Terror at sea

While we hunt across the land and watch the skies, the oceans hold a reservoir of threats

It's tempting in the modern age - which is to say post 9/11 - to think of pirates as anachronistic remnants of history or the fantasy of "Captain Jack Sparrow." Real dangers, we all know, come in the form of weapons of mass destruction, not cutlasses and muzzle loaders.

But think for a moment of Al Qaeda's navy. Yes, Osama bin Laden is believed to have as many as 20 freighters at his disposal. They sail largely unnoticed and uncontrolled among the 43,000 other ships at sea, probably flying the flag of those great maritime nations Panama or Liberia.

How hard would it be to load up one of these nondescript vessels with explosives, chemicals, or biological agents and sail into Baltimore harbor? Not as hard as it might seem, especially if the threatening freight is tucked inside one of the 6 million cargo containers that enter the United States every year, 98 percent of which are not opened for inspection.

This is the kind of cheery news detailed in William Langewiesche's "The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime." Expanding on a long piece he wrote for The Atlantic Monthly last year, Langewiesche brings his investigative and narrative talents to a subject that landlubbers spend little time thinking about: the dangerous oceans that carry most of the world's international trade.

"Many officials have come to regard the ocean with grave concern," he writes, "believing that a full-blown maritime attack would make those of September 11, 2001, seem puny by comparison, that such an attack currently poses the most serious threat to national security, and that when the attack comes, it will involve the use of merchant ships."

So where do the pirates come in? In the South China Sea, for the most part, especially in the 500-mile Strait of Malacca leading to the Indian Ocean, an important sea passage bordered by Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia. With the financial backing of criminal figures, these multinational gangs board cargo ships, dispose of the crew (sometime setting them adrift in lifeboats), and sail off into the night to ready markets for the stolen raw materials and manufactured goods worth millions.

In short order, the ship has a new registered owner, flag of convenience, paint job, and crew. Sometimes they get caught. As often as not they don't, and even if they do, those who ordered the attack - far up the chain of responsibility - remain free.

National navies do what they can, and there are international organizations and agreements designed to monitor and regulate sea traffic. These have been beefed up since stateless terrorism became the 21st-century equivalent of world war. But the whole system itself, Langewiesche finds, is marked by incompetence, corruption, and a debilitating competition among bureaucrats and nations.

"The problem, as some insiders will admit in private, is that the entire structure is something of a fantasy floating free of the realities at sea," he reports. "Worse, from the point of view of increasingly disillusioned regulators, the documents that demonstrate compliance are used as a facade behind which groups or companies can do whatever they please."

This applies not only to piracy and smuggling but more frequently to routine operations at sea that can lead to disaster as well as to the hundreds of old and unseaworthy ships that must be disposed of each year.

In great detail, Langewiesche recounts the loss of two large ships - one to the fury of a storm, the other to bad design, incompetence, or sabotage. In both cases, most of those aboard drowned - more than 800 from one ship alone. The author traveled to Europe and Asia to interview official inspectors, surviving passengers and crew, and maritime experts. His nail-biting description is more gripping than "The Perfect Storm" or "Titanic."

While neither of these episodes relates to piracy or terrorism, they are illuminating examples of what can and frequently does happen over the horizon and out of sight.

If "The Outlaw Sea" lacks anything, it's length. (It's just 242 pages.) Langewiesche does a great job of portraying and explaining the pirate episode, the two ships lost at sea, and the scrap heap to which such ships ultimately are consigned. But the whole of the book is not greater than the sum of its parts, and it should be. I wanted the great reporter to step back and draw more meaning from those four episodes.

Brad Knickerbocker is a Monitor reporter.

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