Sea Transportation: Pirates Forced To Scramble For Less

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September 10, 2015: Worldwide piracy has become a less expensive problem since 2013 and most of the activity has moved to the coasts of Malaysia and Indonesia and areas near the Malacca Strait. In the first eight months of 2015 some 80 percent of the pirate attacks on the planet occurred in this area. That comes to nearly ten attacks a month. Nearly all of them are robberies of the crew and stealing of portable valuables. The crewmen are usually not hurt and based on their experience it appears most of the pirates come from Malaysia and Indonesia and are largely amateurs. There were some professionals in action in 2014. These fellows 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 are gone, in part because theft that large leaves a trail that police and intelligence agencies can pick up and follow. Now Malaysia and Indonesia have joined efforts 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 can disappear into the one of the many coves or villages that dot the Malaysian and Indonesian coasts. Police are also seeking the middlemen (“fences”) who buy the valuable (and portable) electronics these “grab and go” pirates prefer. If you find the fence you can often find his suppliers. In any event these robber pirates are more numerous and being amateurs can quickly drop out and, as far as the police are concerned “disappear.” Some of these small time pirates are believed to have been in the business, on and off, for over a decade. The police want to make some arrests and well publicized prosecutions (and convictions) to discourage many of these amateur pirates from returning to robbery.

This sort of thing is part of a pattern that evolved even before an international effort to suppress Somali piracy succeeded in the last few years. 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 that 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 occasionally take some ship officers with them to hold for ransom.

But off Nigeria and the Malacca Strait some pirates have 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 least two pirate gangs, one in Nigeria and another from somewhere around the Malacca Strait (Singapore, Malaysia or Indonesia) that have figured out how to do this since 2012 . Nevertheless 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.

While there are plenty of targets off Nigeria, 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 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. Speeding along next to a huge tanker or container ship at night in the Strait of Malacca and using a grappling hook or very tall ladder to get aboard is not for the faint of heart or anyone with no experience on the water. But as more of these attacks succeed more people are tempted to try and more are doing that. Many pirates don’t take those risks and go after the many large ships that are moored off the straits for one reason or another. Because of the pirate risk these ships tend to cluster together in areas regularly patrolled by police and coast guard.

 

 


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