Battling sea-going pirates in the 21st century

W. Thomas Smith, Jr
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Posted: Jan 11, 2006 4:28 PM

They no longer sail in captured English frigates nor do they fly the dreaded skull-and-crossbones, but seagoing pirates in the 21st century are just as terrifying and every bit as dangerous as the sword-wielding dandies who prowled the Spanish Main in the 17th and 18th centuries. And like their forebears of the Golden Age of Piracy (1692-1725), pirates today have the ability to negatively impact national economies, plus – in the modern world – they potentially are adding another dimension in which terrorist networks might freely move and operate. What’s worse, pirate attacks are increasing in terms of frequency and overt boldness.

Why the resurgence of piracy? It was a question I recently addressed in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Pirates, a soon-to-be-released title written by pirate expert Gail Selinger and me. Actually, I determined, there has been no resurgence of piracy, only a spike in the recent number of pirate attacks worldwide.

Seaborne piracy has existed since man first went “down to the sea in ships.” And though pirate attacks did not end with the close of the Golden Age of Piracy, incidents of piracy were isolated and primarily confined to the coastal waters of the Far East for most of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries.

When World War II ended in 1945, two new variables were added to the caustic mix of merchantmen and wealthy sea-travelers and bad guys with boats and guns: First, the world’s navies began downsizing. Second, the enormous glut of weapons and equipment – previously available only to legitimate Naval forces – began turning up in black markets.

A few decades after the war, computers and other emerging technologies began enhancing pirate capabilities as much as they did those of national navies. In the 1980s, 1990s, and going into the 21st century, successful pirate attacks on global shipping spiked dramatically as pirates began making use of hand-held GPS receivers, satellite phones, ultra-fast speedboats, high-powered telescopes, automatic weapons, and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).

The primary motives for the attacks were – and are – no different than they were during the era of Captains Henry Morgan, Edward “Blackbeard” Teach, and Bartholomew Roberts: It is all about quick riches, a power-kick associated with terrorizing others, and – to a lesser degree – high-seas adventure.

Recently, attacks on commercial ships have occurred along the coasts of Africa, the Caribbean, South America, and in the Far East. Choice targets have included cargo freighters and oil tankers.

Sailing in everything from converted fishing boats with hopped-up engines to inflatable boats normally used by SEAL teams and other Naval commandos, the basic methodology of contemporary pirates is to spot their victims, hang back until nightfall, then approach undetected by radar. Once alongside the target vessel, the pirates board with grappling hooks and rope ladders. And most crewmembers – whether aboard merchant vessels or cruise liners – are not trained or equipped to repel such boarders.

For the past several years, pirates have been known to seize huge freighters, change the vessels' registration numbers and names, replace logbooks, and sail the captured vessels into pirate-friendly waters. Then the pirates either sell the ships and cargos, or demand ransom for the ship and crew.

The London-based International Maritime Bureau (IMB) claims there were a total of 205 pirate attacks, worldwide, in the first nine months of 2005, and 251 such attacks in the same period for 2004

Nowhere, save North American and most European coastal waters, is truly safe. But the seas off Indonesia, where 61 pirate attacks occurred in the first nine months of 2005, may well harbor the greatest infestation of pirates in the world.

Last month, a tanker loaded with – of all things – vegetable oil was seized in Indonesian waters. After a coordinated recovery effort by IMB’s Piracy Reporting Centre; Vietnamese, Kampuchean, and Singapore authorities; and the Indonesian Navy; the pirates realized the jig was up and abandoned the vessel on Christmas Eve.

East Africa, specifically Somalia, is also extremely dangerous. One pirate group, the so-called “Somali Marines,” has been known to launch small-boat raids from large mother ships. The pirates themselves are armed with machine-guns and RPGs.

Nearly 30 hijackings of international ships have occurred off Somalia since March 2005, including an unsuccessful attempt to capture the U.S.-based Carnival cruise ship, Seabourn Spirit, last November.

Several weeks ago, IMB’s director, Captain Pottengal Mukundan, issued a global “appeal” that any or all “Naval vessels in the region come to the aid of ships under attack.” According to the bureau’s website, “At the very least, they [regional Naval forces] can prevent the hijackers from taking these ships into Somali waters. Once the vessels have entered these waters, the chance of any law enforcement is negligible.”

Attacks in Somali waters pose a grave threat to the estimated two-million starving Somalis who – because of widespread drought – desperately need emergency food shipments. Those shipments, according to a January 4 article on James F. Dunnigan’s StrategyPage, “are now being sent via Djibouti, which means the food will most likely end up in Somaliland and Puntland, rather than where it’s really needed farther south.” Shipping food overland through Kenya only reaches the fringes of southern Somalia. Moving deeper into Somalia risks “losing most, or all, of it to bandits and warlords.”

Other dangerous waters include those off West Africa, India, Bangladesh, and South America. There have been a few recently reported acts of piracy against yachts and other vessels in the Caribbean off Jamaica, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. A disturbing new trend is that of pirate attacks against vessels off Iraq’s port of Basra. There, six attacks have taken place since April, despite the nearby presence of coalition warships.

Pirates, just like landlubbing bank-robbers and jewel thieves, probably will always be with us. The question is how to counter them and their increasing sophistication, and how to prevent them from coordinating efforts with terrorist networks like Al Queda. The answer to the latter is simply good intelligence: human, signals, open-source, and otherwise.

In terms of shipboard counter-pirate operations, the answers lie in effective training of security personnel and high-tech ingenuity. For instance, today, many ships are running barbed wire as deterrent barriers along their railings. Some shipping companies have attached 9,000-volt electrical fences extending outward along ships’ exteriors. Radar devices that warn of approaching vessels have been added, as have motion sensors to warn of clandestine boardings.

Non-lethal weapons such as fire hoses and sonic-cannon (officially, Long Range Acoustic Devices or LRADs) are today part of ships’ inventories. Marco Evers of Der Spiegel magazine describes a sonic-cannon as “a small dish that beams hellishly loud noise that is deafening but not lethal.” That’s precisely what the Seabourn Spirit’s security chief used against the ship’s attackers as the ship’s captain ordered the vessel into wake-inducing evasive action thus thwarting the pirates. Sonic-cannons also have been used in Iraq by U.S. ground forces to “acoustically” clear buildings.

Other counter-pirate tools include metal-detectors (to deter insiders who might assist external attackers), foams and glues that can be sprayed onto decks, powerful searchlights, and devices that emit low-frequency sound waves capable of – and get this – inducing bowel movements. Some companies are even considering unmanned aircraft launched from ships that can provide “real-time” photographic intelligence of approaching pirate vessels.

Now, none of this is meant to discourage anyone who might be considering a post-holiday cruise. Fact is, my mom and stepfather are planning a spring cruise, and as I’ve explained to them, pirate attacks against cruise ships are extremely rare. The reasoning is simple: On a cruise ship there is usually a great distance from the water level to the first open deck, making the ship difficult to board. There also are so many people aboard cruise ships – far more than those aboard freighters – that the actual numbers are considered too difficult for a handful of pirates to control.

Additionally, companies like Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises have reportedly been beefing up special shipboard security forces by hiring former commandos from the Israeli Defense Forces, Britain’s Royal Navy and Marines, and Nepal’s famous Ghurka units. In fact, it was a former Ghurka manning the sonic cannon during the attack on the Seabourn Spirit. Trust me, these are not the guys the pirates – or full-blown terrorists for that matter – want to encounter upon boarding.