There has been a steady increase in piracy at sea. Now, many in the shipping industry worry that terrorist organizations may target commercial shipping.
In the past week armed pirates attempted to board a supply ship in Cameroon, a carrier in Bangladesh and a ship in Indonesia. In these cases, the vessels were either anchored or traveling slowly through a harbor. Last year, pirates attacked 445 ships, held 359 people hostage and murdered 21. Captain Pottengal Mukudan of the London-based International Maritime Bureau says maritime pirates are using terrorist methods.
"Well, we have seen rocket-propelled grenades, we have seen AK-47s, automatic weapons being fired on the vessel to force it to stop, and these have been fired on tankers, so it is a big fear for the people on board the ship," he said.
Two years ago, pirates linked to al-Qaida attacked a French supertanker off the Yemen coast in the same harbor where the USS
Cole was attacked in October 2000. The French ship was loaded with crude oil and headed to Malaysia and the Straits of Malacca where almost half the world's oil supplies pass through. The area is one of the busiest shipping channels in the world so police and the coast guard regularly train to respond to maritime terrorism.
Brian Jenkins, a terrorism analyst with the RAND Corporation, a non-profit research organization based in Washington, D.C. says protecting the 650-kilometer coastline of the straits is a daunting challenge. He says slow moving vessels are vulnerable targets.
"This is a relatively narrow passageway and therefore that provides certain operational advantages to the attackers: they can hide along the coast; it's not a matter of some vessel attempting to find a supertanker in an open sea; there's no navigational skills required. You basically can stand on the shore and look at it," he said.
The number of attacks on vessels has resulted in a rapid buildup of the maritime security industry, which often includes military personnel monitoring harbors. Off the coast of Iraq, the U.S. Navy and its coalition partners intercept and board suspicious-looking vessels. The program has been so successful, it is also being considered for the Malacca Straits and that has galvanized the navies of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore to form joint patrols in the straits.
General Endriartono Sutarto, a commander with the Indonesian military, says the joint patrols are meant to preempt U.S. involvement in the region.
"We understand that the Malacca Straits are very important for ships who are sailing through the straits, and we also understand that they are coming from many countries in the world," he said.
Commerce around the world could be affected if ships avoid certain ports or navigational routes due to piracy or terrorism. Maritime terrorism was the topic at a recent conference sponsored by the International Maritime Bureau where military and navy officials met to discuss the political and economic fallout of a terrorist attack on commercial shipping and who may be capable of planning such an attack.