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Modern piracy on the high seas

Like many people, I recently thoroughly enjoyed that rather silly movie romp, Pirates of the Caribbean, full of English toffs in redcoats, ghostly pirates with bad teeth, not to mention luscious wenches relying on the dubious chivalry and charm of Johnny Depp. However, lest we think piracy belongs to the era of men in wigs with parrots on their shoulders, I have news to report.

Seaborne piracy is rising fast in many parts of the world. It is particularly virulent in parts of Southeast Asia, for example in and around the coastlands of the vast stretch of islands making up Indonesia. Today’s Caribbean and the Indian Ocean are also dangerous. A while back, while I was spending a wonderful day ogling at unattainably expensive sailing yachts at the London International Boatshow, I grabbed hold of a book warning amateur sailors about the perils of being held to ransom by pirates in oceans all over the world. At the very least, you would be nuts to embark on a long passage without carrying at least two workeable firearms.

But as the report I link to makes clear, there is increasingly an ideological slant to modern piracy. In Indonesia, it appears that Islamic militants, like terrorists the world over, are mixing their religious fervour with the juicy temptations of crime.

I am frankly surprised that there has not been more written on how easy it would be for a terrorist group to get hold of even a small sized motor boat, fill it chockfull of explosives, sail it up the Thames, the Rhine or any other major river you can think of, and blow it up. As an aside, I continue to be amazed at how relatively easy it is to sail into a marina without necessarily having to immediately declare any ID. On a recent trip to France by yacht I never once was required to show so much as a passport.

19 comments to Modern piracy on the high seas

  • Katherine

    Oh, God, don’t give them any ideas. I watch those big container ships entering my town’s harbor and always wander if they contain something that will go boom.

  • OBL

    And what town might that be Kathrine?

  • sam

    The stat’s for “disappearing” yachts in the South Pacific/Asia and (many other places) are shocking.

    If you are close to land you’d better be keeping an active watch. ( and be properly armed)

    Even places like the Carribean have numbers that are eye-brow raising. (incl. theft, armed robbery, etc…)

  • There was a rather famous New Zealandish yachtsman whose name I forget who was killed by pritates a year or two back. The statistics on piracy throughout the world are indeed shocking (I work for a ship certification company, a rather large and famous one, and we get these statistics weekly).

    Gone are the days when pirates in the Malacca straits used to quake in their boots when they heard the Royal Navy was leaving Greewich to sort them out. Nowadays the pirates use heavy mounted machine guns and shoulder launched missiles to engage other boats.

  • This is something I’ve worried about for years, even predating 9/11. Just check out the websites offering transoceanic yacht transport. It wouldn’t be hard to carry a high powered explosive device or chemical weapon right up into the heart of some major western cities.

    Of course, ports are worried sick about this sort of thing. Port security experts are so cagey about it that they won’t even discuss what measures are being taken.

    Btw, I have no doubt that al-Qaida has thought of all of this, and that the only thing standing in their way is the acquisition of an appropriate weapon.

  • Whip

    If your library’s periodical section carries The Atlantic Monthly, read the article “Anarchy at Sea” by William Langewiesche in the Sept 2003 issue. Don’t bother looking on-line, it ain’t there. If your library doesn’t carry the Atlantic, um… then your library really, really sucks.

  • Julian Morrison

    A boat could carry a bomb into, say, London. But let off a boatload of semtex on the river and it would just make a godawful big splash, and shatter a few windows. Chem-explosive bombs have to close by whatever they’re supposed to damage, unless they’re huge.

    Boats could certainly carry nukes, but I don’t think “the terrorists” have nukes.

  • Guy Herbert

    “[A] boatload of semtex” would probably do some serious damage (compare the–accidental–Halifax picric acid explosion of 1917). Fortunately, getting hold of that quantity wouldn’t be easy.

    I can see why government agencies wish to propagate the idea that terrorists (or drug-dealers, paedophiles, hackers, illegal immigrants, racists…) are really very powerful and well-organised. It encourages further increase in their own powers and armouries and excuses their own astonishing incompetence. Example. But why so many people here seem happy to indulge the nightmare, I don’t understand.

    That one can still take a sailing holiday without being questioned by officials strikes me as a good thing.

  • Guy Herbert

    Pray excuse my own incompetence, that “Example” link should be here.

  • zmollusc

    What is the position on firearms on boats? I can’t imagine customs officers swarming aboard every vessel and arresting people for possession of whatever firearms they carry? Is there any chance of cruising the norfolk broads shooting ducks for breakfast aboard a foriegn registered PBR?

  • Dave F

    Julian, in fact Michael Bentine, of Goon Show fame, sailed a gunboat up the Thames and fired balloons at the Houses of Pariiament. Let’s hope security is a bit better now. I know rhe IRA was able to mortar Downing Street in boad daylight more rec ently, but still …

    On a more serious note, Cape Town papers have recently run reports on snowballing African piracy, which seems to involve inside tipoffs from Durban and Cape Town ports about cargo vessel movements up the west coast. The epicentre of this piracy is … ta-daa! Nigeria, with a whacking 59 per cent, followed by Somalia.
    Nigerians seem to have the biggest criminal syndicates in Africa; they also dominate the continent’s drug trade and stolen car smuggling. As we all know, Nigerian con rings lead the world in that 411(?) investment scam.

  • I always considered the 9/11 hijackers as being air pirates, and American response to them justifiable under the Constitutional provision for apprehending and punishing piracy. I didn’t think that taking over Afghanistan or going into Iraq fell in the same category, but chasing Osama and associates wherever they operated in the world seemed OK to me as a Libertarian, and OK under the US Constitution.

    If the US would prosecute the “War on Terror” as an organized crime problem domestically, and as a piracy situation internationally, I think our actions could be both appropriate and defensible (morally and legally). The overreaction of ground-war and regime change, including thousands of civillians and hundreds of coalition soldiers dead, is something I opposed before the fact, and cannot now justify or defend after the fact. The only answer for me is to sack those who took things too far and to start again with a new group of pols, who may be fearful of incurring the public wrath that scuttled their predecessors.

  • Paul,

    Thanks for responding. There is no reason why, in this relatively a-political age, libertarianism should not suffer the fate of politics generally. I would have been pleasantly surprised had you responded to the effect that this was not so, and interest is more palpable than before. But things being as they are, talk of going for the zeitgest is surely ambitious.

    To make headway one needs the basics right. That demands agreed aims, organisation, strategy and discipline – in other words, a proper theoretical and practical structure. I do not know how the LA measures up in this respect. But I suspect that quite a number of the individualists who inhabit the libertarian universe will recoil at the very mention of organisation. It is inescapable, though. Thus …

    If the agreed preference is to concentrate on getting one or two, specific libertarian ideas into Tory Party policy, that’s one thing. If it’s to practise entryism – and I think Abiola may be unaware of the ignoble past of this strategy in British politics – that’s quite another. If it’s to educate … if it’s to radicalise … if it’s to publicise … if it’s to critique … One could go on, and it’s not my place to do so. But the alternative is to talk and talk some more while everyone gets older and the real world goes it’s own sweet way. Talking has its compensations but, eventually, this way lies disillusion and failure.

    I admire your pluck for standing in ’92. No doubt along with much else besides you learned that pluck isn’t anything like enough and the two-party system is fire-proof (Kidderminster and Tatton notwithstanding). It is a trite but true fact that libertarians must practise the art of the possible. A positive intention would seem the necessary starting point.

  • Andrew Duffin

    Carrying firearms on a yacht will get you into enormous trouble almost everywhere in the world. Maybe the US is an exception, I don’t know.

    Informed advice from all experts is unanimous – don’t do it.

    Remember also that with the kind of firepower modern pirates employ you are unlikely to be able to influence the situation in any way, unless your boat is – say – HMS Invincible.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Andrew Duffin, you may be correct. “Informed opinion” is usually wrong about most things, including the right to self defence.

    Makes me yearn for when the East India Company merchant ships had guns as good as the Royal Navy. We had more sense back then.

  • pirates of the caribbean is the coolest movie ever!!!!!!!!!!

  • Mike


  • What an eye opener. I was beginning to think I was the only person outside of the International Chamber of Commerce and shipping companies, to be aware of the fact the modern-day pirates pose a very real danger, not only to the crewmembers of ships, but to nations.

    My blog, huntoftheseawolves.net/blog, is a shameless plug for my unpublished novel, “Hunt of the Sea Wovles,” which is about Abu Sayyaf guerrillas who hijack LNG ships to use them as weapons of mass destruction.

    At the same time, I’m trying to inform people of a potential terrorist attack that most are not aware of everytime an LNG ship pulls into a port city.

    Each of these ships has the potential explosive power of over 50 World War II-era atomic bombs.

    While ship builders and owners have long said that even if there were an explosion aboard an LNG ship the liquid gas is too cold to explode. They’ve denied that the insulation around the huge holding tanks will even burn. This has proven not to be the case.

    In essence, if a terrorist were to blow a hole into one of these ships and ignite the insulation, the resulting fire would cause the liquid gas to vaporize, and as a vapor natural gas is highly explosive.

    And, unless you’re monitoring terrorist activities going on in the Philippines, as I am, you would never even know there is an on-going, day-to-day battle against the Abu Sayyaf organization, who have been linked to radical Al-Qaida. I have not seen a single news story outside of Philippine news sources covering the fighting going on there.

    This is the premise of my book and the blog. By all means, drop in and take a look.

    John Chadwell

  • Cyril Dwarika

    A bit of information that has been ignored is the fact that the IMO has promulgated the Intl Ship and Port Facility Security Code that seeks to address in a macro level, risks related to Piracy, Crime and Terrorism. It is evident that piracy incidents have decreased significantly in South East Asia over the past 8 years. The IMB, HQ in Kuala Lampur, is the Intl recognised reporting centre for piracy world wide with constant updates on new piracy alerts and comprehensive reports on trends within this scourge. LPG and LNG are regarded as inert in their liquid form. A small boat explosion like that against the VLCC SS Limburg or USS Cole will cause a great deal of destruction but will not ignite the gas. An ammonium nitrate (fertiliser) vessel would pose a more significant threat though.
    Day to day terrorism activities are known to occur between the Sri Lanken Govt and the LTTE Sea Tigers…even commercial vessels are considered targets. Even as recently as Dec 2007, a ship was sunk by the LTTE.
    The Gurka armed onboard contingent is a non endorsed way employed by shipping companies to protect their assets. This approach has it’s challenges.
    I suggest interested parties read about the CSI, PSI, secure trade lanes and CTPAT initiatives. I believe that the maritime security sector is making significant progress in securing Ports. Obviously Ports were created for accessibilty and trade promotion without security as key priority. Due to the porous nature of Ports, an attack from the sea is the present day path of least resistance however the ISPS Code is making our Coastal waters much safer. Our vigilance is still our best defence. There is little chance of a vessel exceeding 500GT to enter a towns harbour and go boom…please know that many safeguards exist.