THE MAGAZINE

Terror on the High Seas

By Ali M. Koknar

Captain Kidd and Blackbeard have long disappeared into Davy Jones's locker, but maritime piracy, far from a mere historical curiosity, is a growing threat to commercial shipping. According to the Piracy Reporting Center at the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), pirate attacks rose by 20 percent in 2003 to 445 incidents. The attacks are not only costly in terms of business losses; they can also be deadly. Pirates killed 21 crewmembers in 2003, more than twice the number of deaths in 2002, using weapons such as rocket-propelled grenades and recoilless rifles twice as many times in their 2003 attacks as in 2002. And these attacks are not carried out by rogue criminals but by sophisticated syndicates. As hijacking requires money, equipment, weapons, planning, experience, and contacts with corrupt officials, and given that the loot per vessel ranges from $8 million to $200 million, piracy has matured into a branch of organized crime, with political or terrorist connections in some cases. As such, the fight against piracy has worldwide economic and security implications.

The traditional definition of piracy, according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, is violence on the high seas, defined as beyond any state's 12-nautical-mile territorial waters. In addition, any politically motivated piracy, such as illegal acts directed against ships, their passengers, cargo, or crew, or against seaports with the intent of influencing a government or group of individuals, would be maritime terrorism. Though the definition of maritime terrorism is not codified under any law, the term typically refers to any violence undertaken with a political motive.

Hot zones.
Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia remain the most pirate-infested zones in the world, accounting for more than a quarter of the attacks, followed by the Indian subcontinent. But the problem is not confined to those regions of the world. In recent years, African countries have seen an increase in piracy, particularly in Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, Cameroon, and Tanzania.

In addition, local villagers along the coasts of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Africa welcome pirate business and provide the perpetrators with food and shelter. In many countries in Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa, coast guard operatives, corrupt drug agents, and other law enforcement officials moonlight as pirates. Renegade members of British-trained Indonesian anti-piracy squads still roam the Malacca Straits.

Ships in the vicinity of the Horn of Africa are attacked frequently by the so-called Puntland Coast Guard, a pirate militia from a breakaway region of Somalia, which has built a lucrative practice of hijacking vessels for ransom. For example, in January 2002, they seized a Lebanese-flagged cargo carrier named Princess Sarah, along with its crew of 18, and demanded $200,000 in ransom. They held the Princess Sarah for two weeks before releasing the ship and its crew, after being paid $50,000.

Terrorist connections.
Some piracy is politically motivated. For example, Indonesian authorities blame most of the piracy attacks in that region on the Free Aceh Movement also known as Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM), which is seeking to break off from Jakarta and set up an independent state. GAM has been fighting since 1975 for independence for the gas- and oil-rich region on the northern tip of Sumatra, about 1,100 miles northwest of Jakarta.

Asian intelligence agencies believe that GAM is working with al Qaeda, which after the overthrow of the Taliban considered shifting its base from Afghanistan to Aceh. Ayman Al Zawahiri, the purported mastermind behind many of al Qaeda's attacks, was reported to have visited Aceh in June 2000. Since then, the number of crew kidnap and ransom operations in Aceh by GAM militants has increased.

For example, in January 2004, gunmen believed to be affiliated with GAM hijacked a tanker, Cherry 201, off Aceh Province. The tanker was carrying 1,000 tons of palm oil from South Africa to Indonesia. A few weeks later the gunmen shot and killed four crewmembers when their $10,000 ransom demand was not fully met by the ship owner. In August 2003, in the Malacca Straits, gunmen took control of the Malaysian-flagged tanker, Penrider, carrying 1,000 tons of fuel oil from Singapore to Penang. The attackers, whom Malaysian police believed were affiliated with GAM, demanded a ransom of $100,000 against the ship's crew of nine, but later released them after the ship owner paid $50,000.

In many cases, maritime terrorism goes beyond piracy for economic gain, with the focus more on disrupting operations and causing harm. For example, the Abu Sayyaf Group claimed responsibility for the February explosion and fire aboard a ferry in the Philippines, which left one passenger dead and more than 100 missing. Abu Sayyaf had been threatening ferry operators since October 2003.

Al Qaeda even had a chief of maritime operations, Abd al Rahman al Nashiri, since captured. He had developed a four-pronged strategy to attack Western targets. These were ramming, blowing up medium-sized ships near other vessels or at ports, attacking large vessels such as supertankers from the air by using explosive-laden small aircraft, and attacking vessels with underwater demolition teams using mines or with suicide bombers.

Al Qaeda is not the only group pursuing such tactics. Members of the Indonesian terrorist group Jemaah Islamiah (JI) have been trained in sea-borne guerrilla tactics, such as suicide diving capabilities and ramming, developed by the Sri Lanken group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

During interrogation, Nashiri revealed that if warships became too difficult to approach, tourist ships could be targeted. Nashiri's words were backed by a 180-page dossier, captured with him, which listed cruise liners sailing from Western ports as "targets of opportunity." The dossier indicated that large cruise ships exceeding 140,000 gross tons and carrying more than 5,000 passengers were desirable targets for terrorists.

Cruise ships, which in the United States alone carry nearly seven million passengers each year, are considered prestigious targets because there is a perception that they are filled with wealthy Americans. For this reason, most American cruise lines stopped serving certain eastern Mediterranean ports after September 11.

But American cruise ships are not the only targets. The terrorists affiliated with the Kurdish Hizbullah, who launched suicide truck-bomb attacks against two Turkish synagogues and British targets in Istanbul in November 2003, killing more than 60 people, had originally cased a southern Turkish port where an Israeli cruise ship was expected to dock. The terrorists had packed a pickup truck with 30 bags containing 50 kilograms of ammonium nitrate-fuel oil slurry each and 10 five-kilogram boxes of explosives connected to a detonator controlled by the suicide driver.

In November 2003, the truck was sent from Istanbul to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Antalya, some 500 miles away, where the driver waited for eight days for an Israeli cruise ship to dock. When the cruise ship failed to call at the port of Antalya due to inclement weather, the truck and its suicide driver returned to Istanbul, where the driver attacked the British Consulate General with his lethal 1.5-ton cargo, killing the British Consul General and 17 other people while injuring hundreds of others and demolishing part of the consulate building.

Weapons.
In addition to being targets, civilian vessels face another threat: they may be seen as potential weapons by pirates who have political or terrorist agendas. The September 11 attacks have demonstrated that commercial aircraft, usually targeted for hijacking or bombing attacks, can also be successfully used as weapons. Oil, natural gas, and other hazardous-cargo-laden vessels are also potential targets for terrorists. Because of their cargo, these ships would serve as a weapon in missile-like use in attacks directed at port facilities and other shore-side installations, and perhaps even against stationary navy ships.

Some iterations on this theme have already been executed. For example, an al Qaeda affiliate, the Aden-Abyan Islamic Group in Yemen, claimed responsibility for the October 2002 ramming of a French supertanker, the M/V Limburg. The attacker used a small boat loaded with explosives in an attack similar to that used against the U.S. Navy destroyer the USS Cole. The organizer of the Limburg attack was Abd al Rahman al Nashiri, who is also believed to have been responsible for the attack on the USS Cole. Nashiri's capture led to the discovery that al Qaeda had also undertaken preparations to attack U.S. commercial vessels transiting the Strait of Gibraltar.

JI, the al Qaeda-affiliated group mentioned earlier, has been identified by experts as capable of hijacking a supertanker and exploding it in the Strait of Malacca, a vital waterway for ships carrying petroleum products to Asia. As many as 50,000 ships use this waterway each year, and any blockage would force nearly half the world's fleet to sail farther, generating a substantial increase in the need for vessel capacity, raising freight rates worldwide, and jolting the economies of China, Japan, and South Korea, which rely on imported energy.

As a result of these threats, Japan, which imports 80 percent of its crude oil via the Strait of Malacca, has offered to help Indonesia beef up its coast guard. Also, NATO operates a security mission code-named Active Endeavor in the Mediterranean. In the mission, up to eight navy vessels keep tabs on cargo flow in strategic locations. This program has helped reduce illegal immigration and smuggling. However, the NATO program does not cover regions of the world where piracy and maritime terrorism incidents are most frequent.

Economic burden.
Piracy and maritime insurance fraud perpetrated by pirate crews is estimated to cost around $16 billion annually, not taking into account the large number of uninsured or unreported vessel losses. The risk of piracy and politically motivated terrorist attacks is deemed so serious that yacht insurers, for example, will not cover vessels that sail in the Red Sea.

Insurers have taken a broad view of the risk, assuming that where it threatens one industry in a region or one mode of transportation, it may well threaten others. For example, after a devastating attack at Bandaranaike International Airport in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, on July 24, 2001, by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, brokers at the Lloyd's of London insurance market imposed massive war-risk surcharges on all shipping to Sri Lanka--whether by air or sea. The rates for ships sailing to Sri Lanka were increased and, because it is a shipping-dependent nation, the Sri Lankan government agreed to pay, within seven days, a bond of $50 million against any claims that might be lodged for damage to vessels heading for or in Sri Lankan waters.

Another example of the economic fallout from piracy and maritime terrorism is that after the Limburg bombing, insurance premiums on vessels bound for Yemen tripled, and ship owners had to pay a war-risk surcharge of $250 per 20-foot container and $500 for each 40-foot container, an average cost of an additional $150,000 for each vessel entering Yemeni ports. Maritime insurers tripled the premiums they charged tankers passing through Yemeni waters. For a typical supertanker carrying about two million barrels of oil, the rate rose to $450,000 a trip from $150,000, adding about 15 cents a barrel to the delivered cost of the oil. Thai, Taiwanese, Korean, and Singaporean boats avoid Yemeni territorial waters because of the lack of security.

Fighting back also carries costs, of course. New maritime security measures to counter the threat of terrorist attacks will require an initial investment by ship operators of at least $1.3 billion and will increase annual operating costs by $730 million thereafter.

An imminent or actual attack could lead to more drastic government-implemented emergency security measures, such as the complete closure of ports. It might also lead to duplicative and lengthy cargo checks. The cost of such an attack on the United States could run as high as $58 billion.

Solutions.
The international community, individual governments, and private enterprises have been working to counter the threats. But as is the case with other business sectors, progress has been slow.

Regulations. New regulations requiring governments, port authorities, and ships to adopt strong security measures were agreed to in December 2002 but have yet to be fully implemented almost three years after the September 11 attacks. The International Code for the Security of Ships and Port Facilities (ISPS) and Amendments to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) will come into effect on July 1, 2004. The SOLAS amendments and the ISPS Code, adopted by the 162-member International Maritime Organization (IMO), call for companies operating ships of more than 500 tons on international voyages to designate security officers, prepare new plans, and be fitted with new security alert systems.

The ship's security alert system allows the crew, in case of danger, to discreetly activate an alarm button that automatically sends a message to the ship owner and to law enforcement authorities. The message must be sent securely so that no one on board the ship or other vessels in the vicinity can intercept the information. As the July 2004 deadline to comply with the new regulations draws near, it appears that not all port operators and ship owners will be ready to meet the deadline, thus raising fears in the shipping community of unexpected costs due to late fees and fines, not to mention security concerns.

Currently, only passenger vessels and ships carrying nuclear materials require a security officer on board. After July 1, 2004, the designated ship security officers (SSO) will be responsible for security issues and for creating and updating the vessel's formal security plan. However, it is expected that the SSOs will not be new personnel focused only on security; instead, they will likely be existing ship's officers taking on this responsibility in addition to their normal duties. Almost no SSOs will be security professionals.

Security guards. Some ship owners have chosen to contract with private security companies to provide armed security on board vessels sailing high-risk areas such as the Strait of Malacca. But it is not clear what authority armed private security agents have when they are deployed on board civilian commercial vessels.

Since the Limburg ramming, for example, private security companies in the Middle East have been offering former soldiers, including 300 Nepalese Gurkhas, to act as guards for the major shipping lines. These guards are not law enforcement or military officers exercising sovereign power of a nation in the high seas, or in territorial waters for that matter. They are being deployed discreetly, because the legal status of armed guards on board commercial vessels is not clear under international law. No single authority can decide the status of such security guards, because the vessels they work on traverse multiple jurisdictions.

If the guards use deadly force, they and their employers may be criminally liable. Yet the policy is pursued because it is working; numerous, potentially deadly piracy attacks are being thwarted on a daily basis by the mere presence of armed guards, who, working in groups of four to eight per ship, often do not have to fire even a single shot in order to keep the pirates at bay. Ship owners also favor hiring armed private security guards because the practice may help them negotiate better insurance premiums.

The deterrence effect can also be achieved when pirates know or expect that the ships' crews themselves carry firearms. Pirates deliberately avoid Russian- and U.S.-flagged ships, for example, because they believe that many of them carry small arsenals for protection.

Crew identifications. The ISPS code mandates no security hardware other than the aforementioned shipboard security alert, which, similar to a silent alarm in a bank, would alert authorities that a ship is being attacked. But the industry is exploring other ways in which technology could help detect, deter, or thwart maritime piracy and terrorist acts.

Fingerprinting technology is being examined as a means of better identifying crewmembers to make it more difficult for pirates or terrorists to obtain false certifications for their outlaw crews. More than one million seafarers will be fingerprinted for new identity cards under a United Nations agreement that came into force in 2003. The cards will be issued by the seafarer's state of nationality.

Fake crew IDs are an important component of schemes in which hijacked ships may be turned into "phantom ships," where the stolen vessels will be given false identities and used to commit cargo fraud. Many of the phantom ships that set off to sea with a cargo and then disappear are sailed by crewmen with false passports and competency certificates, and they usually escape detection by the port authorities, thanks in part to the lack of any secure means of crew identification.

It is hoped that better crew screening and secure crew IDs will also help to prevent terrorists from infiltrating ships. Earlier this year, for example, a 14-month U.S. Coast Guard and FBI investigation into national security threats and document fraud among U.S. merchant ships found nine people with potential ties to terrorist organizations. The nine seamen, who had valid credentials issued by the United States, had names that matched names of people on terrorist watch lists maintained by the U.S. government.

Escorts. Some industry organizations, such as the British Marine Officers' Union (Numast), are advocating security escorts on the world's most dangerous shipping ways. Numast suggested that the Royal Navy should return to its historic role of the 17th and 18th centuries, protecting British ships from pirates in high-risk areas such as the Strait of Malacca and off the Horn of Africa. But there are 50,000 tankers and other freighters sailing oceans, and even an all-out effort by the world's navies and coast guards could not completely safeguard all of them.

Also, the world's navies are still mostly configured for the Cold War, which means that they have a maritime surveillance capability that was designed to keep track of a few hundred big Soviet warships, hardly suited to gather intelligence on pirates and terrorists who use rubber dinghies and dhows--wooden sailboats.

To improve its ability to deter and respond to piracy around the world, the U.S. government is deploying navy officers to create a permanent presence in locations where it only temporarily visited, if at all, in the past. There are now U.S. Navy combat vessels and marines deployed in piracy and maritime-terrorism-prone areas such as Yemen, Djibouti, Kenya, and the Philippines. At such locations, the U.S. Navy is working with the local authorities to improve their capabilities to better police their territorial waters.

Local law enforcement in high-risk areas is generally insufficient. Most nations cannot afford the number of aircraft or coast guard vessels that would be needed to patrol their vast coastal regions and to provide coordinated air surveillance and pursuit in the event of an alert. As a solution, the United States and other maritime powers are pressing countries to ratify the 1988 Suppression of Unlawful Acts Convention, which would establish the rights of maritime security forces to pursue terrorists, pirates, and maritime criminals into foreign territorial waters. However, this convention would only apply to the operation of one nation's naval or security forces inside another nation's territorial waters to stop piracy. It is often referred to as the "right of hot pursuit" and does not apply to private security staff.

These governmental efforts are likely to continue. But given the extent of the challenge and the limitations on governmental resources, it is clear that ship owners and port operators need to come to terms with the increasing threat of maritime piracy and terrorism and invest in security technology, training, and staffing on their own.


Ali M. Koknar is the owner of AMK Risk Management, a private security consultancy specializing in counterterrorism and international organized crime. The firm provides maritime security services in the eastern Mediterranean from offices in Washington, D.C., and Turkey. Koknar is a member of the National Capital Chapter of ASIS International.

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