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Government & Policy

August 25, 2008
Volume 86, Number 34
pp. 27-28

Chemical Vessels Under Siege

Attacks on ships increase, raising concerns of chemical terrorism

Rochelle F. H. Bohaty

LAST FALL, the Golden Nori, a Japanese chemical tanker carrying 40,000 tons of benzene and other potentially hazardous chemicals, was hijacked off the Somalian coast by pirates while en route to Israel from Singapore. The captors held the 23 crew members under threat of death, while U.S. warships shadowed the hijacked vessel for six weeks. Allegedly, an undisclosed ransom was paid by the ship's Japanese owner, Dorval Kaiun, leading to the safe release of the ship, crew, and cargo.

U.S. Navy
Rescue At Sea U.S.S. Whidbey Island, in the Gulf of Aden, provides assistance to the crew of the merchant vessel Golden Nori (left) after pirate attack in 2007.

The incident involving the Golden Nori is just one of what appears to be a growing number of pirate attacks reported annually. Currently, about one in 10 reports of piracy—the intent or capability to use force to further a criminal act on any ship at sea or at port—involves chemical tankers, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) Piracy Reporting Center in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Last year, IMB received 263 reports of attempted or actual attacks on vessels worldwide. Of these reports, 23 were on chemical tankers and 29 were on product tankers, which may carry bulk chemical loads that include oil. These numbers do not include attacks on other vessels, such as cargo and container ships, that may be transporting chemicals and other potentially hazardous materials. According to IMB, there were 36 and 53 attacks on these vessels, respectively.

The numbers of actual and attempted attacks reported to IMB, however, are rough estimates, according to Peter Chalk, author of a recent RAND Corp. report on piracy. RAND is a U.S.-based nonprofit institution that specializes in research and analysis for public and private sectors. "The figures actually underestimate the truth and extent of the problem because the ship owners are reluctant to report incidents against their vessels because of fears that it will increase maritime risk insurance premiums," Chalk tells C&EN. "So they tend to report only the most outrageous attacks against their vessels."

Of the reports received by IMB over the years, a gamut of attack scenarios has been described, including ships being fired upon or boarded using grappling hooks and ropes. In recent years, however, the reports reveal an increase in the sophistication and severity of attacks occurring worldwide. Some attackers have used rocket-propelled grenades and semiautomatic weapons.

The first six months of the year have seen their share of attacks at sea. IMB has received 144 reports of actual or attempted pirate attacks for the period, compared with 126 for the first half of 2007. Twenty-one of the 144 reports—or about 15%—involved chemical and product tankers.

Of this year's total incidents, 11 vessels have been fired upon, and 71 vessels have been boarded by intruders. Perhaps of greatest concern is the violence toward the crew that accompanied these attacks. IMB reports 12 hijackings in which pirates held 190 crew members hostage, 38 more hostages than for the same time period last year. In those attacks seven crew members were killed and another seven are missing and presumed dead. In comparison, only three crew members were killed during the same period last year, and none went missing.

Although sea crime appears to be increasing, RAND's Chalk tells C&EN that pirates are not specifically targeting chemical cargo and that these maritime criminals probably have no idea what is aboard the ships they attack. He adds that the pirates are more likely after goods that can be easily off-loaded and quickly sold. Chemicals do not typically fit these criteria.

Furthermore, representatives from U.S. chemical and chemical shipping firms tell C&EN that despite the involvement of chemical-carrying ships, piracy is not a major concern for the industry. Nor is it high on the list of things to worry about for members of the American Chemistry Council, according to Director of Communications Scott Jensen.

One reason U.S. companies may not be highly concerned may have to do with where the shipping attacks take place. According to the IMB report, piracy is primarily a problem for vessels sailing off the east and west coasts of Central Africa and Southeast Asia.

Although pirates do not appear to be targeting chemical cargo and chemical companies are not being significantly affected by piracy, there is a developing concern in the post-9/11 era that chemical cargo could be exploited by terrorists for political purposes.

The RAND report authored by Chalk examines the possible link between piracy and terrorism. The report, "The Maritime Dimension of International Security: Terrorism, Piracy, and Challenges for the United States," says that both piracy and terrorism are of concern but that they probably are not linked at sea. The report does note that "maritime security is limited in scope and flawed despite recent upgrades." In the report Chalk concludes that there is currently no evidence supporting a connection between pirate attacks and terrorists.

EVEN SO, the boldness of the Golden Nori hijacking and the growing numbers and sophistication of attacks beckon for a response, Chalk says. He suggests that policymakers are focusing too much on worst-case terrorist scenarios rather than crafting policies to combat lower consequence???but more probable???attacks on vessels.

The RAND report calls on U.S. policymakers to make some changes to improve the safety of commercial shipping. First, the report recommends that post-9/11 maritime security policies be expanded to increase U.S. coastal monitoring and interdiction capabilities around the world. The report supports increased funding for IMB's piracy reporting center so that thorough assessments of the threat can be made. It also advocates the redefinition of existing multinational security mandates and defense arrangements.

Finally, the report encourages greater use of defense technologies within the commercial maritime industry by sponsoring cost-effective initiatives for securing vessels and freight. For example, IMB suggests that shipping companies install a 9,000-V electric fence around their ships' decks to thwart boarders and use satellite tracking systems on vessels more routinely.

The United Nations is also paying attention to the issue of piracy. In June, the UN Security Council took a step toward improving maritime security by passing a resolution allowing international intervention in Somalian waters where malicious attacks have been rampant. In cooperation with the Somalian government, the resolution permits other enforcement agencies to enter Somalian territorial waters and use "all necessary means" to repress acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea, in a manner consistent with relevant provisions of international law.

Trouble Spots International Maritime Bureau piracy map of actual (red icon) and attempted (yellow icon) attacks for the first six months of this year.
Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society

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