Patrick Goodenough at CNSNews.com assesses the evidence:
(CNSNews.com) – Gunmen who attacked a luxury cruise liner off the east coast of Africa may have been terrorists targeting Americans and other Westerners rather than pirates, the Australian government said Monday.
An armed gang on two speedboats fired machine guns and a rocket-propelled grenade at the Seabourn Spirit as the Bahamas-registered ship sailed about 100 miles off the Somali coast in the early hours of Saturday morning.
More than 300 passengers and crew — mostly Americans, but also Britons, Australians and others — were on the vessel, one of three ships comprising the Miami-based Seabourn Cruise Line, when the attack occurred. One crew member sustained a shrapnel injury.
Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said it was possible the attackers were terrorists rather than pirates.
Pointing out the size of the 10,000-ton liner and the fact the heavily-armed attackers had fired rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns at it, he suggested that they may have intended to damage the vessel and hurt people onboard rather than seize the ship — the usual goal of modern-day pirates.
“Attacking it — even if you’ve got a rocket-propelled grenade — and taking the ship over, that seems to me to be a little improbable,” he said in one of several broadcast interviews.
“But damaging the ship and killing people, which might have been their motive, that’s something they could have easily done if the rocket-propelled grenades had worked properly.”
Noting that the ship was based in Miami and had many Americans onboard, Downer said the assailants may have seen it as a U.S. target.
“Somalia is a country which harbors a number of terrorists, we believe, so it’s conceivable these people were terrorists,” he said, but added that “we really can’t draw any hard and fast conclusions at this stage.”
The Seabourn Spirit left Istanbul on Oct. 9 on a 47-day cruise that ends in Singapore late this month. It had been heading for Mombassa in Kenya but after the attack it changed course and sailed for the Seychelles.
It would anchor off the island nation and, according to Downer, U.S. experts were on Monday expected to go onboard to disarm unexploded ordnance that had been left embedded in a suite on the vessel.
Surge in attacks
Piracy is a serious problem in parts of the world, with the South China Sea and the Malacca Strait shipping land between Singapore and Malaysia particular problem areas.
Most ships targeted are cargo vessels or tankers, which carry small crew complements.
Maritime security experts have long warned that Muslim extremists could adopt pirates’ tactics in a bid to seize a ship to use in a terrorist attack of some kind — blowing it up, scuttling it to block a crucial sea lane, or using it to ram into a shore facility.
Although Southeast Asia has been the primary focus of that concern, East Africa also struggles with Islamic terrorism, and the waters off Somalia have become increasingly dangerous.