Friday, February 25, 2005

Iran Daily - The Next 9/11 Could Happen at Sea

Iran Daily: "The Next 9/11 Could Happen at Sea

One unsuspected bit of good news related to the Indian Ocean tsunami was revealed this month when the International Maritime Bureau released its annual report on pirate attacks against international shipping. The new figures showed a 27 percent decline in 2004, to 325 incidents from 445 in 2003, and noted that there had not been single attack in the pirate-infested waters off Sumatra since the earthquake.
Last year, according to the maritime bureau, some 400 crew members and passengers were killed, injured, held hostage or remain missing as a result of attacks. Every year the pirates are better organized, ambushing ships with military precision and firepower.
Merchant vessels are the lowest-hanging fruit of global commerce, slow and vulnerable to attack. Hauling 90 percent of world trade, these lumbering beasts file through the world’s choke points--the Suez and Panama Canals, the Bab el Mandeb (the entrance to the Red Sea), the Straits of Gibraltar and the Malacca Strait between Indonesia and Malaysia.
It is the Strait of Malacca, the shortest sea route connecting the Indian and Pacific Oceans, that has maritime and intelligence authorities most worried. The passage, 600 miles long but just over a mile wide at one point, is the conduit for 50,000 ships a year, carrying a third of the world’s commerce and half of its crude oil.
Despite the global decline in the number of reported attacks, the number of attacks in the Malacca Strait increased last year to 37 from 28 in 2003. And, while many raids are likely carried out by crime syndicates, there is evidence that many have been the work of the Free Aceh Movement of northern Sumatra.
In March 2003, the chemical tanker Dewi Madrim was attacked by heavily armed pirates in speedboats in the Malacca Strait. According to the crew, the pirates, speaking Indonesian, seemed less interested in robbery than in taking turns steering the ship down the congested waterway. They took two officers hostage and a satchel full of technical documents. Singapore’s defense minister, Tony Tan, said that he was concerned that this incident and others like it were practice runs for a terrorist attack.
Just as terrorists learned to be pilots for 9/11, terrorists may now be learning to be pirates. Purposely grounding a crude carrier hauling two million barrels of oil at a place like Batu Berhanti, where the strait is little more than a mile wide, would close the waterway indefinitely. The delay in oil supplies to China, Japan and South Korea could devastate their economies, setting off a global economic crisis.
Such concerns are why Potengal Mukundan, the director of the International Maritime Bureau, said he was encouraged that there have been no attacks since the tsunami. “Many of the pirates may have died,“ Captain Mukundan said.
It is also possible that the large American military presence as part of the tsunami relief efforts in Aceh has given the pirates pause.
Now, one hopes, these countries will take note of what an increased military presence can accomplish, because the pause in piracy will not last forever, nor will the cease-fire the Free Aceh Movement made with the Indonesian government in the aftermath of the tsunami. Unless Indonesia and Malaysia accept American help in fighting them, the pirates will be back. And we’ll be lucky if plundering loot is all they have in mind.