Terror on the High Seas: Piracy and Terrorism Are Joining Forces and Creating Troubled Waters for the Maritime Industry

By Koknar, Ali M. | Security Management, June 2004 | Go to article overview
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Terror on the High Seas: Piracy and Terrorism Are Joining Forces and Creating Troubled Waters for the Maritime Industry


Koknar, Ali M., Security Management


CAPTAIN KIDD AND BLACKBEARD HAVE LONG DIS-appeared 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.

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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.

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