Maritime expert: More pirate attacks on cruise ships to come


The brazen pirate attack this week on a cruise ship in the Gulf of Aden wasn’t a fluke, and the cruise industry should brace itself for growing problems in the region, says a leading expert on the topic.

“The genie is out of the bottle,” says Doug Burnett, a maritime lawyer and retired naval officer who has been involved with the issue of piracy for years. “We will see more of these attacks.”

Burnett, a partner in the maritime practice at global law firm Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, tells USA TODAY the Somali pirates in the region have become emboldened in recent months following several spectacular successes hijacking vessels for ransom, and they’re now on the hunt for even richer prey.

“A couple months ago the pirates started getting huge ransoms, and we’re talking millions of dollars,” Burnett notes. “They’re not specifically targeting cruise ships, but if a cruise ship comes their way, it’s a target. A cruise ship doesn’t intimidate them.”

The pirates also have learned that naval powers with ships in the region such as the United States aren’t going to stop them due to constricted rules of engagement.

“They’ve learned that the warships really can’t do anything to them,” Burnett says. “You have the odd case of a mentally challenged pirate who fires on a warship, and (only) then can the warship fire back. There’s not much of a downside (to taking on a cruise or cargo ship), so they make the attacks.”

Burnett says the pirates are much more sophisticated than in the past, and he suspects they’re using electronic equipment to hone in on the signals ships send out to identify themselves to one another.

Approaching on small skiffs that don’t show up on a radar, “they can can get on a ship in about 15 minutes,” he says. “They’ll approach from a blind spot and often the first notice a crew has (of their arrival) is when they open the door and there’s a guy there with an AK-47.”

Cruise ships have several advantages over cargo ships and oil tankers in eluding the Somali pirates, notes Burnett. For starters, cruise ships are faster and generally can out run pirate skiffs if they spot them in time. Cruise ships also have far more crew members who can be put on lookout.

Still, Burnett says cruise lines might want to make some changes to the way they cross the Gulf of Aden, including switching to nighttime transits (all attacks so far have occurred during daylight, he says), running at higher speeds and waiting for a naval escort to protect them.

While the U.S. Navy and other naval powers with ships in the Gulf have been organizing protected convoys to transit the area, some “vessels don’t like to (wait for them) because it can throw off their schedule,” Burnett says.

Burnett worries that the growing success of piracy off the coast of Somalia, if not soon controlled, could lead to copycat attacks in other parts of the world. “You also have the worry that the success of these pirates in raising lots of money (from ransoms) at very little cost might encourage some liason from terrorist groups who will see this as a way to get money, get headlines and take actions,” he says.

A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Burnett spent years dealing with piracy and other maritime issues as an operations officer with the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command. He also served as commanding officer of the Naval Coordination and Protection of Shipping Unit assigned to the commander of the US Fifth Fleet in Bahrain. He currently chairs the Maritime Law Association’s Committee on International Law of the Sea.

Cruise ships, he says, are tempting targets, and not just for the ransom pirates might get if they could hijack one on the open seas. “Just the amount of money and jewelry they could get from holding up the passengers is tempting. When they see a cruise ship, in their mind, it’s just one big cash register.”