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Maritime piracy versus maritime terrorism in the Seabourn Spirit hijacking episode


The apparent maritime piracy attack (as opposed to maritime terrorism) using machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades on the MS Seabourn Spirit (photo) off the coast of Somalia is so long overdue. I simply can't imagine why it has taken/is taking so long since the 1985 Achille Lauro hijacking (also here) for al Qaeda or the odd criminal group to take down a floating city for robbery, ransom or terrorism. Recently rated one of the world's best cruise ships, the Seabourn Spirit is an especially lucrative target as it is an high-end vessel whose passengers pay some $10,000 to $20,000 per person per fortnight. A colleague and I recommend against taking cruise ships and are even leery of ferries in certain areas.

One wonders if the recent Somali hijackings of the UN World Food Program (WFP) relief vessels and their sequestration in Somali ports was a series of practice runs to work out procedures and test interdiction responses. (There is some suggestion that this is the case.) Unless the weather conditions and sea state were accommodating, it is also interesting to see the kind of "speedboats" that ventured out 160 KM (100 miles) where most vessels assume themselves at low risk. One also wonders if they were loitering with a tender waiting for the intercept. (Surveillance for route, crew, cargo and sailing times is a straightforward affair.)

While this is being billed as attempted robbery (piracy), one wonders what the passenger manifest would show as a person of interest to either or both kidnappers or terrorists. In October 2005, the UN said that both the new Somali government and warlord groups were buying weaponry in preparation for a "military showdown" so this attempted hijacking could simply be a ransom attempt to defray expenses beyond the usual smuggling of drugs, weapons and people and less headline grabbing vessels.

While the attack was repulsed, the liner had to disclose some of its escape and evasion tactics for review by future attackers:

  • Crew drills designed to deter "people trying to get on the ship that you don't want on the ship"
  • Scuttling attacking boats with the cruise ship's wake
  • Attempting ramming
  • Rapid course corrections and flank speed
  • Suppressing alarms to contain on-deck passenger movement
  • Sonic blaster, or Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD), a non-lethal weapon "developed after the 2000 attack on the USS Cole off Yemen as a way to keep operators of small boats from approaching U.S. warships"

Even if this attack was ransom and robbery, these attackers mingle with those intent on terrorism thereby forming an ample talent reservoir for future actions by pirate and terrorist alike.

From a terrorism standpoint, "Cruise manslaughter" via attack on cruise ship or passenger vessel, ranked high early on after 11 September, along side the "Trojan Box" container on a RO/RO ship or other ship carrying containers, chemical contamination via attack on chemical carrier, explosion via attack on LNG carrier and destruction of offshore oil and gas production node and supply network. The capture of a cruise liner that could be sailed close enough to shore to get 24/7 media coverage and then detonated and sunk, or taken into a port and detonated next to a refinery or a natural gas terminal. A major twofer.

New enablers are emerging via modern yachtjacking. Yachtjackers rose in the 1970s as drug cartels used hijacked yachts to transport drugs, then declined in the late 1980s as drogistas selected transportation with less repercussions and more capacity. Yachtjacking returned with a vengeance in the 1990s with spiking violence, loss of life and economic damage. I now see indications that mega yachts are being surveilled as "attack boats" whose helicopters can add to the offensive capabilities of the mega yachts in terrorist hands. There are newsletters for mega yachts that discuss such matters in muted tones.

The failure of the PLF (also here) escape plan from the Achille Lauro (surrender in exchange for safe passage, by the Egyptian airliner being forced down in Sicily) can be solved in various ways, e.g., a suicide team that does not intend to escape but rather to make a statement, or commandeering the vessel to a 'safe' shore such as Somalia where the hijackers could assume it possible to fade into waiting assets and then disappear.

The necessary conditions for successful piracy as opposed to terrorism, especially suicide terrorism, are:

  • Potential reward outweighs potential risk
  • Safe havens for hiding, affecting repairs, obtaining supplies, and selling off stolen goods
  • Operational locations where detection is difficult
  • Minimal governmental efforts attempting to detect pirates

A general lack of the rule of law where piracy takes place is advantageous. The most effective deterrent to piracy has been military action. Diplomacy has made only modest inroads. (In the colonial "Golden Age" of piracy, the operative enabler were the wealthier "colonial families in the Americas, especially merchant families, would buy goods from pirates and resell them at higher rates. There were also numerous ports throughout the Americas where, for the right price, pirates could safely go for repairs and supplies.")

For states like China and Somalia, the piracy problem is "as linked with corrupt government officials as it is with organized gangs." Many states struggling with piracy are "also some of the world’s poorest nations for the obvious reason that the people living there are often desperate to make a living, no matter what the cost.. often have the least resources to fight the problem, and considering that the victims are often from other nations, fighting piracy is never at the top of their agendas":

In fact many attacks, especially those off the coast of Africa and South America, are geared towards stealing such mundane items as rope or paint, which can then be sold for enough to allow these people to make a living. While such attacks are clearly not terribly damaging economically to shipping companies, the prevalence of such attacks carries a large human toll. On a basic level, the number of crew deaths is rising dramatically from attacks.

Part 2

Pirates blast liner
Daily Telegraph (AU)
November 07, 2005

Pirates May Have Also Attacked U.N. Ship
The Associated Press
Nov 6, 2005 12:52 pm US/Central

Cruise ship attack highlights threat from Somalia
By Daniel Wallis
Source: Reuters
06 Nov 2005 13:29:24 GMT

Unprecedented increase in piracy attacks off Somalia
ICC International Maritime Bureau (IMB)
20 October 2005

Second UN food aid ship hijacked in Somalia
UN News Centre
13 October 2005

28 Sep 05

Terrorism and the Travel Industry, Part 1 and Part 2
Moderator: David Unger; Panellists: Francesco Frangialli, Pedro Argüelles, Isabel Aguilera, William Fell, Victor Aguado
International Summit on Democracy, Terrorism and Security
March 9, 2005

Yachting industry takes notice of joy-riding terrorists
By Lisa H. Knapp
Triton Nautical News for Captains and Crews
Vol 2, No. 4
July 5, 2005

Radical Islam and LNG in Trinidad and Tobago
Energy Security
Institute for the Analysis of Global Security
November 15, 2004

(Radiological attack on a cruise ship in the territorial waters of Barbados)
Co-sponsored by the Government of Barbados, Organisation of American States (OAS) through the Inter American Committee Against Terrorism (CICTE)
5 July 2004

Topic Area B: Maritime Piracy
Harvard WorldMun 2003
Special Political Committee
March 2003

Shipping after the September 11th Attack: Preparedness Threat Scenarios and Security Measures
By Eivind Dale and André Kroneberg
Norwegian Marine Technology Research Institute
May 15, 2002

Bandits in the Global Shipping Lanes
New York Times

Published: August 20, 2000
Fee archive
Free Mirror

International Perspectives on Maritime Security

Gordon Housworth

InfoT Public  Terrorism Public  


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