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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 4, 2003

Terrorists' link to piracy threatens Asian shipping

 •  Map (opens in new window): Piracy and armed robbery in Southeast Asia

By Richard Halloran

While the war in Iraq is winding down and the potential war in North Korea is ratcheting up, there has been an expanding but almost unnoticed war with piracy in the South China Sea. At the moment, the pirates seem to be winning.

Moreover, governments around the Pacific are holding their collective breath for fear that Southeast Asian terrorists, especially those in Indonesia, will join the pirates to throw a giant block into the middle of Asian trade.

More shipping goes through the South China Sea annually than through the Suez and Panama Canals combined.

The International Maritime Bureau, which surveys the shipping trade from its base in London, said in a recent report that the terrorist attack on the French supertanker Limburg in the waters off Yemen last October showed that "maritime terrorism had become a reality."

U.S. military officials in the Pacific said their intelligence services are watching for a connection between terrorists and pirates.

"We get a whiff of it every now and then," said one official. The maritime bureau in London has reported a connection between organized crime and piracy.

Recently, the maritime bureau said:

  • Four pirates armed with long knives and riding in a speedboat boarded an unarmed container ship in Indonesian waters, tied up the master, the duty officer, and a crewman, and stole cash from the safe in the master's cabin.
  • Pirates boarded a refrigerated cargo ship at anchor at Bandar Busherh, Iran, and broke open the storeroom and generator room with oxyacetylene torches to steal ship's stores.
  • Hijackings of entire vessels rose to 25 last year from 16 the year before. Some had their marking repainted and superstructure altered to conceal their identities as they went back to sea. A few were recovered.

Not every pirate assault has been successful. In the Straits of Malacca, six pirates in a speedboat tried to board a tanker but were driven off with high-powered fire hoses. In another episode, six pirates tried to board a liquified petroleum gas carrier. The crew switched on flood lights and blasted away with fire hoses to repel the pirates.

Much of this has been commonplace thievery, so far. The fear is that terrorists will scuttle large ships in one or more of the three narrow straits — Malacca, Sunda, and Lombok — along the southern edge of the South China Sea to cause ecological disasters and force ships to sail much longer and more costly distances between East and South Asia.

Sam Bateman, a retired commodore in the Royal Australian Navy, says that targets for terrorists could include warships, cruise liners, tankers, and other carriers. He adds port facilities, offshore oil and gas rigs, energy pipelines, and undersea cables.

Over the past 10 years, worldwide piracy has trebled, from 106 instances in 1992 to 370 last year. They peaked in 2000 at 469. Today, the maritime bureau reports, there are fewer attempts at piracy but more successes. Indonesia alone accounted for 103 episodes, the rest of Asia for 115.

Reasons for piracy: Economic hardship, especially after the Asian financial crisis of 1997, has made crime, including piracy, more appealing. Incompetent or uncaring governments have neglected law enforcement. Political turbulence, notably in Indonesia, has drained the resources and energy of the regime in Jakarta.

A lack of cooperation among the nations along the littoral of the South China Sea has hampered anti-pirate operations. The maritime police of one nation cannot pursue pirates into the territorial waters of another nation. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, has shrugged its shoulders.

Bateman also points to a lack of enough trained maritime police, inadequate boats and equipment, and inexperience with complicated concepts of law enforcement such as the doctrine of hot pursuit. The absence of agreed maritime boundaries, particularly in East Asia, is another drawback, he says.

The connivance of one or more governments with the pirates has consistently been rumored but proof has been hard to come by.

An exception has been Malaysia, whose authorities the maritime bureau credits for "maintaining vigilant and constant patrols in the straits." The number of attacks has dropped to 16 in 2002 from 75 in 2000 in the Straits of Malacca, at the western end of the South China Sea.

Bateman has called for establishing or giving more muscle to Southeast Asian coast guards to combat piracy, drug smuggling, illicit arms shipments, and human smuggling, which he argues "are now as much a part of national security as is defense against military threats."

Richard Halloran is a former New York Times correspondent in Asia and Washington. Reach him at oranhall@hawaii.rr.com.