Horror on the High Seas
Modern-day pirates brazenly attack a cruise ship
. What happens if they join forces with terrorists?
Posted Monday, Nov. 14, 2005
The first hint of morning light was creeping across the Indian Ocean
as the 10,000-ton Miami-based cruise ship
Seabourn Spirit motored south along the Somali coast just over a week ago. Most of the 312 people aboard--151 passengers and 161 crew members--were asleep; the boat was expected in Mombasa, Kenya, that afternoon. Then, out of the gloom, came a burst of gunfire. Passengers later said they saw inflatable
rubber boats speeding toward the Spirit, each carrying four or five men
dressed in black and armed with machine guns
and rocket-propelled grenades. As the pirates drew closer, they began unloading their weapons onto the 439-ft.-long, seven-deck cruise
ship. Passengers scrambled to a central lounge for safety
as two grenades slammed into the Spirit, where at least one of them exploded. Just as the pirates tried to board, the Spirit's captain
managed to shift into overdrive and head
farther out to sea. Frustrated, the bandits turned back toward the coast.
The Spirit's harrowing escape may sound like a scene from a Johnny Depp movie
, but the danger
posed by the new generation of pirates is all too real. The International Maritime Bureau's Piracy
Reporting Center estimates that in Somali waters alone, attacks have risen from 2 in 2004 to 32 so far this year. Worldwide, piracy
incidents could top 300 in 2005. Although attacks on cruise
ships like the Spirit are unusual, piracy is one of the world's most stubborn criminal plagues: in waterways around the world, armed gangs wreak havoc with trade
routes, interfering with the delivery
of relief supplies, holding crews for ransom and stealing tens of millions of dollars in goods every year. Asia
remains the most notorious region for piracy, but the waters off the coast of Somalia
are fast catching up. Scores of vessels like the Spirit pass along the East African coast every day en route
from the Suez Canal and Red Sea to ports
in Kenya, Tanzania and countries farther south. The attempted hijacking of the Spirit has convinced maritime authorities, who believe some of Somalia's pirates may be operating from a mysterious "mother ship" that has been spotted drifting off the Somali coast, that Somali pirates are becoming more aggressive and skillful--and increasingly hard to stop. Says Noel Choong, director of the Piracy Reporting Center: "The Somalia
coast has become a pirates' paradise."
The surge in piracy is worrisome to counterterrorism experts, who fear that terrorist groups might be tempted to collude with pirates--whose motivations are more mercenary than ideological--to strike maritime targets. In Southeast Asia
, where bandits regularly attack ships passing through the Malacca Straits and the South China
Sea, Asian security
officials fear that a terrorist cell could hire a gang of pirates to help attack an oil
tanker or a container ship. Singapore's former Deputy Prime Minister and national security
czar Tony Tan said late last year that "the increased frequency of piracy attacks [and] the changing pattern of how the attacks are carried out lead us to fear the worst."
For those seeking to cause mayhem on the high seas, the waters off Somalia are among the world's most alluring. Somalia has lacked an effective central government
for 14 years, and the U.S. believes that al-Qaeda--linked militants operate there. Combined Task Force 150, a multinational naval unit, patrols in the nearby Gulf of Aden and the waters around the Horn of Africa
, searching for suspected terrorists who may be moving equipment
or people by sea or planning a maritime attack. But with its attention focused on stopping terrorists, the U.S. Navy
has been hesitant about pursuing pirates who roam the area. Commander Jeff Breslau, a U.S. Navy
spokesman in Bahrain, says coalition forces will help ships in distress
but "the focus is not on piracy or maritime crime."
The U.S. believes the attack on the Spirit was carried out by pirates trying to loot the ship, rather than terrorists targeting its Western passengers. But the incident shows that pirates and terrorists share a willingness to use deadly force to achieve their aims. And since pirates make more money--the three big gangs of pirates suspected of working Somali waters now demand and often receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in ransom, according to the Piracy Reporting Center's Choong--they are likely to go after bigger game
. With their kidnapping revenues, pirates "can afford to buy themselves some pretty nice boats," says Choong, and hence extend the range of their seizures.
Sellathurai Mahalingam knows how brazen Somali pirates have become. Mahalingam is the captain
of the MV Semlow, which was attacked in late June as it carried 850 tons of rice from the World Food
Program (WFP) that was destined for hungry Somalis. Now back in his home country of Sri Lanka, Mahalingam, 58, related to TIME the saga of his 101-day ordeal as a captive of Somali pirates. It began, he says, with "the flash of 5 to 10 shots. Straightaway I knew it must be pirates." Before he could issue a distress
signal, three fiber-glass speedboats with powerful outboard
motors pulled alongside the Semlow. The pirates hooked a small metal ladder to the ship and scrambled aboard. "There were 15 to 20 men
wearing shorts and T shirts," says Mahalingam. Those who boarded were barefoot but carrying pistols, machine guns
and rocket-propelled grenades. The pirates rushed to the bridge, where in halting English
they quizzed Mahalingam and his nine-man crew--eight Kenyans and a Tanzanian--about their religion and told them they were being taken hostage. They told the captain his was the 20th ship they had hijacked this year.
The pirates stole $8,500 from Mahalingam's safe and forced the crew to set a course toward the central Somali town of Ceel Huur, where the Semlow dropped anchor
within sight of land. "I told the pirates that we were carrying cargo that belonged to all Somalians," says Mahalingam. "I said, 'This is for your own people. Why are you doing this?'" Three days after the hijacking, the answer became clear. The pirates contacted the Semlow's owner, Inayet Kudrati, 54, director of the Motaku Shipping
Agency based in Mombasa, and demanded that he pay a $500,000 ransom for the ship and crew. "I told them I didn't have that kind of money
," says Kudrati, speaking to TIME two weeks ago.
In late September, three months into the siege, the bandits hijacked a second vessel, the Egypt-based Ibn Batuta. A few days later, after the pirates took Mahalingam and his chief engineer
ashore for a day to visit the pirate bosses, the pirates gathered their weapons, piled into their speedboats and abandoned both the Semlow and the Ibn Batuta. The WFP says it didn't pay any ransom, but Kudrati told TIME that his shipping
company handed over $135,000. "In the end we had to give in to them," he says.
That afternoon, says Mahalingam, a small boat flying a white flag approached. Somali negotiators had sent it to escort the Semlow to a Somali port where it could off-load the rice it was still carrying. Mahalingam radioed the Torgelow, a sister ship that was carrying tea and coffee for Somali traders as well as food
for the Semlow. But instead of hearing the captain's voice on the radio
, Mahalingam heard a familiar Somali accent. The pirates had their next catch.