Say the word “pirate” and many adjectives come to mind, mostly derived from movies: adventurous, daring, and even romantic. In today’s world, the correct adjectives to describe these criminals are: dangerous, pitiless, well organized, and ever increasing. Piracy is a threat to maritime security – and, because it is, the basics of what might be called modern maritime piracy should be understood by all homeland-security professionals.
Ships ranging from massive oil tankers to relatively small craft – indeed, vessels of all types – have been targeted by pirates as long as man has put to sea. Pirates are mentioned by Homer in The Odyssey, and Julius Caesar himself was captured by pirates. He later was released, but only after payment of an enormous ransom. He did, however, obtain revenge by returning with a sizable force of armed vessels, capturing the pirates, and executing them (by crucifixion).
In the centuries since the Golden Age of the Greeks and the Romans, the navies of the world’s great maritime powers (including the United States) fought a continuing series of battles against pirates, some of whom were state-sponsored. Eventually, the piracy strongholds on the Barbary Coast, and in the Caribbean, were eliminated (most of them in the early 1800s). Other strongholds, particularly those in the waters off China, were suppressed but not totally eliminated in the late nineteenth century.
But piracy has never been totally eliminated throughout the world. For the world at large, the end result of the thousands of lives and costly sums that have been expended in the war against piracy resembles the eternal war against cockroaches and other kitchen vermin. No matter how many pirates have been killed or imprisoned, others crop up and continue to flourish.
A Conventional and Complicated Definition The formal definition of piracy accepted by most modern nations is set forth in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (LOS), which defines piracy as illegal acts of violence, depredation, or detention, committed for private ends by the crew or passengers of a private ship or private aircraft, against a ship, aircraft, persons, or property.
To constitute piracy, the LOS convention further states, those acts must be committed on the high seas or in other waters in a place outside the jurisdiction of a sovereign state. When the illegal acts are committed within the jurisdiction of a state, the crime is no longer piracy but armed robbery against ships. (Maritime law is extremely complex; one controversial complication requires that pursuit of a pirate vessel must cease when that vessel flees across the imaginary line in the ocean that separates international waters from the territorial waters of a recognized nation state.)
The most piracy-prone areas in the world at present are the waters off Venezuela, West Africa (particularly Nigeria and the Port of Lagos), the Gulf of Aden, and India and Bangladesh. Vietnam, the Philippines, and the Straits of Malacca are the most notoriously unsafe waters in Southeast Asia, These are the same waters, not incidentally, through which pass half the world’s oil, one-third of its shipping, and one-quarter of its other cargo.
The Straits of Malacca are an area of particular concern. Those straits, which link the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, are among the busiest waterways in the entire world. More than 50,000 vessels a year transit the Straits of Malacca. Almost all of the foreign oil imported by Japan and China flow through these waters. U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) officials have speculated that, if anything happened to close the Straits, almost half of the world’s oil fleet would be required to take a longer route, thereby generating “a substantial increase in the requirement for vessel capacity.”
In fact, according to DOE”s Energy Information Administration, “All excess capacity of the world fleet might be absorbed, with the effect strongest for crude oil shipments and dry bulk such as coal.” In addition, “Closure of the Straits of Malacca would immediately raise freight rates worldwide.“
Larger Gangs for Three Types of Robberies During the period from 1993 through 2003, the number of piracy incidents worldwide – i.e., the “piracy rate” – has risen dramatically. According to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), the piracy rate rose 20 percent between 2002 and 2003. Particularly alarming have been the almost annual increases in attacks by larger gangs, in the number of attacks involving guns, and in the number of attacks upon larger vessels. Last year, 2004, saw a slight but uneven change, with piracy rates dropping moderately in the rest of the world but almost doubling in the Straits of Malacca.
The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) describes three main types of attacks by pirates. The first type is called the opportunity robbery, which typically starts when thieves looking for any target available might see an unguarded means of access to a vessel. They then might, for example, climb up the ship’s anchor line (like rats), steal anything on deck they can lay their hands on, and escape as fast as they can. Heightened ship security measures, mandated under the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS), eventually may reduce the number of opportunity robberies committed.
The second type of attack is the planned robbery. This type of attack often is carried out by organized and well-armed gangs, which target vessel equipment, the personal possessions of crewmembers, and money and/or other valuables in the ship’s safe. A recent example of this type of robbery occurred on June 17 off Lagos, Nigeria, when a speedboat carrying six robbers armed with guns and knives drew up alongside a bulk carrier at anchor. Four of the robbers boarded the vessel, held the duty crewman at gunpoint, and stole a large quantity of the ship’s stores.
The third type of attack is described as the permanent hijacking of ships and cargoes. Sometimes members of the crew are murdered, set adrift, or held for ransom. One example of this type of piracy: The last communication the owners of the tug Christian had received from the vessel was on 14 December 2004, as she was towing the barge Flora from the Philippines to Indonesia. The tug and barge were hijacked. Both vessels were later recovered, but the nine-crew members are still missing.
An Archipelago of Opportunity Experts in this field agree that several conditions are required for piracy to flourish. Pirates need victims, so they look for them on trade routes. Theeal “victim vessel” is one, preferably running at reduced speed, in a constricted channel or archipelago. Piracy also flourishes, though, in situations where regional tensions reduce the possibility of effective transnational cooperative suppression efforts – which means, in operational terms, that pirate vessels usually can flee with impunity from one national water to the next.
The availability of uninhabited islands that could be used as a pirate base – and/or to store loot – also is helpful to the modern day pirate chief. So is the continuing drive (for economic reasons) to reduce the size of ships’ crews – which, combined with automation, means that an ever-larger number of potential target vessels are being protected by fewer and fewer hands on deck (or in the wheel house or engineering spaces).
Political factors also come into play. Nations in which law-enforcement and maritime authorities have historically been susceptible to bribery or otherwise compromised also have been a boon to modern piracy.
New and Better-Focused International Attention There are several resources available to track not only piracy statistics but also various anti-piracy international efforts now underway. On the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency’s website is found the WorldWide Threat to Shipping Report, an Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) weekly digest of less comprehensive reports compiled from many other sources. One of the primary sources for search-and-recovery information as well as the piracy reports themselves is the IMB’s division of the International Chamber of Commerce.
The IMB’s Piracy Reporting Centre, which was established in 1992 when piracy rates began to rise in Southeast Asia, publishes both a weekly report and an annual report; it also acts as a clearinghouse for piracy information, investigates acts of piracy and armed robberies against vessels, and works with national governments to support its long-range goal of increasing general awareness of the global piracy problem and to reduce its severity. The United Nation’s International Maritime Organization also helps by issuing monthly and annual reports both on acts of piracy and on armed robberies against ships.
A “Definite” Connection With International Terrorism In the brave new world of the 21st century, piracy and terrorism are not always synonymous, but they are definitely connected. In recent years, terrorist groups have been seizing crews, holding them for ransom, and using the money collected to fund their terrorist operations. On 6 April 2005, ONI’s WorldWide Threat to Shipping reported that three crew members from the tug Bonggaya 91 had been kidnapped by pirates in Malaysian waters, and that the pirates were suspected to be part of the terrorist Abu Sayyaf militant group. Earlier this month (6 July), ONI reported that two of the three-crew members had been recovered – but that the third was believed to have been handed over to a different faction of Abu Sayyaf. (Indonesian military officials have stated that captives are sometimes sold by their captors to other terrorist groups to raise money.)
One of the principal goals of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Sea Marshal program is to ensure that any vessel entering any U.S. port is manned by the ship’s real crew, and not by terrorists – whose purpose might be, for example, to smash a pirated VLCC (very large crude carrier) into the Golden Gate Bridge.
This scenario is not as far-fetched as it might seem at first glance. Six years ago, the VLCC Chaumont was boarded and seized by pirates in the Indonesian waters off Singapore. The vessel wandered off course while under attack. There was no one at the helm. She was fully laden, in narrow waters – the Phillips Channel in the Singapore Strait, which is one and a half miles wide at its narrowest point.
Today, the masters of vessels transiting international waters prone to piracy face a difficult situation – one for which there is no immediate or obvious solution. The relatively small multinational crews under their command represent a major security training challenge, even after the vessel and port facility security upgrades mandated by the ISPS and by accompanying U.S. regulations. Many masters, and other ship’s officers, look with horror at theea of a general arming of the vessel’s crew. To further complicate matters, the requirement to navigate through narrow waterways, and/or the nature of the vessel or cargo being carried, may eliminate the possibility of evasive maneuvers.
In addition, calls for help if and when the ship is attacked by pirates may go unanswered – or, worse, be answered by other pirates. In an era when untold billions of dollars are being allocated to prevent additional terrorist attacks through the air, and/or – particularly since the July attacks against London’s buses and subways – on land, it seems obvious that more attention also must be paid to the possibility of terrorist attacks from the sea.
The huge cargo ships and other international vessels entering U.S. ports every day of the year are vital to the continued functioning of the American economy. But those same ships represent a handy way to transport terrorists, and to carry and hide weapons of mass destruction (WMDS). Moreover, the vessels themselves can be used as WMDs, just as the commercial airliners were that smashed into the World Trade Center Towers in New York City on 11 September 2001. To many counterterrorism experts the rise in piracy over the past decade may be the first sign of a major new catastrophe waiting to happen.