From Maritime Reporter: At best, Piracy is criminal; At worst it is terrorism

Eye on the Navy

At best, Piracy is criminal; At worst it is terrorism

By Edward Lundquist

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Piracy is nothing new.  Basically, it’s maritime crime.  It gets difficult to pursue and bring pirates to justice when it occurs in the ungoverned territory of the sea, or under the noses of countries that can’t—or won’t— do anything about it.  And it gets scary when you imagine the tactical employment of piracy as a method of terrorism.


Let’s look at one vital chokepoint, the Malacca Straits.


According to Noel Choong, head of the International Chamber of Commerce’s International Maritime Bureau (IMB) Piracy Reporting Centre, the Vessel Tracking System (VTS) indicates that 62,616 ships transited Malacca Straits in the year 2005, about 35% of them are tankers.  Approximately a quarter of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage passes through Straits of Malacca, Sunda Strait and Lombok Straits, Choong says, and carrying a third of the world’s trade.  This includes a million barrels of oil per day, mostly to <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />China, Japan and South Korea.


Twelve cases of piracy and armed robbery in the Malacca Straits were reported for 2005, according to Choong, compared with 38 cases in 2004. While a positive trend, the numbers are still alarming.  “We believed more than 50 percent of cases normally go unreported,” Choong says.


“The greatest concern at the present is piracy in the congested Malacca Straits, through which half of the world’s supply of oil and a third of world’s commerce passes,” says John S. Burnett, author of Dangerous Waters:  Modern Piracy and Terror on the High Seas.  “The straits wind through numerous islands, with many places for pirates to hide and await the target of their choosing.”


Who governs the seas?


Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore border these waters.  Coordinating a response to acts conducted in neutral waters, or in one country’s territory, that results in the pirates escaping to other territorial water to evade capture has been problematic.


According to Choong, the number of cases in Malacca Straits dropped in 2005 due to international pressure on Indonesia.  In July 2005, the Indonesian Navy launched “Maritime Operation Gurita 2005,” involving patrol boats, warships and aircraft to provide presence and security to the Indonesian side of the Straits of Malacca and Singapore Straits.


“It appears that the operation is successful with the apparent reduction in attacks,” Choong says.  “The operation is still ongoing.”


Choong notes that most pirates in that region are believed to be hiding and originating from Indonesia. However, it is not known how long the Indonesian Navy could sustain these patrols in view of the cost and assets involved.


Clearly increased presence of patrols will reduce pirate activity, or at least send it elsewhere.


There are other piracy-prone waters.  Some danger zones include waters in and around Chittagong, Bangladesh; the Gulf of Aden and Southern Red Sea; the eastern and northeastern coasts of Somalia are high-risk areas for hijackings, according to the IMB.  “Ships not making scheduled calls to ports in these areas should keep at least 200 nm away from the coast,” IMB warns.  Dar es Salaam (East Africa), Abidjan (Ivory Coast), Bonny River/Lagos/Onne/Warri (Nigeria), Douala (Cameroon), Tema (Ghana) are all piracy-prone waters, as is Chennai and Kandla in India.  Port au Prince, Haiti, Kingston, Jamaica, and Callao, Peru, are on the IMB list, as is Basrah oil terminal anchorage and Umm Qasr in Iraq.


Let’s imagine the consequences of a major piracy-terror incident in the Malacca Straits.  It is one thing to take temporary control of the largest merchant ship for criminal aims.  It happens.  It isn’t much more of an effort to take control of a very large crude carrier (VLCC) or liquefied natural gas (LNG) carrier for political purposes, and steam it into Singapore Harbor with a threat to explode the ship and its cargo.  We know there are terrorists all too willing to blow themselves up.


Pirates have committed ruthless crimes for relatively small gain.  One can assume they would commit more heinous acts for a well-funded terrorist “customer.”


Consider the devastating environmental impact if terrorists blew up a large oil or gas carrying ship, especially in a choke point.  The economic ramifications are just as bad.


“It is quite clear that any serious disruption to the flow of maritime traffic through this channel would have a widespread and far-reaching detrimental effect, presenting ships with a detour of around 600 miles and, without doubt, higher freight rates and costlier goods and commodities as a result.  That is why the preservation of its integrity is such an important issue,” reports the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the United Nations specialized agency with responsibility for the safety of shipping and the prevention of marine pollution by ships.


Jolly Roger With an Uzi: The Rise and Threat of Modern Piracy (Naval Institute Press) by attorney’s Jack Gottschalk and Brian Flanagan, present case studies that show that most reported pirate assaults occur in the waters off Indonesia, Brazil, and Somalia, and in the South China Sea, but, the authors say, no location is entirely safe. The authors say that modern-dasy pirates are motivated by greed and are not necessarily part of a larger organized crime group.  Pirates, they claim, are well equipped with high-powered automatic weapons and high-speed boats.  Attacks are usually well planned, and they often have intelligence gathered from well-placed informants.  The costs in terms of both economic loss and seafarers' deaths and injuries are enormous.


As the risk of security as well as its importance grew, Japan and China has long been looking for ways to detour the Strait of Malacca,” according to the Korean news website,  This means creating an ‘Asian Panama Canal’ in Kra, the southern part of Thailand.  The construction of the Kra Canal, as short as 100 kilometers, can reduce the travel route by 1,200 kilometers and two to five days of travel time.”


As appealing as that canal may be, it would be a very expensive and time-consuming project, leaving us vulnerable to the Malacca choke point for many years to come.  And such a canal would be a new choke point, vulnerable to terrorism or piracy, as well.


Partners against piracy


Terrorists have already proven their willingness to attack from the sea. 


Al Qaeda and other extremists are the primary enemy in the region, he said,” said U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Patrick M. Walsh, commander of combined maritime forces in the region.  Walsh holds the titles of Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command; Commander, U.S. 5th Fleet.  “They attacked the motor vessel Limburg in 2002; they targeted economic infrastructure with attacks on oil platforms in 2004; and they attacked the USS Cole in 2000.”


A collation of naval partners have created a task force to patrol the waterways of the Middle East from the Gulf of Oman to the southern border of Kenya and includes the Red Sea.  Called Task Force 150, its operating area extends out to Pakistan's border with India, and includes ships from 15 to 17 nations, and support from other nations.  It recently came under the command of Pakistani Rear Adm. Shahid Iqbal, who relieved Dutch Commodore Hank Ort.


Such partnerships are an objective of U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Mullen.  Without our collective mastery of the sea — we cannot protect and promote free trade, we cannot help those in peril, we cannot provide relief from natural disaster, and we cannot intercede when slavery, weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, smuggling, drugs, and piracy threaten our collective way of life.”


Mullen says “Our vision should be to extend peace through an inter-connected community of maritime forces that together could form a 1,000 ship Navy — a fleet-in-being, if you will — comprised of all freedom-loving nations, standing watch over the seas — standing watch with each other.”


While the U.S. has not suffered from pirates near its ports, it has a major maritime security challenge, monitoring and protecting more than 1,000 harbor channels; 25,000 miles of intracoastal and coastal waterways; more than 350 ports and more than 3,700 passenger and cargo terminals.






Edward Lundquist is naval analyst and a senior science advisor for Alion Science and Technology, Washington, D.C.  He is a retired U.S. Navy captain.




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