Piracy in the Indian Ocean just took a significant turn for the worse.  A Saudi tanker holding the equivalent of 25% of the nation’s daily output got seized by pirates, presumably from Somalia, far out of the normal zone of risk.  The seizure raises questions about safety, ecology, and the security of energy transport:

Pirates operating off the coast of east Africa have hijacked a Saudi supertanker fully laden with an estimated 2m barrels of oil in an attack that marks a significant escalation in the scope of banditry in the region.

The pirates, believed to be from lawless Somalia, seized control of the Sirius Star, which is owned by Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil company, on Saturday, 450 nautical miles south-east of the Kenyan Indian Ocean port of Mombasa.

It is estimated that the tanker was holding more than a quarter of the daily exports from Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter. The oil would have been worth about $100m (€79m, £66.5m) at Monday’s market price but is probably of little interest to the pirates.

The Financial Times speculates that the pirates will demand a ransom, the usual end result of piracy in the region.  They may have a difficult time getting to the cash, however.  The pirates usually seize cargo ships and not tankers, which are more difficult to captain and cannot use the normal docks frequented by the pirates.  The tankers ride low in the water, and the danger of grounding is very real, especially for inexperienced pilots.  The ecological destruction could surpass that of the Exxon Valdez, which had about half of the capacity of the Sirius Star.

That assumes, of course, that these pirates want this tanker for ransom.  It seems strange that the same pirates that target food aid closer to shore would go this far out of their way for an oil tanker.  The value is much higher, of course — one expert says they “hit the jackpot” — but crew safety rather than cargo value is the main driver for ransoms. They’d probably get the same amount of money, while taking a much higher risk with a ship they can’t maneuver as well.  Does that make any sense?

So for what other purpose could pirates use a massive oil tanker?  They could have seized it as a terror weapon.  Sailed into a harbor and detonated, a tanker this size could do massive damage, especially to an oil-exporting port — and it could send shock waves throughout the energy industry for months, if not years.  Just sinking it could block exports for weeks while salvage crews cleared the wreckage.

Hopefully, the US Navy or other forces can intercept the Sirius Star before the pirates attempt to navigate it anywhere close to a port and negotiate for the release of the crew and the ship.  With rumblings of al-Qaeda plots coming from Yemen, this particular act of piracy bears close watch.

Update: I should have made this more clear in the initial post.  The crude on board won’t explode — it has to be refined to make it flammable enough for that kind of power.  However, the pirates/terrorists could load it up with enough explosives to create havoc when it sails into a port, blocking access and damaging the facilities badly enough to make them unusable.  If they had that kind of operation planned, they would have brought enough explosives on board during the seizure of the ship to make it work.  Plus, the tanker itself would have fuel to use in that capacity as well.