Sea Transportation: March 1, 2005

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All of a sudden, pirates are a hot topic in counter-terrorism circles. But why? Pirate attacks were down last year. And they are expected to decline even further this year because last Decembers tidal wave literally washed away many known, or suspected, pirates, and their speedboats, in Indonesia. Well, it seems that some Southeast Asian terrorist cells have been overheard discussing hijacking a large tanker or container ship and doing something nasty with it. The scary part of that is that there are plenty of pirate groups that could get a bunch of terrorists aboard a large ship. These pirates usually just loot the ship, and crew, of any valuables, and then speed off with their goodies. There isnt usually much violence, although last year about 400 merchant sailors were killed, injured, kidnapped or missing as a result of pirate attacks. 

Just like the 911 airplane hijackers, it is possible, with enough money and some well educated (in how to navigate one of these large ships), to grab a vessel near a major port, or the Straits of Malacca or the Singapore Straits. One of these thousand foot ships could be run into port facilities, or sunk at a choke point and block sea traffic. Such an attack would have a greater global economic impact than the September 11, 2001 attacks. Thats because ships would have to travel several days longer to get to their destination (usually the Persian Gulf, or Japan/South Korea/China/Taiwan). Not only would shipping costs go up, but there would be a lot of shortages, because there is a shipping shortage at the moment. That has been caused mostly by China, which is in the midst of an economic boom that is attracting oil, and raw materials, imports from all over the world. 

Nations around the Malacca and Singapore Straits have already united, with the United States (and other major naval powers), to form more maritime patrols. If terrorist pirates did seize a large ship, there would probably be a chain-of-events worthy of a fairly exciting movie. Most of the really big ships have security devices on board that at least alert the owners back home when the ship, or crew, is in trouble. There would be time for local warships and commandoes/swat teams, to be brought to bear. But stopping or sinking one of these ships is difficult. U.S. Navy SEALs and Marines have practiced getting on to a ship held by terrorists, and fighting to regain control. It isnt easy. And the terrorists could bring aboard explosives to rig the ship for rapid sinking at the right moment. 

Pirates, in general, are not interested in becoming Islamic martyrs, but if Islamic terrorists recruited some experienced pirates to their cause, you could have a hijacking. Apparently that possibility has become more immediate of late. 

 


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