Securing seas

Pirates are not only a real and growing menace, they are also suspected of forging links with global terrorists. Thinly staffed tankers and container ships carrying valuable cargo are irresistible prey on the high seas, especially where pirates can count on lax policing or corrupt officials who turn a blind eye. The big-gest problem is in Southeast Asia, particularly around Indonesia, where tanker loads of crude oil are regularly stolen. Al Qaeda, which attacked the US destroyer Cole in 2000 and the French oil tanker Limburg in 2002, is suspected to have owned its own vessels and to have planned attacks on Western ports. A hijacked ship carrying a nuclear weapon or radioactive "dirty bomb" could lay waste to a port, or block a crucial sea lane like the Straits of Malacca.

In response to 9/11, the 163 countries that belong to the International Maritime Organisation agreed in 2002 to new measures like shipboard security officers, ship-to-shore alert systems and port security plans. It is likely, however, that many countries will fail to comply by the July 1 deadline or will prove unwilling to enforce the agreement. But securing vulnerable shipping lanes requires multilateral coordination. Shipping accounts for 80 per cent of all trade, and a major terrorist attack that shuts down the maritime transport system would cripple the global economy. — International Herald Tribune