Ship captains navigating the Malacca Strait no longer have to depend on the slow response of government – or sheer luck – to safely pass through the pirate- and terrorist-infested waters since private navies have begun providing escort services for ships through the strategic seaway.

The Strait, passageway to a third of the world’s crude oil, has long been treacherous, with gangs armed with machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and other modern weapons ready to board, kill crews, steal cargo and even hijack and resell ships.

As reported by WorldNetDaily, pirates stalking ships in the Strait have escalated their tactics and capabilities, raising the fear terrorists may infiltrate their ranks and use hijacked ships as platforms for attacks.

“We have been alarmed not only by the increase in the number of pirate attacks in the sea lanes of communication in this part of the world, but also in the nature of the piracy attacks,” said Tony Tan, Singapore’s minister for security.

“In previous years when you had a piracy attack, what it meant is that you have a sampan or a boat coming up to a cargo ship, pirates throwing up some ropes, scrambling on board, ransacking the ship for valuables, stealing money and then running away,” Tan told an Asian security forum, according to a report in the Khaleej Times. “But the last piracy attack that took place in the Straits of Malacca showed a different pattern,” he added. The pirates were well armed, operating sophisticated weapons and commanding high-speed boats. “They conducted the operation almost with military precision.”

Tan added: “Instead of just ransacking the ship for valuables, they took command of the ship, and steered the ship for about an hour, and then eventually left with the captain in their captivity. To all of us, this is reminiscent of the pattern by which terrorists mount an attack.”

It is this level of violence that has caused Lloyd’s Market Association to designate the Malacca Strait a warzone like Iraq for insurance purposes – a designation that translates into higher costs of doing business.

But business problems breed business solutions – in this case, private navies that provide onboard security and naval escort services to cargo ships and tankers.

Five security companies from Britain and the U.S. have entered the private navy business in the region in the last year, hoping to tap a market that prices security at a minimum of $50,000 per ship.

Companies like Background Asia Risk Solutions, the first naval security firm to open for business in Singapore, hire U.S. and British Commonwealth ex-military and police personnel, many with experience in Iraq or Afghanistan. While forbidden by law from using heavy machine guns, the armed escorts provide onboard security and chartered patrol boats to escort client ships. Some firms even claim to be able to recapture ships or oil rigs from hijackers by rappelling security forces from helicopters.

“We are not in the business of eradicating piracy,” Alex Duperouzel, managing director of Background Asia, told the Glasgow Sunday Herald. “But we are in the business of suppressing it and protecting our clients.”

Background Asia typically runs six escort missions monthly at around $100,000 each. The going rate for ransoming kidnapped ship’s masters in the region is $120,000.

Duperouzel said his forces have not yet had to open fire – his men merely stepping up to the side of the ship with weapons displayed has been sufficient to convince pirates to leave, often to find easier prey.

While statistics indicate 4 murders of crew members last year, the number of attacks in Indonesian waters and the Strait dropped from 77 to 56, a sign, perhaps, the private navies are suppressing piracy.

The 12-15 gangs in the area, each about 50-strong, operate out of southern Thailand and Indonesia. Some have links to the Triads in Hong Kong, organized crime syndicates with resources and networks to fence stolen cargoes. Others are associated with Islamic terrorist groups like Jemaah Islamiyah.

“We are concerned that terrorists may seize control of a tanker with a cargo of lethal materials, LNG (liquefied natural gas) perhaps, chemicals, and use it as a floating bomb against our port,” Tan said. “This would cause catastrophic damage, not only to the port but also for people, because our port is located very near to a highly dense residential area. Thousands of people would be killed.”

“If terrorists were to seize a tanker, a large ship, and sink it into a narrow part of the Straits it will cripple world trade,” Tan said. “It would have the iconic large impact which terrorists seek.”

Malaysia has rejected the use of foreign forces to patrol the area. For now, that leaves the private navies that have proven their mettle against pirates seeking booty but who have yet to be tested against terrorists intent on destruction, whatever the cost.

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