Skull and crossbones buccaneers have resurfaced with "Terminator"-style tactics, shining a spotlight on an age-old crime that some experts warn could inspire terrorists.
The Carnival-owned cruise liner Seabourn Spirit recently fended off a pirate attack along Africa's eastern coast, with one person sustaining injuries. The attempt to hijack a cruise ship highlights the pirates' growing audacity -- wielding rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns, the pirates off of Somalia's coast have stolen some of the fairy-tale glamour of yesteryear's high sea thieves.
"Modern-day piracy is not Johnny Depp-inspired characters with an eye patch," said John Burnett, author of "Dangerous Waters: Modern Piracy and Terror on the High Seas." Referring to the popular swashbuckling, charcoaled-eyed Captain Jack Sparrow of "Pirates of the Caribbean," Burnett warns that 21st-century pirates plague many parts of the world and are better armed, and more brutal.
Forget about muggings at sea, pirates want the full loot, regardless of casualties, he said.
Since March, 29 attacks have occurred off the coast of Somalia, according to the International Maritime Bureau. Although this was the first attack on a cruise ship in more than a decade, pirates attacked 205 ships in the first nine months of 2005 compared with 251 in the same period a year ago, according to the IMB's Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships Report.
"Although the decline in the number of attacks has decreased, some key hot spots have deteriorated like off the coast of Somalia," said Jayant Abhyankar, deputy director of the IMB, explaining that since the early '90s, crime on the high seas has resurfaced.
Indonesian waters pose the greatest danger with 61 incidents in the first nine months of 2005 and a total of 93 attacks reported in 2004, according to the IMB. Hot spots around the world include the Malacca Straits (between Malaysia and the Indonesian island of Sumatra) followed by Nigeria, Bangladesh, Iraq and the northeastern coast of South America.
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And despite the falling numbers, the attacks have been more fatal. Pirates killed 30 crew members in 2004, up from 21 a year earlier.
Pirates usually work in bands but go after different targets, said Abhyankar. Some will go after any boat -- a yacht, a cruise liner or a barge -- hoping to find some good loot like the sea-faring guerrillas in Somalia. Some will hijack ships simply for the cargo while others will attack a boat to kidnap the crew in the hopes of a hefty ransom. Boats represent "easy pickings," especially off the coast of lawless countries like Somalia or in places where maritime security is weak, he said.
Burnett commends the Seabourn's brilliant seamanship and the cruise lines' long track record of safety at sea but fears that piracy will become a terrorist tool. "When terrorists learn to hijack, kidnap passengers and crew, they will probably get involved," he said.
Merchant vessels represent an even easier target since they chug along slowly, lugging more than 95 percent of the world's goods. "The global economy could come to a screeching halt if you close off the world's choke points like the Malacca Strait," Burnett said. The strait connects the Pacific and Indian oceans and is the shortest sea route to Asian countries.
Shipping experts agree that the Seabourn incident is a wake-up call to all sailors and non-sailors.