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Van Zandt: Pirate attack - This is not a drill

The incident off of Somalia is just another in a trend of crimes at sea

The 151 passengers on the luxury cruise ship Seabourn Spirit knew they would see fascinating and exotic ports of call on their 16-day adventure cruise from Alexandria, Egypt, to Mombasa, Kenya.  What they didn't plan on seeing were two Zodiac-type inflatable speedboats filled with heavily armed pirates trying to board their ship 100 miles off the coast of Somalia.  While some of the pirates raked the ship with automatic weapon fire, others fired rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), one of which penetrated the side of the Seabourn Spirit and exploded in an unoccupied passenger cabin. 

All passengers had been moved to the center of the ship, therefore none were injured in the attack, although one crewmember was hit by shrapnel.  The Spirit's captain attempted to ram one of the boats, then outran the pirates and escaped.

In my March 22, 2005, Profiler's Perspective, "Modern Day Pirates, Ancient Day Crimes," I discussed the sharp increase in pirate attacks, including murders at sea.  Worldwide, 400 known incidents of pirate attacks have occurred this year alone. 

The waters off the east coast of Africa, especially along the coast of Somalia, are now known to be some of the most dangerous sea routes on the globe.  One maritime reporting agency suggests that any ship coming within 12 to 25 miles of Somalia "will likely be attacked by pirates."  Those who saw the movie Black Hawk Down will recall that Somalia has not had a legally constituted and functional national government since 1991, with the country of approximately 8.5 million split among various fiefdoms that are overseen by warlords.  Many pirate groups are suspected to have ties with international, political and religious terrorists and are believed to be receiving funding and other forms of support from such terrorist groups.  The pirates that ply the waters off Somalia are suspected to be former members of the Somali, or Somaliland, Navy, current and former local fishermen, and criminals and high sea terrorists.

In early 2004, it was reported that al-Qaida had developed attack plan scenarios concerning an ocean or seagoing jihad that was to be directed against Western luxury liners and military ships.  In October 2000 the USS Cole was hit by an al-Qaida suicide team.  Seventeen U.S. sailors died in that attack.  This was followed by the 9/11 attacks in America.  In 2003 a French supertanker was attacked off the coast of Yemen in a manner similar to the attack upon the USS Cole.  Al-Qaida ocean-oriented attack plans were improved upon two years ago when it was reported that the shadowy international terrorist group had purchased 15 ships over a two-year period.  Further, al-Qaida may have been the recipient of other ships and boats via hijackings at sea.  This report suggests that al-Qaida, and perhaps "Admiral Bin Laden," hope to use its "navy" against civilian ports, oil rigs, and cruise ships.  At the time of this report, the al-Qaida ships were thought to fly the flags of Yemen and Somalia, areas of the world where the al-Qaida ships were thought to be last registered. 

In 2003 the 35 heavily armed pirates/terrorists that boarded a chemical tanker off the coast of Sumatra demanded that the ship's captain teach them how to "drive" such a large ship.  This is frighteningly reminiscent of the 9/11 hijackers who attended flight school, but were only interested in learning how to fly an airliner, not land it.  One high ranking al-Qaida detainee was found to be carrying a large dossier listing specific "targets of opportunity."  The names of large cruise liners that sail from Western ports were on this list.

Various governments are attempting to quash these modern day pirates, but the reality is less than one percent of such high sea terrorists have ever been caught and brought into any court of justice.  In World War II, merchant ships had to arm themselves against Axis submarines and raiders.  While most modern day transport ships do not want to mount .50 caliber machine guns on their decks to combat these 21st century "Blackbeards," some shipping companies have considered deploying sophisticated defense systems on their ships.  The airspace over the Israeli seaport of Ashdod, for example, is said to be monitored by unmanned surveillance aircraft that watch out for pirates, terrorists, and suspicious activities directed against ships in the local port area. 

Some experts suggest that these latter-day pirates are becoming more emboldened in their assaults against ships.  The November 5th attack on the Spirit is certainly evidence of this.  There was a time when such attacks were done in a much less sophisticated manner, usually consisting of a small boat floating up to the side of a larger ship where the pirates threw grappling lines up to the ship, scrambled up the ropes and, armed with simple carrying knives and machetes, robbed the crew members and fled with their booty. 

Today, however, we see well armed, well trained pirate crews with modern boats and weapons.  Their operations are conducted with military-like precision.  About one-third of the 400-plus cases of "recorded" pirate attacks in a recent year happened in the waters around Indonesia, while incidents off the coast of Somalia have increased 800 percent in the last year. 

Almost 200 merchant seamen have been kidnapped this year alone, with dozens of others beaten by pirates who were able to board innocent ships.  During this same period, upwards of 50 merchant seamen were murdered by pirates.  Of concern is that the modernization and computerization of merchant ships has allowed supertankers and other ships to be manned by increasingly smaller crews, making them even more vulnerable and appealing targets to the blue water sociopaths masquerading as the swashbucklers of old.

One of the many concerns is that some of the pirates who climb aboard a hijacked ship in order to learn how to drive it, may someday seize control of a large tanker laden with chemicals, explosives, fuel oil, or liquefied natural gas.  The tanker could then be used by terrorists as a floating bomb against a port, something like what was done with airliners on 9/11.  On December 6, 1917, a French war ship carrying 400,000 pounds of TNT and ammunition exploded in the Halifax, Nova Scotia, harbor, creating the largest man-made explosion prior to the nuclear age.  The explosion killed over 2,000 people and injured 9,000.  Governments realize the potential for a cruise ship, like the Seabourn Spirit, to be taken over on the high seas by pirates.  This scene would present law enforcement and the military with a floating hostage situation with thousands of hostages left to the mercy of their captors, men whose demands could range from a multi-million dollar ransom to political concessions on a grand scale.

2004 saw twice as many merchant men killed in piracy attacks as in 2003.  The current pirate attack plan usually has two or more speedboats filled with pirates approach a ship, perhaps after having fired a distress flare to lure their prey into slowing down or changing course.  The swift pirate watercraft then swarm around the larger ship, with the pirates firing machine guns and rocket propelled grenades at the bridge of the larger ship in an attempt to force the vessel to stop.  Although various organizations concerned with ship safety have urged commercial vessels to stay at least 50 miles off the coast of Somalia, the recent attack (100 miles from shore) shows how far such waterborne hijackers will travel to find a suitable target.  (Vessels are now warned to stay at least 150 miles off the coast of Somalia.  Ships in the area are told not to use radio communications as pirates are monitoring such communications, and are using radar to identify potential targets.) 

The attack upon the Seabourn Spirit has opened a new chapter in the book on modern day pirates, men whose criminal ancestors began such attacks almost 300 years ago.  One only has to think back 20 years to remember when the cruise ship Achille Lauro was boarded by terrorists off the coast of Egypt and American Leon Klinghoffer murdered.  Yet, our memory of this incident and the threat it portends, seems to have been left behind in our collective social wake.  Those responsible for planning the routes to be traveled by transport vessels and cruise ships will now have to rethink the ports of call to which they are willing to go, and what defense measures can be deployed beyond fire hoses, electrified fences around the decks of merchant ships, and trying to outrun pirate speed boats willing to do just about anything to stop the targeted ship.  Although previous attacks have been basically maritime muggings, the pirates of this new era employ every modern weapon available to them.  Someday soon cruise ship and other ocean going vessels may not only have lifeboat drills, but "prepare to repel boarders" drills as well. 

Finally, the threat to passengers on cruise ships may no longer simply be the large, scrumptious midnight buffet, but instead the small, stealth-like boats that approach the ship under the cover of darkness that seek much more than a light midnight snack.  In our post 9/11 world, the otherwise lighthearted phrase "Ahoy maties" has taken on a whole new meaning. 

Clint Van Zandt is an MSNBC analyst. He is the founder and president of Inc. Van Zandt and his associates also developed , a Website dedicated "to develop, evaluate, and disseminate information to help prepare and inform individuals concerning personal and family security issues." During his 25-year career in the FBI, Van Zandt was a supervisor in the FBI's internationally renowned Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. He was also the FBI's Chief Hostage Negotiator and was the leader of the analytical team tasked with identifying the "Unabomber."