Examining Modern-Day Piracy Pirates attacked two more merchant ships off Somalia over the weekend, one close to where a cruise ship was hit on Saturday

Examining Modern-Day Piracy

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At 6:00 Saturday night, Kate Hamilton(ph) of Mill Valley, California, received the following e-mail from her father, Charles Supple, a passenger on a cruise ship off the coast of Somalia in East Africa. `This morning at 6 AM Judy(ph) yelled that there was a boat beside us. I looked and there was a 20-or-so-foot fishing-type Fiberglas boat with an outboard motor loaded with four or five masked men with Kalashnikov or AK-47 machine guns, firing away at us, plus one with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher evidently loading. The captain came on the loudspeaker telling everybody that there were unfriendly vessels on the starboard side, and to stay in your rooms. The plink of bullets on the side was very noticeable. I grabbed my camera, peered out the side of the window just in time to see the rocket-holder aim seemingly at me and fire. What a flash. I dove to the other side and the rocket hit two decks up and two staterooms forward. Then the captain ordered everyone to the dining room.' That was the scene on board the Seabourn Spirit as it traveled around the Horn of Africa on its way to Kenya Saturday morning. Among the 150-plus passengers were Americans, Canadians and Australians, and joining us now from Toronto is Dan McTeague, parliamentary secretary responsible for Canadians abroad.

And thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. DAN McTEAGUE (Canadian Parliamentary Secretary): Not at all. Good to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And I know you spoke to some of the Canadians who were on board the ship, and did their accounts square with what you just heard?

Mr. McTEAGUE: Almost to a tee. It sounds like there were plenty of eyewitnesses to what went on right down to the size of the boat, the makeup of the boat being Fiberglas, 20 to 25 feet long. There were in fact two boats, and quite apart from the discharging of the machine gun--and I was told it was AK-47 as well--there were, of course, two rockets that were launched at the ship, known as the Seabourn Spirit. One hit the stern without incident, and the other one went right through one of the passenger berths and lodged into the wall, where it stayed until it was removed by experts from the US Navy in the Seychelles.

CONAN: And we're told one crew member on the ship was a moderately injured and none of the passengers.

Mr. McTEAGUE: Yeah, apparently it was shrapnel, so whether that was because of the explosion on the stern of the first RPG or whether it was because of metal, because, of course, the shots were aimed at the bridge of the ship, but overwhelmingly the passengers have agreed and concurred that the stealth of the ship and the good, able response of the captain explains why the boat did not--was not harmed, passengers were not harmed. And of course, despite the harrowing experience, the captain seemed to have been able to use the boat to his advantage to ward off the boats, one by almost swamping the one on the starboard on the right-hand side.

CONAN: By maneuvering his own ship.

Mr. McTEAGUE: Correct. By getting it up to a certain speed and then moving it very quickly to create a wake that pretty much capsized the first boat.

CONAN: And do we know anything at all about the intentions of these would-be pilots?

Mr. McTEAGUE: There is no doubt that it was to enter, obviously for purposes of theft, perhaps take the ship over. We know that there has been several other incidents in the vicinity. But this ship was significantly off the coast of Somalia, more than 100 miles off its coast. Clearly, small vessels of that size could not make that distance on--you know, without several tanks of gas, and as it turned out, there was a ghost ship or a large ship in the distance with which these two pirate vessels returned to. It was then found--discovered a little while later there was a distress signal from that ship which turned out to be a trap, according to the captain, which he did not respond to, and of course, this explains just how precarious the waters are off the coast off the Horn of Africa.

CONAN: So that ghost ship was sending out a distress signal of some sort, hoping to lure somebody into an ambush.

Mr. McTEAGUE: Well, yeah, exactly, and to do what it couldn't do with the two smaller boats with each boat having as many as four to five men aboard.

CONAN: Now I understand the Seabourn Spirit is now safely docked in the Seychelles, which is a group of islands in the Indian Ocean. I know you've talked to people. Are they going to continue the cruise or are they going to get off and say, `Well enough, it's good, and I'm going to fly home'?

Mr. McTEAGUE: The boat was detoured. It was suppose to--the port of call was Mombasa, Kenya, and if you look on a map on the African coast you'll see it's just south of Somalia. It was moving around and it was to dock there, and several people were to go--Canadians, Australians, British citizens and Americans--and instead, the boat was diverted into another direction, the Seychelles, and I suspect that from there people will be flown back to the destination they wanted to go to; others will continue to move on. My understanding is that the ship is both seaworthy; the undetonated material or the rocket did not--was taken out rather rapidly by US Navy support in the Seychelles, and as a result the ship is moving on to its next port of call.

CONAN: Dan McTeague, thanks very much.

Mr. McTEAGUE: All to--a pleasure, Neal. Take care. Bye for now.

CONAN: Dan McTeague, parliamentary secretary responsible for Canadians abroad, and he joined us from his office in Toronto.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

To tell us a little bit more about this area where the attacks occurred, we're joined now by Ann Korin, co-director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security.

Nice of you to be with us today.

Ms. ANN KORIN (Institute for the Analysis of Global Security): My pleasure.

CONAN: And she joined us from the studios of member station KQED in San Francisco.

This is an attack on a passenger ship, which is I guess why we're paying so much attention, but certainly not the first attack on ships traveling off the coast of Somalia. Reports of more than 20? How come?

Ms. KORIN: Not at all the first attack. There has really been an epidemic of piracy; off the coast of Somalia is one of the worst (technical difficulty). We also have plenty of pirate attacks elsewhere in the world. One prime example is the Strait of Malacca between Indonesia and Malaysia.

Really, you're seeing piracy where you have a situation where failed states can simply not patrol their coastline. There is no law enforcement capability whatsoever, and plenty of bad actors take advantage of that, and what's really worrying, when you look at it from a security perspective, is where does piracy end and terrorism begin, because unfortunately in all of these areas where pirates are on the loose, you also have Islamic radical activity, and it's very difficult to draw the line between these two.

CONAN: Now there were two attacks recently on United Nations ships carrying food aid. Gunmen hijacked the ships, held the crews for ransom before releasing them. Were they rewarded; did they win ransom?

Ms. KORIN: Most--they generally win ransom. Again, off the coast of Somalia, and they also win ransom in the Strait of Malacca area because that's the only way you're going to get people back, and you simply do not have the law enforcement capability to rescue these people in any other way. And their companies or the governments that are responsible for them will really, in general, do anything to get them back. But this is a very lucrative activity for pirates. Either you hijack a ship, take people hostage, get a nice lucrative ransom for them; or else, if it's a cargo ship, you know, steal the cargo, make the ship into a ghost ship, whi--you heard the previous speaker talking about a ghost ship. These are just ships that have been hijacked. They have papers issued by some banana republic that doesn't bother to check if the purported owner of the ship is the actual real owner of the ship. And they're a real threat to the security of the world's waterways.

Now you know, when you take all of this into account, it really makes one wonder what a cruise ship was doing--what a cruise ship was looking for in those areas, because the International Maritime Bureau has issued very, very stern warnings to shipowners about the area off the coast of Somalia; has specifically said please expect--if you are sailing in that area--expect that you will be hijacked. Expect that you will be attacked by pirates. So if you are a UN vessel that's trying to bring relief equipment to refugees, to people that are in distress over there, you really have no choice but to venture through those waters. But if you're a cruise ship carrying tourists, one would think there are other places to go where you don't have to cause hassle to other navies to come and rescue you if something bad happens to you and so forth.

CONAN: Well, again, looking at the map, if you're coming out of the Red Sea and heading for Mombasa, you can see why you might want to cut the corner there on the Horn of Africa, but I think they were well off the coast; that's what they said. But be that as it may, this is a cruise ship, dangerous enough in its own way. Is there concern if the next ship is an oil or chemical tanker?

Ms. KORIN: You know, a quarter of the pirate attacks worldwide are on tankers and that is a huge concern, a huge concern, especially when you look at pirate attacks through straits. Because if you have pirates attacking a tanker, taking control of the tanker, they don't really bother to steer it very well. Sometimes they get off the tanker. We've had several incidents like this. They get off the tanker and nobody really is in control of the tanker anymore, and you can have a very severe accident which would block traffic through the straits for quite a while. So that's a big problem.

Another problem is if you have terrorists taking control of a tanker and on purposefully ramming it into other boats or, you know, creating some other hazard in that way.

CONAN: Into a port, maybe, and then...

Ms. KORIN: Yeah.

CONAN: ...depending on what kind of fuel it's carrying, trying to blow it up. That would work on some kinds of fuels but not with others.

Anyway, Ann Korin, thank you very much for speaking with us today.

Ms. KORIN: Sure thing.

CONAN: Ann Korin is co-director of the Institute for Analysis of Global Security, and she joined us from the studios of member station KQED in San Francisco.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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