Sea Transportation: The Piracy Threat Goes On Tour

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January 15, 2017: Worldwide the threat of pirate attack has become a less expensive problem since 2013 and from then until 2015 most of the danger moved to the coasts of Malaysia and Indonesia and areas near the Malacca Strait. But in 2016 there were only two attacks in that area, compared to 104 in 2014. That accounted for most of the 60 percent decline in pirate activity throughout Asia. At that point the hot spot for pirate activity moved to the waters between the southern Philippines and Malaysia (Sabah). A slightly larger version of this area, extended east to Indonesia, accounted for 40 percent of all pirate attacks between 1995 and 2013. During that time the Somali coast and nearby areas accounted for only 28 percent. The difference was that pirates were taking large ships off Somalia and holding them and their crews for millions in ransom. In the rest of the world the take per ship attacked was less than ten percent of what Somali pirates were getting. It took a rarely used international effort to shut down the Somali problems. Elsewhere local efforts handled the problem. A model for local cooperation against piracy could be found among the nations bordering the Malacca Strait. Since the 1960s these nations have regularly revived tight and effective regional cooperation to shut down increased pirate activity in the area, especially the Malacca Straits.

An example of how this regional cooperation works occurred after an upsurge of pirate activity in 2015. During the first eight months of 2015 some 80 percent of the pirate attacks on the planet occurred in the Malacca area. That was about ten attacks a month and nearly all of them are robberies of the crew and stealing of portable valuables. The crewmen are usually not hurt and based on victim reports it appears most of the pirates came from Malaysia and Indonesia and were largely amateurs.

There were some professionals in action in 2014 that were able to hijack ships long enough for cargo to be transferred at sea to someone who could resell it and this provided far more money for the pirates than the more common robbery incidents. But those professional pirates were soon gone, in part because theft that large left a trail that police and intelligence agencies could pick up and follow. Moreover as pirate activity increased Malaysia and Indonesia quickly organized a joint effort to run helicopter and warship patrols through areas where most of these less costly robbery attacks are taking place. This sort of quick reaction patrol can move in quickly enough to catch pirates before they and their loot could disappear into the one of the many coves or villages that dot the Malaysian and Indonesian coasts. Police also sought out the middlemen (“fences”) who bought the valuable (and portable) electronics these “grab and go” pirates preferred. Stealing expansive electronics from a ship is dangerous because that stuff has serial numbers and a growing number of unpublicized security features that make it difficult to resell if you are not the legal owner. When police find the fence they can often find his suppliers. In any event these small time pirates are more numerous and being amateurs they can quickly drop out and, as far as the police are concerned “disappear.” Some of these part time pirates are believed to have been in the business, on and off, for over a decade. The police know that if they make some arrests and well publicized prosecutions (and convictions) it will discourage many of these amateur pirates from returning to robbery, at least for a while.

This sort of thing is part of a pattern that evolved even before an international effort to suppress Somali piracy succeeded by 2012. While the Somali piracy was being suppressed there was a major increase in attacks in the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea. Big as in a sevenfold increase from 2009 to 2013 (when there were 150 attacks). There was also a jump (to 50 attacks a year) off Nigeria. What made Somalia so special was the fact that it was the only place where ships and crews could be taken and held for ransom for long periods. Everywhere else the pirates were usually only interested in robbing the crew and stealing anything portable that they could get into their small boats. Off the Nigerian coast pirates more frequently took some ship officers with them to hold for ransom. Taking a ship proved too risky, even is some pirates occasionally pulled it off.

Pirates are often quite resourceful. Off Nigeria and the Malacca Strait some pirates developed more complex but much more lucrative tactics. This involves recruiting someone who knows how to find and turn off tracking devices as well as someone familiar with marine engines. Then the pirates use their own personnel or force the crew to move small tankers to remote locations where most of the cargo (of oil) can be transferred to another ship and later sold on the black market. While that sort of thing requires a lot of organization, nerve and luck there have been at several pirate gangs in Nigeria and from somewhere around the Malacca Strait (Singapore, Malaysia or Indonesia) that have figured out how to do this since 2012. Again turning large hauls into cash has proved to be an insurmountable problem for the pirates and these big scores so far always eventually backfire and result in arrests and prosecutions. For that reason most of the attacks off Nigeria and Malacca Strait are still armed robbery. Given the amount of portable electronics on a seagoing ship (both company and personal), a half dozen armed pirates can net several thousand dollars per ship hit. There are fences on shore who pay cash for this stuff and quickly move it out of the country. But stealing several thousand tons of fuel oil from a small tanker is worth a thousand times more if you can organize this sort of thing and survive the intense police investigation that will follow. A similar pattern hit the Islamic terrorist (Abu Sayyaf) pirates in the southern Philippines. In 2016 these fellows decided to go after crew members of ships and hold them for ransom in remote areas southwest Philippines (mainly Sulu and Basilan Islands). As often happened this backfired as the Philippines greatly increased the number of troops and police in that area and the neighboring countries entered into cooperative agreements that made it easier to catch pirates at sea.

While there are plenty of targets off Nigeria and the southern Philippines, there are even more near the Malacca Strait. Over 50,000 large ships moving through the Strait of Malacca each year and nearly as many of the smaller ships the pirates favor for cargo hijacking. That’s lots of targets. The 800 kilometer long strait is between Malaysia and Indonesia and is 65 kilometers wide at its narrowest and depth are generally 27-37 meters (90-120 feet). The shallow and tricky waters in the strait forces the big ships to go slow enough (under 30 kilometers an hour) for speed boats to catch them.

There’s no easy solution to the recurring piracy in the Strait of Malacca. Pirates usually function on the margins of society, trying to get a cut of the good life in situations where there aren't many options. This is usually in areas where state control is weakest or absent, in failing and "flailed" states. A flailing state is something like Nigeria, Indonesia, or the Philippines, where the government is managing to keep things together but is faced with serious problems with regions that are sometimes out of control. In a failed state there are areas where there isn't much government at all and pirates can do whatever they want most of the time. With the Strait of Malacca the problem is that there are a lot of poor (or not so poor but very ambitious) people in the area with access to boats and experience using them in the ocean. As more of these attacks succeed more people are tempted to try and more are doing that until there are several well-publicized arrests and prosecutions. The piracy dies down for a while but so far always returns.

 


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