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.
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.
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.
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.
Mr. Panithan called on governments around the region to act against the security threat, which seriously affects the regional economy.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s maritime expert reports from Genoa, Italy, that the threat is far from being confined to economic damage or to one world region. He supplies a graphic example and an even more graphic scenario of what could easily happen:
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.
The could-have been scenario begins here:
Meanwhile, other members of the gang were busy setting up the satellite equipment and fixing a large quantity of explosives to the ship’s bow, connecting them to switches on the bridge. When the Yan reached its destination, its engines were turned off and the hijackers gathered on the bridge for a briefing from their leader. Passing vessels appeared as blips on their computer screens. One of the blips started to flash. The engines were switched on and the Yan began moving toward its target, the super oil tanker Chaumont, where a transmitter operated by a crewman in cahoots with the pirates was sending out its coordinates.
The captain of the Chaumont, which was carrying 300,000 tons of Arab crude and plying a southeasterly course to its final destination, South Korea, began to fidget uneasily on the bridge as he watched what appeared to be an innocent ship on a collision course with his vessel. Maneuvering in the Philip canal is impossible for a ship the size of the Chaumont.
The captain sounded his warning horn, but the Yan pulled up alongside. Its black-clad crew on the bridge detonated explosives that tore gaping holes in the Chaumont in three places. Crude oil gushed out, painting the sea black, an unprecedented ecological disaster no one could stop. Traffic in the Straits of Malacca came to an immediate halt, creating a bottleneck of dozens of vessels that choked the world’s busiest waterway and severed its main east-west sea-lane. Emergency services in nearby Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore did not immediately realize the scale of the disaster. Moving slowly, they put together an intervention force to try to contain the oil spill, relying on fragmentary information from local fishermen.
Swift, sharp declines in industrial share prices followed on international financial markets, then the shares of financial institutions plummeted. The disaster also sent oil prices shooting up nervously. The trend sharpened after Kuwait’s oil minister announced a production halt until the incident was investigated. The world faced a new kind of ecological and economic disaster.
The scenario ends here, but it is realistic enough.
In an earlier incident, on January 16, 1999, the Chaumont a super oil tanker was attacked in the Philip canal of the Straits of Malacca. The pirates boarded the vessel, ransacked the crew’s belongings and the ship’s safe. They then bound the crew, leaving the vessel without anyone at the helm. Seventy long minutes went by before the navigation officer struggled free of his bonds. By sheer chance, calamity was averted. If that tanker had smashed into another vessel or run aground in the narrow waterway, an ecological disaster would have resulted.
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. Ninety-one percent of piracy incidents in 2001 occurred off Indonesia, Malaysia and the Straits of Malacca. But piracy also exists off West Africa, Somalia, South America and elsewhere.
The hijacking of vessels with or without their crew doubled in recent years, climbing to nearly 20 incidents in 2001. 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), an organization that has been following efforts to stamp out the scourge, says hijacking a vessel requires enormous resources and meticulous planning. A mother ship, carrying weapons and fake documentation for the vessel and crew, is usually used as a launching pad for hijacking attacks. 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.
Piracy at sea usually meets little physical resistance on ships, where computerization has steadily reduced the number of crewmembers. The growing practice of operating ships under flags of convenience means that hijackings are not carried out against vessels belonging to superpowers but against those registered in countries such as Panama and Honduras – nations unlikely to send a task force to try to fight piracy. Gone are the days when a nation like the United States established the Marine Corps to protect shipping from pirates in the Mediterranean.
The end of the Cold War has halved US, Russian and British naval forces, lessening the likelihood that pirates will encounter a warship.
Moreover, the Third World countries in areas where the pirates strike have limited budgets and are plagued by government corruption. Regardless of any links to terrorist groups, organized crime in those nations wields influence over government authorities.
Those same countries are home to terrorist groups with nationalistic and religious ideologies. Some of the organizations are linked with other ruthless and sophisticated terrorist groups, such as al-Qaeda.
The phenomenon has yet to take on global proportions and the budgets of organizations such as the ICC that are trying to eradicate piracy are still limited. Their activities are based mainly on dealing with economic ramifications of the phenomenon and the damage caused to different organizations. The potential for terror that is inherent in piracy has yet to dictate how the problem is being confronted. As was the case in the fight against global terrorism, a serious war against piracy and modern-day pirate-kings will have to await a dramatic incident that shocks the world.
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.