believes organized crime is behind the hijackings.
John Brandon, an expert on Southeast Asia, points to likely links with local terrorist organizations in countries where piracy at sea is rampant. Local corruption and the right kind of connections make it easy for terrorists to board the vessels posing as crewmembers.
Indonesian authorities blame some of the pirate attacks in the Straits of Malacca on a local terrorist group, Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM) in the restive province of Aceh.
Using tactics reminiscent of terrorism, a “sleeper” crew member or stowaway working for the pirates go into action as the target approaches the hijacking zone, giving the gang its coordinates and then helping to take over the vessel.
The world responded weakly to the seizure of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean in 1985 – the first such hijacking at sea by terrorists, in which an elderly American Jew was killed – by passing the 1988 Convention of Rome for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation. The convention was to have set guidelines for countries on protecting passengers and crew. The document calls for counter-measures but charts no real practical steps.
Various task forces do patrol pirate-plagued sea-lanes and the number of attacks in the Strait of Malacca has dropped because of the stepped up presence of the Malaysian coast guard. But the scourge will need a much tougher response to make it go away.
This article was run by our intelligence newsletter for subscribers, DEBKA-Net-Weekly, on July 26, 2002. To read these and other in-depth articles first, sign on