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."