PIRATES AND PIRACY IN ASIA: TACTICS, TARGETS AND TERRORISM

PIRACY

Piracy was a big problem in Asian waters in the 1990s and early 2000s but the number of attacks started to drop dramatically in the late 2000s as Somalia became the center stage for piracy attacks. In 2006 the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) recorded 239 major pirate attacks. One hundred eighty-eight crewmen were taken hostage and 15 were killed---9 in Asia, 4 in Africa and 1 each in the Middle East and South America.

Alex Altman wrote in Time: “Today's pirates pursue their prey with outboard motors instead of oars and tote rocket-propelled grenades instead of cutlasses. With upgraded equipment and loftier stakes these 21st century buccaneers, like their peg-legged predecessors, are economic opportunists exploiting the largely unpatrolled waterways through which 90 percent of global trade flows.

According to the IMB there were 469 piracy incidents (including 72 deaths) in 2000, 285 (including 3 deaths) in 1999, 198 (including 67 deaths) in 1998, 247 in 1997, 224 (including 26 deaths) in 1996, 170 in 1995, and 94 in 1994. Before that time there were usually around 100 reported incidents of piracy a year. In 2005 there were no pirate-connected deaths compared to 32 in 2004. There are believed to be more incident than those reported. Shipping companies often do not report acts of piracy out of fear of losing business.

John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Many pirate attacks are hit-and-run robberies. In others, crew members are kidnapped for ransom, even tortured and killed. Countless vessels have been hijacked, their nameplates and paperwork swiftly changed, and turned into ghost ships used by syndicates for drug and slave smuggling. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, November 13, 2006]

Piracy has been called the “single greatest threat to modern shipping today.” Ninety percent of the world’s internationally-traded good are carried by ships. The increase in the 1990s is believed to have been due to economic problems. A 2005 IMB report said: “Violence and intimidation of crew continues to be a hallmark of these attacks, with many of the pirates armed with guns and knives...In some incidents pirates operated in large groups and attacked vessels from different directions at the same time. In the first nine months of 2005, 259 seafarers were taken hostage worldwide, 10 were kidnapped for longer periods, 19 were assaulted and 12 were missing.

Sam Bateman wrote on the EastAsia Forum: The international shipping industry is a major victim of piracy. Shipowners suffer extra costs due to piracy, but the ultimate victims of piracy are the seafarers who may be exposed to physical violence during an attack, have their personal valuables stolen, or suffer the privations of being held hostage for many months onboard a hijacked ship. The recent incident where Korean marines killed eight pirates while successfully releasing a Korean-owned merchant ship from Somali pirate control could lead to escalating violence against seafarers. [Source: Sam Bateman, EastAsia Forum, February 10, 2011. Bateman is a Professorial Research Fellow at the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security (ANCORS), University of Wollongong, and a Senior Fellow and Adviser to the Maritime Security Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore]

Patrick Winn wrote in Global Post, ““Most piracy takes place in areas where people are poor. Their livelihood has been taken from them by globalization, civil unrest or war,” writes Nigel Cawthorne, author of the book “Pirates of the 21st Century.” Piracy poses no existential threat to the shipping industry. Considering the volume of international trade, losses from piracy “amount to little more than a rounding error,” according to piracy analyst Martin N. Murphy. But the “sense of disorder” created by piracy, he writes, “may be hard to calculate in dollars.”” [Source: Patrick Winn, GlobalPost, March 27, 2014]

Website: Malaysia-based International Maritime Bureau Piracy Reporting Center

Piracy in Asia

The majority of world’s pirating incidents in the 1990s and early 2000s occurred around Asia, particularly in the South China Sea and in waters off of Southeast Asia and Indonesia. Each year about half to two thirds of the reportedly piracy incidents and many of the deaths are in Asian waters. In 1998, all but one the 67 piracy-related death occurred in Asia. Ports associated with piracy include Rangoon, Salayar Island and Babar Island in Indonesia, Puerto Princesa in the Philippines, Sibu and Pasi Gudang in Malaysia.

Piracy in Asia is alarming because a third or the world’s shipped goods pass through waters off Southeast Asia, particularly the Malacca Straits, through which a cargo ship passes once every three minutes. Places where ships have been attacked by pirates include the South China Sea, Straits of Malacca, Gulf of Thailand and the Arafura Sea, Flores Sea and Celebes Sea off of Indonesia. During one six month period there were 36 attacks in the Java Sea between Java and Borneo, more than attacks in the rest of Asia.

The remote eastern islands of Indonesia and the southern Philippines have seen a rise in attacks. The Sulu and Celebes Seas, also part of the route used by giant oil tankers, have been called by one researcher an "ungoverned maritime space". Islamic insurgents in the southern Philippines have used piracy and smuggling to fund their activities in the past, and there is a fear that events off Somalia may encourage them, or others in the region, to try something more ambitious.

According to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), of 325 pirate attacks that took place in 2004, 37 were in the Malacca Strait. Indonesia was a victim of the largest number of pirate attacks, with 93 occurring in its territorial waters. According to the IMB 122 of the 276 world’s piracy cases in 2005 were in Southeast Asia. Off the reported piracy attacks in 2002, a total of 119 were in the Java Sea, 75 were in Strait of Malacca and 55 were off the coasts of Bangladesh. In 1997 no attacks were reported in the Malacca Strait. In 2000 there were 73 attacks.

Attacks by pirates are an old and familiar story in Southeast Asia. Matthew Heavens of the BBC wrote: “The journals of James Brooke, the famous "White Rajah of Sarawak", who governed part of Borneo in the 19th century give a sense of the age of the problem. He recounted his attempts to wipe out piracy in the region, describing pitched battles along the coastlines between the British navy and the fleets of tribal longboats that preyed on shipping. It's the stuff of adventure books. See "The expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido for the suppression of piracy : with extracts from the journal of James Brooke, Esq., of Sarawak

Carolin Liss of Murdoch University wrote on the Nautilus Institute website: “Since the late 1980s, Southeast Asia has become one of the global “hot spots” of pirate attacks on merchant vessels and fishing boats. In fact, according to data from the International Maritime Bureau’s (IMB) Piracy Reporting Centre, Asia was the most “pirate infested” region in the world between 1992 and 2006. Within Asia, however, piracy hot-spots shifted between countries and ocean areas over time. Since the mid-1990s, as Soeharto’s New Order regime unravelled, Indonesian ports and territorial waters have been identified as the most pirate-infested in Southeast Asia. In 2004, for example, Indonesia accounted for 93 out of 329 attacks recorded worldwide. In the early 21st century the high number of attacks in the busy Malacca Straits, and, to a lesser extent, the Singapore Straits, is also a matter of concern. [Source: Carolin Liss of Murdoch University, Nautilus Institute website. Liss is a PhD candidate at Murdoch University. This paper is based on research conducted for her recently submitted PhD thesis: Maritime Piracy in Southeast Asia and Bangladesh, 1992-2006: A Prismatic Interpretation of Security.

Things dropped off markedly in the late 2000s. There were only 13 reported pirate attacks in the whole South China Sea region in 2009.

Asian Pirates

The BBC reported: “For some coastal villages tucked away among the thousands of islands that make up Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, piracy has been a way of life for generations. The pirates move extremely quickly and often at night and so it is often too late before the crew have realised what has happened. Bows and poisoned arrows have given way to automatic weapons and grenades, and the busier the trade routes have become, the richer the pickings.” [Source: Matthew Heavens, BBC, December 7, 2008]

Piracy syndicates operate in Hong Kong, Indonesia, China, Singapore, South Korea and are often made up of citizens from several countries. It is not unusual for a single syndicate to be lead five men: one each from China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia. Some have connections with large Mafia-like organized crime groups. A single pirating act may be masterminded by a Singaporean, organized by South Koreans, carried out by Indonesians, Malaysians and Thais who press ganged a crew hired through a Hong Kong company.

Some pirates are believed to be armed insurgents based mainly in the Philippines. They are usually after money or ways to make money. There are worries they might try to hijack a ship with dangerous chemicals or even take nuclear materials and use them in a terrorist attack. Small-time pirates are often poor fishermen who need money to feed their families and take off with things like safes, radios, electronic equipments, cash, watches and even mooring rope. Many pirate groups are believed to be based in northern Sumatra, Indonesia and coastal areas of southern Thailand. According to shipping industry sources, pirate groups have their turfs.

Carolin Liss of Murdoch University wrote on the Nautilus Institute website: Pirates active in the region can be divided into two groups: (1) opportunistic sea-robbers, involved in small scale attacks, and (2) sophisticated organised pirate gangs, responsible for hijackings and other major pirate attacks. Both types of pirates are able to conduct attacks because they exploit security shortcomings in the maritime environment and benefit from political, social, and economic developments which are conducive to the occurrence such attacks. Five factors and shortcomings are of particular importance in shaping piracy in SoutheastAsia: over-fishing, lax maritime regulations, the existence of organised crime syndicates, the presence of radical politically motivated groups in the region, and widespread poverty. [Source: Carolin Liss of Murdoch University, Nautilus Institute website]

"Modern-day pirates can be just as merciless as the Caribbean buccaneers," the International Maritime Bureau Piracy Reporting Center’s Noel Choong told Smithsonian magazine. He recalled the 13 pirates---12 Chinese and 1 Indonesian---who hijacked the Cheung Son, a Hong Kong-registered cargo ship, off China in 1998. "They blindfolded the 23 crewmembers, beat them to death with clubs and threw their bodies overboard," he said. Then they sold the vessel to an unknown party for $300,000. But they were caught, convicted of piracy and murder in a Chinese court, and sentenced to death. On their way to the firing squad, Choong said, the 13 sang Ricky Martin's bouncy 1998 World Cup soccer theme, "La Copa de la Vida," jumping up and down in their chains as they bellowed the chorus: "Go, go, go, ale, ale, ale." (Afterward, Choong said, "the Chinese charged their families the cost of each bullet" used in the executions.)[Source: Paul Raffaele, Smithsonian magazine, August 2007]

The IMB’s Noel Choong told the Los Angeles Times that many are opportunists, impromptu gangs of poor fisherman who can't resist the allure of lumbering, unarmed vessels laden with cash and goods: "They realized that robbing unarmed sailors is a lot easier than robbing a bank." Others are more ambitious and well-organized, professionals who plunder ships for crime syndicates, warlords, corrupt government officials and even regional terrorist groups. In recent years, Choong says, emboldened pirates have become more sophisticated. They forge passports and other documents to turn working maritime vessels into slave- and drug-running ships. They use satellite phones and global positioning systems. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, November 13, 2006]

Indonesian Pirates

Indonesia is regarded as the biggest problem area. Many attacks are in and around Indonesian waters and many attacks outside Indonesian waters are by Indonesian pirates. Economic problems and instability there are believed to be part of the problem. There is a lack of enforcement.

About a quarter of the worldwide piracy attacks in the 1990s and early 2000s occurred in Indonesian waters. Of the 445 piracy attacks worldwide in 2004, more than a quarter were in Indonesian waters. Of the 259 attacks in the first nine months of 2005 sixty-one were in Indonesian waters. Of the 285 reported incidents of piracy in 1999, 113 took place in Indonesian waters. An addition 31 took place in waters between Malaysia and Singapore and Indonesia. Pirates hangout near Singapore on the Indonesian Riau Islands and in the waters between Sulawesi, Borneo and the Philippines.

Ikaika Ramones of Forbes wrote: “Indonesia is no stranger to piracy. Throughout the archipelago’s history raiders on the sea have been a recurrent problem. Modern-day piracy comes in three forms: boarding parties that rob vessels, syndicates that steal entire ships and raiders who kidnap crew members for ransom. Sea raiders have provided intelligence and tax tributes to sultans and have been conducting simple robberies of vessels in the Malacca Strait and other areas for centuries. However, when European colonizers arrived to exploit these littoral sultanates, traditional economic systems broke down, culminating in a spike in piracy that intensified in the 19th century. The Dutch and British also attempted to provide coastal communities with economic alternatives. [Source: Ikaika Ramones, Forbes, August 12, 2013]

Pirates like Indonesia because many ships pass through its water, the ships often travel slowly because the straits are narrow and potentially danger, and there are lots of islands for them to escape to. Indonesia is the perfect hideout for pirates. It has a long tradition of piracy, thousands of islands to hideout and a week political leadership and local authorities that can be easily be bribed.

Some pirates work for organized syndicates. Many are simple fishermen who turn to piracy to makes ends meet. The rate of piracy increased dramatically after the Asian economic crisis. Some pirates are from Aceh. The Free Aceh Movement is believed to have turned to piracy to make money. . Others offer some f the loot to villagers in return for protection.

Bugis and Piracy

The Bugis also have a reputation for being pirates. The expression "the bogey man is going to get you" can be traced back to the first Europeans that came to this part of the world who like every one else in the region feared the Bugis. The Bugis still have this reputation today, as well as one of the last great sailing fleets.

European mariners greatly feared Bugi pirates. Both Conrad and Melville mentioned the Bugis Today, Bugis are associated with the rise of piracy in the waters around Indonesia and Southeast Asia. Newspapers have reported Bugis who invaded atolls, burning the villages an make off with an entire year's worth of their cash crop, copa (oil-bearing coconut husks).

The Bugis are the predominate ethnic group in southern the southern peninsula of Sulawesi. Also known as the Boegineezen, Buginese, To Bugi, To Ugi’, To Wugi, they are one of the most well known sea-faring peoples in Southeast Asia. They have traveled widely and colonized numerous coastal areas and have a long association with piracy.

The Bugis are famous for their Pinisi schooners which they have used for centuries to travel as far south as the Australian coast where they left behind drawings of ships and words that have been integrated in the Aboriginal language of North Australia. Bugis have traditionally lived on coast and the plains are culturally similar to the Makassarese, who dominate the southern tip of peninsula where the Bugis live. The Bugis have their own language. Their name is derived from a village. “To Ugi’ formally on the Cenrana Rover. Bugis are believed to number around 4 million, with maybe three fourths of them living in Sulawesi.

The Bugis were notorious mercenaries in the colonial period and their presence often turned the tide in the favor of the Dutch in places like the Riau Archipelago and East Kalimantan. Bugis were also involved in the Indonesia independence movement and thus still remain influential today. The Indonesia government has traditionally kept up a string military presence in Bugi areas to keep from rebelling and fighting one another. Before the arrival of the Dutch in Indonesia Bugi mercenaries attained high positions in Aceh, Malaysia , the Riau Archipelago and Thailand and established large settlements in eastern Sumatra. Bugi merchants established strategic trading pots on Kuta in Kalimantan, Johor, north of Singapore, and Selangor, near Kuala Lumpur.

Terrorism and Asian Piracy

Many worry about a terrorist attack in Malacca Strait or other important waterway. If mines, for example, were strewn in the Malacca Strait and an oil tanker hit the mines, the strait might have to be closed. Choong told the New York Times that all of the attacks that have taken place so far appeared to be by criminals seeking profit, not by terrorists.

Reuters reported: “An attack that closed the Strait of Malacca or the Singapore port even temporarily could have a disproportionate impact on global trade, since Singapore is the world's top container shipping port and biggest ship refueling hub. "Maritime attacks offer terrorists an alternate means of causing mass economic destabilization," terrorism risk analyst Peter Chalk said in a RAND report on piracy and maritime terrorism. "Disrupting the mechanics of the global 'just enough, just in time' cargo freight trading system could potentially trigger vast and cascading fiscal effects, especially if the operations of a major commercial port were curtailed," Chalk said. Any attack could also have a big impact on shipments of some major commodities from Sumatra. The island is a key producer for palm oil, rubber and coffee.

John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “International security experts fear that militants might commandeer a giant crude oil tanker for use as a floating bomb. Just a mile and a half wide at its narrowest point, the strait is a crucial maritime choke point. Experts say terrorists could sink a huge tanker at a narrow juncture, wreaking environmental havoc and bringing international maritime commerce to a halt. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, November 13, 2006]

Though experts differ on its likelihood, some say the idea is not farfetched. "If someone in 2000 said people could hijack planes and fly them into the World Trade Center, critics would have said, 'Oh, that's not going to happen.' But some incidents suggest terrorists are looking at the Malacca Strait," said John Brandon, director of the Asia Foundation, which monitors U.S.-Southeast Asia relations."Pirates recently hijacked and tried to learn to steer an oil tanker in the Malacca Strait. That raises a troubling question: Why do they want to learn to steer?"

Choong has given briefings to global investigative agencies such as Interpol and to anti-terrorism officials from numerous countries, including the United States. His assessment is troubling. "Singapore is vulnerable -- it's very pro-West and surrounded by Muslim nations," he said. "Militants could cause environmental damage and cripple the world economy. What more could a terrorist ask for? Everything is there."

Shipping presents a soft target, particularly after global airline security was massively tightened following al Qaeda's use of hijacked planes as flying suicide bombs in its attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in September 2001. The ease with which Somali pirates have been able to board and hijack large vessels -- including an oil supertanker in 2008 -- has also raised concerns of another kind of terrorist attack in which a ship is commandeered and turned into a "floating bomb" that could shut down a major shipping lane or destroy a port. But analysts say fears that terrorists could detonate ships carrying crude oil or liquefied natural gas (LNG) are overdone. Crude is not very flammable and LNG carriers are robustly constructed and include significant safety features. They might be easy to board, but not to quickly convert into a weapon.

Security Raised in Malacca Strait after Terror Warning

In March 2010, Neil Chatterjee of Reuters wrote: “Malaysia and Indonesia said they are stepping up security in the Strait of Malacca, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, following the Singapore navy's warning of possible attacks on oil tankers. The Singapore navy "has received indication a terrorist group is planning attacks on oil tankers in the Malacca Strait," the Singapore Shipping Association said in an advisory. "The terrorists' intent is probably to achieve widespread publicity and showcase that it remains a viable group." It did not name a group or say where the intelligence came from. [Source: Neil Chatterjee, Reuters, March 4, 2010]

“Malaysia's coast guard said it was increasing security measures in the narrow waterway...Indonesia is intensifying patrols there, Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro told Reuters. "We will increase the security and step up patrols in that area. Oil tankers can pass, but we will increase our readiness."

“The Singapore Shipping Association said the navy warning did not preclude possible attacks on other large vessels besides tankers. Singapore's Ministry of Defense declined to comment. Indonesia said on Wednesday it had detained 13 suspects from a group taking part in an Islamic militant training camp in its province of Aceh, at the northern end of the strait. A Thai naval attache in Singapore said the original warning came from Japan, which informed the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) that ships in the Strait could be hijacked. IMB spokesman Noel Choong said it had received the information from a foreign government agency. "It is a terror threat," Kuala Lumpur-based Choong said when asked whether it was a terror threat or piracy.

“A spokeswoman for Japan's Mitsui O.S.K. Lines Ltd, the country's second-biggest shipping firm, said the warning would not cause it to change operations. "I don't think we would change the route. Basically the area is dangerous, so we have been taking precautions." "Are people going to avoid the straits? I would be stunned if they did," said energy consultant John Vautrain of Purvin and Gertz in Singapore. "If you have to take additional security measures, you take them. That is less difficult than by-passing Malacca."

Overfishing and Asian Piracy

Carolin Liss of Murdoch University wrote on the Nautilus Institute website: r-fished turn to piracy as a source of income in a time of need. The vast majority of attacks conducted by desperate fishers are small-scale attacks on other fishing vessels, yachts or any other small to medium sized ships, including merchant vessels, passing through waters near their communities. Most of these attacks are opportunistic, hit-and-run affairs in which the pirates take whatever they find onboard. An example of this pattern is the attacks on merchant vessels conducted by opportunistic pirate-fishermen from Kampung Hitam, on Pulau Babi in the Riau Archipelago. The waters around the island are polluted and over-fished and the catch of local fishers is often not adequate to sustain the fishers and their families. Some of these desperate fishers then turn to piracy to supplement their incomes. Finding targets is not difficult for these fishers because the island is located near the Philip Channel, one of the world’s busiest waterways. [Source: Carolin Liss of Murdoch University, Nautilus Institute website]

“Furthermore, unemployed and desperate fishers are also in some cases recruited by organised crime gangs to attack or hijack merchant vessels or tugs. While fishers may not have the important nautical skills necessary to drive a merchant vessel or conduct the work of trained seafarers, they nonetheless have skills such as knowledge of the ocean and experience in manoeuvring smaller vessels, which are important for conducting such attacks. An example is the attack on a buoy-tender ship in June 2001 near Karimun Island, Indonesia, southeast of Singapore, in which eight out of 13 pirates involved were fishers from the island of Karimun. During the attack, one member of the tender’s crew suffered serious injuries but other crewmembers were able to capture a pirate before he could escape with his gang. It was later established that the ringleaders of the pirates were based on Batam, Indonesia, and that they recruited struggling fishers to carry out attacks. Karimun Island, the home of the fishers hired for the attack, is part of Riau Province. The seas surrounding the island are overexploited and the marine habitats have been destroyed by bomb and cyanide fishing and other sources of income are difficult to find on the island.

Also, Southeast Asian fishers who live in heavily over-fished areas occasionally voyage into neighbouring countries? EEZs to fish. These fishing ventures are not only illegal but also make these boats and their crew far more susceptible to pirate attacks for a number of reasons. For example, boats fishing illegally cannot rely on any assistance from local authorities and are therefore not able to call for help when attacked or chased by pirates. The perpetrators of such attacks may not only be aware of these circumstances but the fact that their victims are fishing illegally in their territory can trigger anger and antipathy against such vessels and serve as a justification for the attack.

Additionally, the perpetrators of attacks are in some cases members of the military, navy, or marine police. For rogue security personnel, such attacks are easier to conduct if a boat happens to be caught fishing illegally in waters under their jurisdiction. The distinction between outright pirate attacks by members of local authorities and the legitimate collection of “fees” for illegal fishing are somewhat blurred in these incidents. Yet, whatever the driving force behind these “attacks”, fishing vessels sailing into foreign EEZs often carry money to pay off authorities. The extra cash on board these fishing vessels in turn makes them tempting targets for all types of pirates.

Attacks on vessels fishing illegally in the Malacca Straits offer examples. A study estimated that between 1970 and 2000 fisheries resources depreciated by over 40 per cent in the straits, with the northern part particularly affected. To maintain the high level of catches, some Malaysian fishers based along the northern stretches of the Malacca Straits fish illegally in Indonesian waters, which are believed to be better fishing grounds. While fishers based in this region seldom talk about their illegal fishing activities, their encroachment into foreign waters is a real concern for Malaysian politicians who also acknowledge that those vessels are easy victims for Indonesian pirates. Deputy Home Minister Datuk Chor Chee Heung, for example, stated in 2002: “We are asking our fishermen not to encroach into Indonesian waters as they will not only face pirates but also cause misunderstandings with the Indonesian navy.”These misunderstandings with the Indonesian navy or other Indonesian naval authorities include what Malaysian fishers refer to as pirate attacks. In these incidents, Malaysian vessels are approached by Indonesian navy or marine police officials and threatened with arrest for illegal fishing. In the case of such an arrest the Malaysian boat is brought to Indonesia and detained until the owner pays a substantial sum for the release of the vessel and crew, often after a months-long negotiation process. Malaysian fishers are often able to avoid detention by paying a “fine” directly to the officers at sea. Once the fee is paid, the vessel is allowed to continue to fish.

Furthermore, Malaysian fishing vessels operating in Indonesian waters also fall victim to attacks by “ordinary” pirates. Malaysian fishing vessels based in Hutan Melintang which operate in Indonesian waters carry at least between RM1,000 and RM5,000 in cash to pay off corrupt Indonesian officials or for emergency repairs. This money is an additional incentive for local pirates to attack these vessels. If attacked in Indonesian waters, the Malaysian vessels cannot expect assistance from Indonesian or Malaysian authorities. In fact, if caught by Indonesian authorities, the fishers will be either arrested or have to pay the above mentioned “fee”.

Piracy Tactics in Asia

Carolin Liss of Murdoch University wrote on the Nautilus Institute website: “While the vast majority of pirate attacks on merchant vessels in Southeast Asia today are simple “hit-and-run robberies”, long-term seizures and hijackings of merchant vessels, including cargo ships, bulk carriers and tankers, also occur. In these cases, a vessel and its crew is held hostage for a limited time, or the entire vessel is shipjacked by pirates and is then turned into a “phantom ship”. Modern day pirate attacks targeting merchant vessels are a concern because the perpetrators are increasingly prepared to use violence to further their aims, with the number of pirates armed with automatic weapons on the rise. A further worry is an increase in hostage taking of crewmembers for ransom in recent years. [Source: Carolin Liss of Murdoch University, Nautilus Institute website]

Furthermore, attacks on small craft, including yachts and fishing vessels, also occur regularly in Southeast Asia. Indeed, fishing boats and their crew are arguably most affected by contemporary piracy. he perpetrators of attacks on small vessels are in most cases heavily armed, carrying knives, small arms or light weapons, although the level of violence and armaments of the pirates varies between regions, depending on local circumstances. Furthermore, fishers have in recent years increasingly been forced to make up-front payments to pirate gangs in order to fish safely in certain areas, and the hijacking of fishing boats and kidnapping of crew for ransom have become regular occurrences in some parts of Southeast Asia, such as the Malacca Straits. [Ibid]

Pirates are outfit with machine guns, machetes and global positioning devises. The communicate with cell phones, lightly-used frequencies on ship-shore radios, satellite phones and radios and often have people planted on the inside of shipping companies Many use small fiberglass or wooden speedboats with no canopy that are difficult to pick up with radar.

Most of the time the pirates board the ship, rob the crew and are gone in less than 30 minutes. Occasionally they steal a ship or its cargo and set the crew adrift in the open sea in life boats. Sometimes there is violence. There have been incidents in which the crew has been killed outright and tossed overboard. During one incident near Singapore in 1998 a crew found its cabin master was "bound hand and foot...dead with a gaping bullet hole in his head."

Pirates find large vessels such as tankers easy to approach but difficult to board. They prefer attacking smaller boats which are easier to board. Only large organized gangs carry out attacks on tankers because only they can handle the sophisticated banking necessary to pull a multi-million dollar ransom.

Piracy Attack Methods

Pirates usually strike at night when crews are asleep or bored. They like to attack when the visibility is poor and the ships are traveling slowing through narrow straights. Often they approach the targeted ship with motorboats with muffled engines and use grappling hooks or poles to become secured to the targeted ship and climb aboard with bamboo ladders. In some cases they have to climb the equivalent of five stories to reach the deck.

Catching up to a cargo ship with a speedboat is easy. But it can also be done with slow boats. There have been reports of two slow boat attaching a rope between them and waiting for a large ship to come along and catch the rope on its bow and hitch a ride and get close to board the ship.

John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “With high-speed fiberglass boats, they creep up from behind, using the cover of the ship radar's blind spot. With grappling hooks and expert climbing skills, they scale the vessel's mooring ropes and overpower isolated and vulnerable crews. The pirates don't just use the cover of darkness. They also take advantage of national sovereignty laws. Knowing that marine police must observe territorial boundaries, flotillas of fishermen from such places as Sumatra or freelance commandos from the Indonesian navy ambush ships and then race back to the safety of their sovereign waters, often just a few miles away. In a trick from centuries ago, pirates may disguise themselves to approach wary vessels. Some pose as marine police, uniforms and all, doing routine checks.[Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, November 13, 2006]

Piracy Targets

Most acts of piracy are robberies in which pirates board a ship and steal everything the can et their hands on: cash in safes, belonging to sailors, personal computers, televisions, DVD players, and luxury items kept in the ship's hold. Fully-loaded ships are often targeted because they travel relatively slowly and hang low in the water and are easy to board.

In recent years, pirated have targeted large cargo ships and tankers carrying stuff that is difficult to trace and easy to sell on the black market such as oil, metals, palm oil, plywood and soda ash. In some cases the cargos are loaded into to smaller ships at sea. In most cases they are taken into ports where officials can be bribed and their cargo unloaded.

Sometimes a ship itself is the objective. When this kind of attack occurs, often the cargo is unloaded, the ship is painted, covering up the original name of the vessel, and resold. In some cases the ship is given a new names and paperwork and registered as new ship under the flags of Panama, Belize or Honduras or some other no-questions-asked ship flagging nation. Sometimes after the name has been changed a new crew is put on the ship and they have no idea the ship has been seized by pirates. Most ship are never recovered, They become known as “phantom ships.”

Sometimes small tourist-carrying yachts have been targeted. There have been cases of mangy-looking pirates dressed in phony police uniforms boarding boats chartered by scuba divers and threatening the divers with automatic weapons and then only making off with some cans of beer.

Junichi Fukazawa wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “Pirates in the Strait of Malacca changed strategies in the later half of 2003. Until then, they attacked boats and took money, valuables and cargo. Now they are kidnaping crew members and demanding ransom. "Ironically, it's a result of antipiracy measures," said Yoshihiko Yamada of the Maritime Affairs Department of the Nippon Foundation. Large ships have tightened security and local investigators have begun tracking down stolen cargo. As a result, pirates began kidnapping. The targets are small fishing boats and tugboats, whose security is less tight. [Source: Junichi Fukazawa, Yomiuri Shimbun, March 24, 2005]

Easy for Pirates to Attack Ships with Unarmed Crews

Ship Captain Peter Newton told the BBC it is very easy for such armed groups to hijack large ships because there is little to stop them doing so. “Most cargo ships have crews of 22 to 25 unarmed men of varying nationalities who do the job for money and are not willing to risk their lives in defence of a ship, he argues. During an attack they are, understandably, likely to hide in their cabins, he says. [Source: Lucy Rodgers, BBC, November 18, 2008]

"Pirates know there is absolutely no risk. Once on board, there is no risk whatsoever. They know the civilian crew is not armed," he explains. "The only defence is trying to stop them getting on board." He argues that piracy is not taken seriously partly because of its romanticisation in fiction, but he also blames shipping companies for not facing up to such attacks.

This is because ships' safes are insured and firms can easily recoup the money, he says, and compared to the $2 million in fuel needed to take a cargo ship from Singapore to New Zealand, such amounts of money are regarded as "peanuts". "But it is not peanuts if one of the crew or the captain gets killed."

“I Thought Pirates Would Kill Me'

Lucy Rodgers of the BBC wrote: “After leaving port and seeing his cargo ship through the Straits of Singapore ready for the journey to New Zealand, British Captain Peter Newton thought it was safe to leave the bridge and head for his cabin. But no sooner had he entered to unpack his belongings when a band of five machete-wielding pirates clad in balaclavas stormed through his door. "My first thought was that it was the crew committing mutiny, then it became quite obvious their intention was to rob me," says Mr Newton, who had only been captain for six months when the attack happened in 1992. "The guy in charge said, 'Captain, behave yourself and you will live to tell the tale', or something to that effect." [Source: Lucy Rodgers, BBC, November 18, 2008+]

“While another four pirates kept a look-out elsewhere on the 35,000-tonne container ship, which was carrying arms and cars among other things, the five armed men in the captain's cabin hunted for the vessel's safe, containing $24,000 (£16,000) in crew salaries. But after the gang's chief realised the safe was fitted with an anti-tamper device, things turned nasty. "He knew removing it would cause an alarm to sound, so he made me kneel in front of it and held a sword to the back of my neck," says the 59-year-old, from Derby. "He told me if it went off I would die." Luckily, the device had been disabled by the Australian Star's previous captain and Mr Newton had not yet activated it. +

The pirates were able to remove the cash from the safe, and took their hostage with hands bound behind his back to the deck at sword-point. "The only thing I could think of was that their intention was to throw me over the side," Mr Newton says. "I thought they were going to kill me." Instead, the band of armed men left the vessel and returned to their boat via a rope ladder and the last pirate pushed their captive forward to indicate he should go back to the accommodation block. "I was extremely relieved," says Mr Newton, recalling the moment he knew he had survived the attack. The captain went on to raise the alarm and warned other vessels in the area of the threat of attack. +

In dangerous waters, ships' captains do take anti-piracy measures, such as using deck patrols, short-range radar to identify small craft and lights over the side of the ship. But in Mr Newton's particular case, these things were not activated because at the time his vessel was near the Indonesian island of Bintan and not thought to be in a risk area.

Although the incident was unnerving, Mr Newton says it never put him off working on the oceans. What did upset him was hearing of the death of another British captain, John Bashforth, who was killed in a similar attack three weeks later. Mr Newton went to visit his grieving family and was particularly struck by how hard it was for them to come to terms with the fact he had been murdered by pirates at the end of the 20th Century. +

Avoiding Piracy

Patrick Winn wrote in Global Post, “Modern-day captains plying risky waters look to a guide called the BMP. Based on intel from Western navies and shipping firms, it offers tactics on avoiding pirates and — if that doesn’t work — fending them off and surviving abduction. "These pirates just want the cash aboard the vessel or to rob the crew of any valuables". The guide’s best advice? Go really fast. No pirates have ever boarded a ship pushing 18 knots, or nearly 21 miles per hour, the guide says. But that’s practically impossible in the Strait of Malacca. The channel is simply too crowded and too shallow. Gigantic vessels are instead forced to churn through at slow speeds that invite pirates in fast-moving skiffs. (To save fuel, today’s cargo ships often travel at about 14 miles per hour. That’s slower than 19th-century sail boats.) [Source: Patrick Winn, GlobalPost, March 27, 2014 +++]

“Somali pirates also forced the shipping industry to get creative. They’ve come up with effective pirate-proofing techniques that could be applied to more ships entering the Malacca Strait. The BMP recommends blasting approaching pirates with hot water, ringing ships with razor wire and even installing electric fencing. Discharging foam, according to the manual, is “effective as it is disorientating and very slippery.” +++

World Sea Piracy Falls in 2012

In October 2012, Associated Press reported: “Sea piracy worldwide fell to its lowest level since 2008 over the first nine months of this year as navies and shipping companies cracked down on attacks off the coast of Somalia, an international maritime watchdog said Monday. The International Maritime Bureau said 233 attacks were recorded worldwide in the first nine months of this year, down from 352 in the same period last year. The bureau's piracy reporting arm, which is based in Kuala Lumpur, said 24 vessels were hijacked worldwide between January and September 2012, with 458 crew members taken hostage and six killed. The numbers fell because attacks off Somalia's coast plummeted during that same period, from 199 last year to 70 this year. The bureau said only one Somali attack was reported in the entire third quarter of 2012. [Source: Associated Press, October 22, 2012]

Piracy soared in 2009 because of attacks off largely lawless Somalia, where pirates became more daring and desperate. Since then, pirates have been deterred by international navies, and by ships taking their own security measures, such as hiring armed guards. A recent trip by Associated Press reporters to areas of the Somali coast once controlled by pirates found many of them hiding from creditors in unfurnished rooms. Rather than attacking cargo ships, they were playing cards, or catching lobsters.

"We welcome the successful robust targeting of pirate action groups by international navies in the high-risk waters off Somalia, ensuring these criminals are removed before they can threaten ships," said IMB director Pottengal Mukundan. But he added that the waters "are still extremely high-risk and the naval presence must be maintained." The bureau said piracy in Africa's Gulf of Guinea, ranging from Benin to Togo, was becoming increasingly dangerous, with 34 cases in the first nine months. It said the attacks were often violent, planned and aimed at stealing refined oil products. Mukundan said 21 attacks were recorded in Nigeria alone, but he praised the country's navy for helping to rescue vessels. He said many navies in the vast gulf don't have resources to fight piracy far out at sea, allowing gangs to shift their operations to other areas.

In Asia, the bureau said Indonesia reported 51 attacks in the first nine months this year, up from 46 for the whole of 2011. It also warned ships to be alert in Malacca Straits, South China Sea and around Malaysia; each of those areas has reported a hijacking this year.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2014

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