Saudi Oil Tanker Hijacked

I don’t know if this is a first, but it’s the first time I have heard of an oil tanker being hijacked:

Pirates attack Saudi ‘super tanker’

(CNN) — Pirates in the Arabian Sea have hijacked a Saudi-owned oil tanker with 25 crew aboard, the U.S. Navy and the British Foreign Office confirmed on Monday.

Eleven vessels are currently being held by pirates hoping to secure ransoms for their release, according to The Associated Press. They include the Ukrainian-owned MV Faina, which was hijacked in September along with 200 crew and a cargo of weapons and T-72 tanks.

That is the picture that accompanied the CNN story. I have a hard time understanding this. How is it that a bunch of guys in speedboats can hijack so many ships?

Why is it that these ships don’t have a few mounted .50 caliber machine guns on board and some guys trained to use them? It looks to me like the boat above would be at a severe disadvantage in a situation like that. Sink a few, and the problem should diminish.

But it must not be as simple as it seems to me. What are the laws on the sea? Could you open fire on pirates and sink their boat? Or are there laws in place that limit this sort of response? There must be some sort of explanation for why this problem persists, but I don’t know what it is.

It will be interesting to see how the Saudis play this one.

60 thoughts on “Saudi Oil Tanker Hijacked”

  1. John McPhee’s “Waiting for a ship” is a great book and has a bit on pirates.

    The merchant marine tends to be old guys, with fewer and fewer to operate a large ship. They are also proscribed by their insurance companies from carrying arms (liability issues on both ends of the gun).

    I suspect that if this does become too common we’ll fall back to the centuries old solution … Marines on ships.

    – odograph

  2. Legal and liability risks are probably a consideration. I expect that ship owners would need to pay rather more in insurance if they were willing to involve their crews in active combat. There is also the risk associated with attacking a boat that has the appearance of a pirate vessel, but turns out not to be. If the ship is owned by a big global brand, the reputational costs associated with machine-gunning civilians could be rather high.

    Here is a bit more information on piracy today.

  3. If no one is keeping watch, I can see how a small boat could approach a large ship without anyone on the ship seeing them.

  4. According to the Associated Press:

    “The pirates are trained fighters, often dressed in military fatigues, using speedboats equipped with satellite phones and GPS equipment. They are typically armed with automatic weapons, anti-tank rockets launchers and various types of grenades.

    With most attacks ending with million-dollar payouts, piracy is considered the most lucrative work in Somalia. Pirates rarely hurt their hostages, instead holding out for a huge payday.

    The strategy works well: A report last month by a London-based think tank said pirates have raked in up to $30 million in ransoms this year alone.”

  5. We are becoming a world of nambie-pambies. Of course, oil tankers should shoot to doll ribbons anybody who attempts piracy and ransom.
    I do wish we could pass one law internationally: It is illegal to ever, ever pay a ransom. Paying a ransom may seem reasonable and humane; but it encourages the next act of kidnapping and terror on your neighbors or other civilized people.

  6. Yep, merchant ships are prohibited by maritime law from carrying offensive weapons. That doesn’t apply to Non-lethal anti-piracy weapons I like the dazzler weapon.

    In RR’s original story, the picture doesn’t go with the attack. The tanker was seized 450 nm from shore. You don’t go out that far in a small open vessel. The pirates must have been using a much larger and more seaworth ship.

    Generally what kept these large vessels safe is their size, speed, and the vastness of the ocean. You have to know when and where to be if you hope to catch up to one of these big ships. If you miss it even by a little you have no hope of catching up. Either the pirates have some advance knowledge of ship movements or are lying in wait (and thus vulnerable to counter-attack) for the tankers.

  7. NPR has a story on piracy. Some bits:

    This summer, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution authorizing foreign navies to carry out hot pursuit missions to rescue hijacked vessels from pirates in Somali waters. But with the exception of two raids by French commandos, Combined Task Force 150 has appeared unwilling to confront the pirates.

    “This is a complex issue,” says Lt. Nathan Christensen, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet. “It requires more than just a U.S. or coalition navy response.”

    John Burnett is the author of Dangerous Waters, a book on modern piracy, and himself a survivor of a pirate attack. “It’s a shock that the coalition just seems to be circling around, sailing around in circles, making a lot of noise and occasionally, if there is a pirate attack right under their noses, they’ll send a helicopter out and hopefully to scare off the pirates,” he says. “But they’re not doing anything to stop piracy.”

    Call the UN! Yeah, right!

  8. Of course, oil tankers should shoot to doll ribbons anybody who attempts piracy and ransom.

    In Hollywood World, if you have a problem, it is solved with guns and bombs. Someone bugging you? Shoot him!

    In USA World, if a country is causing a problem, invade and occupy them. Hussein bugging you? Regime change!

    One day the USA might join the Civilized World, where problems are not solved by guns and bombs.

  9. Dudes:

    Maybe this problem will solve itself. A tankerful of oil may not be worth rescuing, in the near future.

    Do the words, “Honking Giant Floods of Oil Everywhere” mean anything?

    See this:

    “CNPC says China oil demand falls sharply, stockpiles risingBy AFX | 17 Nov 2008 | 02:41 AM ET Text Size BEIJING (XFN-ASIA) – China’s demand for oil is falling sharply and stockpiles of crude and oil products stockpiles are rising as a result of the economic slowdown, China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) said.”

    Gee, do you think that higher oil prices lead to conservation and alternatives, and now a global recession will exacerbate trends set in motion by $100+ oil?

  10. Dated Brent spot dropped below $50 today. The recession is young yet. $200 a barrel oil? First, we have to get to $20. Or $10.

  11. “The tanker was seized 450 nm from shore. You don’t go out that far in a small open vessel.”

    Yes, there is something that does not hang together about this story. How do some relatively primitive pirates find a vessel in the middle of an ocean? How does a pirate get up the towering side of one of these floating islands? How do we spell “inside job”?

  12. The he following comment by ‘bc’ (Canadian? EUnuch?) is the most willfully ignorant comment of the day:

    “One day the USA might join the Civilized World, where problems are not solved by guns and bombs.”

    Remind me how well the problem of National Socialism was solved without guns & bombs? How did the Europeans do solving the problem of ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia without guns & bombs? How well is the UN solving the slaughter in Darfur without guns & bombs?

    One of the dumbest things we were all told as children is that 'It takes two to make a quarrel'. Unfortunately, it takes only one. As the EU is about to find out with Russia.

    But let's be positive. At least the pacifist can die (& leave others to die) with his sense of moral superiority intact.

  13. bc:
    I do not see how defending a ship against armed piracy is wrong.
    I do see how paying ranson encourages further acts of ransom, with danger for other ship’s crews.
    Never, ever pay ransom. That should be international law.
    Sheesh, I am a liberal on many issues, but when even piracy on the open seas is somehow tolerated, let me off the liberal ship.

  14. Pirates are misunderstood. I’m sure if someone just offered them a hug they would give up pirating.

    Perhaps our new president will sit down with the pirates once he has met with Castro, Chavez, Kim Jong-il, and the other despots.

    Kin is right, inside job, somebody onboard with a GPS and a way to communicate position, course, and speed with the pirates. These tankers can do 18-20 kts. You’d have to get pretty close even with a fast boat to intercept one in the open ocean.

  15. It’s not so simple. The pirates are well organized and numerous. They know what they’re doing. And, they have RPGs and automatic weapons themselves. That said, I have heard reports of some of these attempted hijackings being thwarted presumably by use of force.


  16. the most plausable explaination i’ve come across is pure cost$$$ vs risk. to date the resulting problems/exposure have been contained with minimal ransom expense. the guys in the little boats don’t know what to do with the big boats. it’s the old extorsion game–until some disaster occurs, no action. how far will you go to prevent a carjack?


  17. i remember YEMEN and the USS COLE–small boats, unsuspecting crew. if you can almost sink a destroyer full of military, a big ship wit hired crew can’t be too difficult.


  18. fran – actually it is rather difficult. A good read is “The Tanker Wars” about the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. At the height of war, the casualty rate on tankers was less than 15%. Ships routinely took air to surface missles and yet survived. Usually the crew extinguished the fire and the ship limped into port.

  19. Russian, British and U.S. Navy’s should False Flag these guys until they’re dead or the practice isn’t profitable. Send ships in the area with some non-threatening nations flag, when the pirates attack, BAM, the ship was really filled with trained soldiers. Blast the pirate scum to hell. Rinse and repeat.

  20. We may have the seen “peak demand” already.
    This from OPEC:
    “This year, economic turmoil ‘continues to undermine oil demand growth, especially in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries,’ the report said.

    ‘Led by losses in the US, OECD oil demand showed a major drop of 1.7 million barrels per day (bpd) year-on-year in October.

    ‘Non-OECD oil demand growth stood at 1.2 million bpd, resulting in a decline of total world oil demand of around 0.5 million bpd.’ While cold weather and falling prices ‘might to a certain degree help fourth-quarter oil demand … demand is not expected to overcome the major decline resulting from the economic downturn,’ Opec said.”

    So, 2008, and we are using less, not more, oil than 2007. Prices are collapsing, so maybe demand can be boosted. But, if prices cross over $100 a barrel again, that will set in motion conservation and alternative fuels again. Biofuels output will continue to rise, as palm oil plantations were planted for several years, and they are coming online.

    Hard to see anything but a miracle economic recovery, or floods of oil everywhere.

  21. Well this explains it: London Times: Saudis Label Pirates Terrorists

    The gangs’ methods vary little, even when taking a 320,000-tonne monster like the Sirius Star. Gunmen typically approach on small speedboats, opening fire on the bridge until the ship’s captain submits and allows them on board, usually throwing down a ladder. The average reaction time between spotting the pirates and being boarded is 15 minutes.

    Crews are strictly instructed not to resist attack once arms have been employed. Once captured, violence against crew members is rare.

    In recent months the pirates’ arsenal has grown more deadly, with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and possibly shoulder-mounted missiles used to threaten the crew.

    Pirate groups have hugely extended their reach from the coast with the use of “mother ships”, larger vessels from which they launch speedboats after they have identified their prey. While some known mother ships have been identified, other attacks are launched from ordinary dhows, traditional sailing boats hijacked from fishermen.

    So the captain doesn’t try to outrun the pirates.

    As suggested earlier, a false flag attack would be effective against these pirates. But also you can’t conduct pirate operations without a safe port. The Saudis should consider taking out the port of Hararedhere and sinking anything in the harbour larger than a fishing boat. Soon the locals would get the idea that cozying up to pirates isn’t a good idea.

  22. It’s like you guys still live in the Wild West. It must be a surprise to learn there are actually laws that prevent you shooting at people. But you guys don’t recognise international law do you?

    Kill as many pirates as you like, there are thousands who will step into their shoes. It may be hard for people in comfortable homes to believe, but piracy presents a better option for these people than trying to live in a warzone.

    Back in the real world, it is simply a matter of cost. The shipping lines don’t care much about the ransom, the insurance pays for it. It’s a question of how much money they lose sending the ships via longer route.

  23. bc-
    I enjoy your posts, but in this case I am appalled. Does not paying ransom only encourage more acts of piracy? If ransom were never, never paid, would not piracy cease?
    Yes, people all over the world live in tough situations. My wife is rural Thai, and I have seen enough to make me shiver. Like roomfuls of little boys (my nephews)crying themselves to sleep as they had bad teeth. Yes, I took them to the dentist, but in the next house, and in the next house….Still, the Thais (in general) apply themselves to work, not piracy, and living standards are rising. A generation ago, there were not even dentists to visit. The dentist was a pair of pliers.
    Why is Africa always a mess, while Japan, China and Thailand pull themselves up?
    Behavior, my friend. Behavior.
    Sympathy for pirates? What next?

  24. bc said: “One day the USA might join the Civilized World, where problems are not solved by guns and bombs.”

    The world can’t be too civilized if we need guns and bombs. In a truly Civilized World, we would have no need for them.

  25. Some more information on combatting piracy through technical means:

    Technology sets sights on piracy
    By Daniel Emery
    Technology reporter, BBC News

    “But other than arming crews – a move opposed by ship owners and maritime organisations alike – what measures can be put in place to keep ships, their crew, and cargo safe?

    Long-Range Audio Device (L-RAD) and Magnetic Acoustic Device (MAD) are pieces of equipment that many ships are now starting to deploy. Classified as a ‘non lethal’ weapon they create a beam of sound that can travel far further than sound from a normal loud speaker…”

  26. bc – as Benny pointed out, there are plenty of poor people who don’t resort to piracy or other crimes. You really can’t describe taking a crude tanker as piracy since there is little they could do with either the cargo or the ship itself. Rather this is hostage taking.

    If it is poverty driving them too it, once their basic needs are met, there is no need for further piracy. Allowing for the $50 million or so they’ve collected so far, one wonders what the per-pirate take must be.

    When I bring up a similar argument (it is better than their alternative) in defending so called “sweat shops” in SE Asia, I usually am greeted with derision.

  27. King-
    Yes, this is kidnapping, one of the lowest and most inhumane of crimes.
    By the way King, Brent spot now into the $49 range.
    Is now $40 on the near horizon?

  28. I recently watched a documentary about some pirates in the Caribbean – they’re really cool and fun guys.

  29. Stephen-
    Now you think Disney flicks are documentaries? Yes, Pirates of the Caribbean is serious stuff.

  30. I’m sorry Benny, I didn’t know you were humour impaired. Do you get to use disabled parking?

  31. Found (via Mankiw) a fun site:

    Putting in I get a practical thinker profile.

    Your scores very similarly, with a bit more intuition on your part!

    Do I have a shade more practicality? ;-), that would be odd.

    – odograph

  32. Putting my liberal hat on:

    Well now we’ve gone and done it – how uncivilized! Using guns and bombs to destroy a pirate mothership.

    When will the US learn that it cannot impose its will on poor pirates who are just trying to feed and clothe their children. If we just sat down and talked with the pirates we would better understand piracy. Surely this is the result of our greed and George Bush’s fault, no blood for oil. There were never ANY pirates until Bush was elected. Now the bloodthirsty evil Cheney and his henchman at Halliburton have — wait a minute . . . it was the Indian navy? Nevermind.

  33. You must not have paleocon roots like me King. Back in the day it was liberals who went off in the world to fix the world’s wrongs. Conservatives believed in Fortress America, business, trade, and prosperity.

    – odograph

  34. (Pssst! The secret is out. Neocons are really Liberals. They’re just sneaky liberals who co-opted the conservatives for a time.)

    – odograph

  35. Guns and bombs aren’t always the answer, but sometimes they are the only answer.

    Blast these pirates out of the water. Level the port of Hararedhere. We used to not be so squemish about taking care of bad guys.

  36. Stephen.
    Maybe I should avail myself of special parking. My wife never laffs at my jokes either. Or my kids.

  37. By the way, dated brent spot now trading below $49 a barrel. Could we see $39? $29? $19 $9. Time will tell.
    It is remarkable to think how low oi would go, if the USA embraked on serious oil conservation programs.

  38. Now that we know pirates are in international waters we have some interesting options. The navy can engage them.

    There is a little bit of an absurdity of arming ships with flammable/explosive cargo. I mean, give me as big a gun as you want and I wouldn’t feel real good wielding it from the deck of an LNG carrier.

    It will probably be worked out in short order. Either a deal will be worked with the local navies (even if they are “ex-pirates”), or some external navies will start operating in the area.

    It’s unlikely though that they’ll invent armored fireproof crude and LNG carriers anytime soon. I seriously doubt that the post EXON-Valdez dual walls will stop an RPG.

    Tankers are vulnerable, as they were in the North Atlantic half a century ago.

    – odograph

  39. “NEW DELHI – An Indian naval vessel sank a suspected pirate “mother ship” in the Gulf of Aden and chased two attack boats into the night, officials said Wednesday, yet more violence in the lawless seas where brigands are becoming bolder and more violent.”

    See, there ya go … it’s working its way out in the ancient way.

    – odograph

  40. bc said: “It must be a surprise to learn there are actually laws that prevent you shooting at people.”

    No more surprising than to learn there are also laws that prevent people from being pirates and hijacking things that don’t belong to them.

  41. Robert! Best book idea EVAR!

    “The crew looked askance when the rangy Texan walked on board. All he carried was a lever-action 44, and strangely, as saddle ….”

    (King might want to defend the LPG with his six-guns, but the carbine is a little more practical.)

    – odograph

  42. Odo – this is a sensitive subject with me as I have had to repeatedly debunk such nonsense about terrorists (or pirates) destroying crude and LNG tankers.

    The Limburg was attacked by a boat carrying approximately 2,000 pounds of explosives and shrapnel. There was a large breach in the outer hull, but only small holes in the inner one. One hapless crewman was killed who was on watch near the point of impact. She lost about 4% of her cargo, salvage operations saved the remaining cargo and the ship was repaired and renamed the Maritime Jewel .

    At least two LPG carriers (propane – which is known to form explosive vapor clouds) have been “attacked” using heavy arms.

    The Gaz Fountain, was hit by 3 Maverick air to surface missles, which started a massive deck fire disabling the fire fighting systems. The crew tripped the cargo shutdown systems and abandoned ship. After extinguishing the fire, salvers towed the Fountain to a safe harbor where they transferred most of the cargo to another ship, and then repaired and put the ship back into service with no loss of life.

    The Yuyo Maru #10 was a Japanese LPG carrier with naptha (a gasoline feedstock) wing tanks. In October 1974 a bulk carrier collided with the Yuyo causing a breach and fire in one set of wing tanks. Despite numerous explosions in the naptha tanks, the LPG tanks remained in tact. The ship burned for 36 days until it was finally towed out of Tokyo Bay. The Japanese attempted to sink her using the deck gun on a Japanese naval vessel. I have video of the Japanese putting 150 rounds into the Yuyo. Yet she did not sink. The Japanese fired the deck gun at her, dropped a bomb from an airplane, and finally fired 3 torpedos at her in an attack that last a day and a half before she finally succombed.

    These vessels are extrmely well made and very difficult to sink. They are designed to handle 50′ seas in the open ocean. Their hulls are 2″ thick steel with stiffeners every 3′ or so running the transverse length of the hull. LPG/LNG carriers have 2 additonal containments plus 3-4′ of insulation materials.

    I showed you a picture of an RPG stuck in the side of a cruise ship to demonstrate how ineffective a weapon it is against a ship. It would even be less effective on a double hulled tanker.

    But if you have some other facts to back up your opinion that these ships are vulnerable, I’d be willing to listen. Please first read The Tanker Wars on the 8 year Iran-Iraq war and how ineffective well equipped militaries were against tanker traffic.

  43. We started this on the idiocy of arming tanker crews. Abandoned ships don’t reinforce the notion that they should become floating (oil or gas bearing) fortresses.

    My position was to use the navies. The navies are sinking pirates already, it’s a job they can do.

    BTW, did you cover this one:

    “It was not clear if the Sirius Star had any armed security on board. In past attacks, alert crews have fended off pirates trying to climb the sides, using water hoses to knock them away. But the pirates have struck back: In April, they fired a rocket-propelled grenade that punched a hole in the side of a Japanese oil tanker, spewing oil into the sea, in an unsuccessful attempt to capture it.”

    – odograph

  44. King-
    Moreover, most people think LNG is pressurized. Actually, it is just very cold. Evidently, setting an LNG ship on fire would be difficult as well.
    No sense in taking even minute chances however — blow the pirates to kingdom com!

    PS to RR, and OT: When you went to the ASPO conference, did even one participant say world crude could sink under $50 a barrel before yearend? What does that say about the diversity, or intellectual curiousity, of the group?

  45. Odo – I don’t believe the RPG story. The RPG would have to breach both the outer and inner hulls. Oil wouldn’t “spew” out the side even in an inner hull breach. The void area between the two hulls would have to fill with oil before it could leak out into the water.

    Yes, an RPG is an anti-tank weapon capable of cutting through the outer hull, but it carries just 4.6 pounds of explosives. Once it consumes its kinetic and explosive energy on the outer hull, there is little energy left to penetrate the inner hull. You might threaten the bridge and crew with an RPG, but it is extremely unlikely you could breach the cargo holds.

  46. When navies work, I don’t know why we are arguing this, but:

    We do know that armor piercing shells are designed to stay outside the metal wall they impact, but to spew their contents (as molten metal) into the void on the other side.

    here’s a good image

    The text:

    “The molten stream of high velocity metal bores a hole through several inches of armor, creating horrible destruction to anyone inside.”

    From this page

    Yes, your cruise ship photo showed the backsplash portion of the impact, but not the effects of the punch-through.

    – odograph

  47. Odo – inside of a tank is much different than inside a ship. There is a 6-10′ space between the outer and inner hull. Don’t forget the ship also has water ballast. If you hit it in the ballast tank area won’t make a hole at all in the inner tank.

    Also note that your examples show a 90 degree hit at close range. If the angle is off 10 or 15 degees it significantly degrades the capability of the weapon.

    But as other have said, just blow the pirates and their supporters to smithereens.

    Delcare war on the pirates and anyone who gives them safe haven. Then bomb the bejeezes out of the towns who support them. They all know that their newfound prosperity comes from piracy. We had few qualms about dropping bombs on the industrial cities supporting the war effort in WW2.

  48. First of all, I endorsed navies attacking the pirates from the start. That works, as recent news from the Gulf of Aden shows.

    I’m not really sure what your argument is .. that navies shouldn’t and that oil tankers are better at it?

    “Odo – inside of a tank is much different than inside a ship. There is a 6-10′ space between the outer and inner hull. Don’t forget the ship also has water ballast. If you hit it in the ballast tank area won’t make a hole at all in the inner tank.”

    Well, if we pretend that every pirate crew has one and only one RPG, and that the must score a 100% rate on the oil compartment, you might be right.

    Of course, if they’ve got a few, or if the crew feel uncomfortable with say a 40% success rate … not so much.

    Time to retire you six guns King, and let the navy do it.

    – odograph

  49. “Then bomb the bejeezes out of the towns who support them.”

    Now you sound like another Texan.

    Darn liberals … always trying to be world policeman.

    – odograph

  50. Hey somebody must be reading our posts here: Send in the Marines

    Yet the traditional laws of the sea on piracy are clear. What’s needed aren’t more naval patrols or new laws – but a new strategy.

    History teaches that the only way to destroy pirates is from the land, not the sea – by wiping out their bases.

    * All nations will need to agree not to pay the Somali pirates any more ransoms, which has only encouraged the banditry. And they’ll need to force corporations to say no, too.

  51. Odo – I think we have swerved into agreement. The RPG weapon (or a whole bunch of them) is a credible threat to the crew but not to the tanker itself. You need considerably more than 4.6 lbs of high explosives fired from a distance to punch a big hole in a tanker.

  52. Isn’t there a surplus of shipping? Why not let the Somalis store our excess ships and then pay them a storage fee if we ever need them back.

  53. Odo – I think we have swerved into agreement. The RPG weapon (or a whole bunch of them) is a credible threat to the crew but not to the tanker itself. You need considerably more than 4.6 lbs of high explosives fired from a distance to punch a big hole in a tanker.

    We can leave this, but I’ll leave you with the thought that I don’t have to disbelieve any particular news story to square my position.

    Have fun. It’s TEOTWAWKI on the financial side. Party on.

    – odograph

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