… and the Privateer Option against al Qaeda

Roaming the oceans of the world, ranging in size from a small freighter to several of the largest container ships afloat, 20 to 30 vessels owned or controlled by Osama bin Laden are plying the world’s trade routes, biding their time, waiting for the right moment.

The right moment … to launch another major terrorist attack.

Sailing under flags of convenience, these ships move men and materials from port to port, distributing al Qaeda resources to where they are needed next. By flying the flag of Tonga, Panama, Liberia, Cyprus or the Bahamas, these ships benefit not only from lower registration costs, reduced taxes and virtually non-existent safety and labor regulations, they are entirely exempt from international regulation and scrutiny.

This practice of registering ships in regulation-free Third-World countries has created a gaping hole in maritime accountability. The lure of flags of convenience – “open registries” in the parlance of maritime insurers – has devastated the merchant fleets of the First World.

The open registries result in ships with substandard equipment and navigation so that accidents are routine. In 1996, of the nearly 30 ships lost at sea worldwide, 22 were flying flags of convenience. The lax regulations “governing” these ships generally do not require crews from the “host” countries. So when a Tonga ship with a Ukrainian crew turns up missing, who cares?

Or when a Liberian ship crewed by mid-Eastern types disappears at sea, and another Bahamian registered ship crewed by these same mid-Eastern types appears with a newly painted name on its stern, nobody notices. Two open-registry ships meet at sea and transfer parts of their unregistered cargo, but nobody knows because they are not on anybody’s radar screen.

The Europeans have adopted stringent new regulations that effectively bar open-registry tankers from European ports. This was in response to the oil spill off Spain last month. But it doesn’t address the vast majority of vessels flying flags of convenience, the ones that don’t carry oil, but do carry other things, nearly all of which are not accounted for anywhere.

And it especially doesn’t address those vessels owned or controlled by bin Laden and his cronies.

The Europeans have taken a step in the right direction, but it is small and entirely ineffective when it comes to stopping international terrorism. Unfortunately, the United States hasn’t even gone this far. For example, in 2001, 97 percent of cargo entering the United States arrived on foreign vessels, most of them flying flags of convenience.

There is good reason to believe that Saddam Hussein has already built several nuclear devices (see “A Nuclear-Armed Iraq Must Be the Next Target,” DefenseWatch, Dec. 12, 2001). If this is true, it is entirely possible that one or more of these devices could have ended up inside a container on one of bin Laden’s open registry vessels.

Iraq and Al Qaeda have both stockpiled biological agents in apparently large quantities. These are easy to conceal and transport, especially in unregulated, unwatched vessels on the high seas.

We have no effective legal means of policing these ships until they actually dock at a U.S. port. By then, it will be too late – if the ship is carrying a dirty nuke or a biological weapon.

Without specific information, U.S. Navy ships cannot stop and board vessels in international waters. Since there is no central registry, no uniform way of keeping track of these vessels, there is no way to track shipments, especially when the shippers are trying to keep their cargos secret.

We can pass laws that prohibit imports on any but U.S.-flagged ships, but it is unlikely. We can pass laws that allow boarding and inspection of vessels long before they arrive at our ports, but we won’t.

Fortunately, we have another option, one that has a long history of high-level effectiveness.

Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution empowers Congress with the right to grant “Letters of Marque and Reprisal,” which is to say that Congress has the power to commission private vessels as privateers – pirates fighting for a cause.

Privateering evolved from a method of restitution for ship owners from one country who had been wronged by a citizen of another. Bonded Privateers boarded ships from the wrongdoers’ country and brought them to a friendly port. There a neutral admiralty court determined whether or not the seizure was just. Unjust seizures forfeited the privateers’ bond to the owners of the seized ship.

Ship and cargo of a just seizure were sold at auction. The privateer’s owners and all volunteer crews received most of the proceeds. Investors viewed these venture as high risk, high pay investments.

Privateering evolved into a very effective tool of war.

During the Revolutionary War, 800 privateers commissioned by the U.S. Congress played an instrumental role in our ultimate victory – private ships with the power to stop and board vessels anywhere in the world; private ships not subject to the kind of strict rules of engagement that control Navy warships. The British lost a total of 2,266 vessels between 1793 and 1797, due primarily to French Privateers.

During the War of 1812, Congress commissioned 526 privateers, who captured or sank 1,750 British vessels, significantly affecting England’s second defeat by the Americans.

Earlier, French privateers captured 3,384 English or Dutch merchant ships and 162 warships during the War of the League of Augsburg, from 1689 to 1697.

But as governments gained greater control over their countries and their militaries, the role of privateers disappeared. Their cost-effectiveness and tremendous success posed a significant threat to the naval officers of every major nation. Private ships of war had become unwelcome players in the game.

Today we face a new threat, one that is not amenable to control by conventional means, by navies and their warships. Private warships, however, operating under official Letters of Marque and Reprisal can play an effective role in our war against terrorism.

Edward Lozzi, a resident of Beverly Hills, Cal., has formed a group of well-heeled businessmen who intend to put up $1 billion, payable to any person or group that successfully captures or kills Osama bin Laden and his governing group. Couple this reward with the potential riches to be gained from successful capture of the 20 to 30 vessels controlled by bin Laden, and you create a very powerful incentive for 21st-century privateers to topple terrorism wherever it exists.

Thomas Jefferson once said, “Every possible encouragement should be given to privateering in time of war.”

We are in such a time of war.

Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor

Submariner, diver, scientist, author & adventurer. 22 mos underwater, a yr in the equatorial Pacific, 3 yrs in the Arctic, and a yr at the South Pole. BS Marine Physics & Meteorology, PhD in Engineering. Authors non-fiction, Cold War thrillers, and hard science fiction. Lives in Centennial, CO.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.