Sea Transportation: Piracy Gets Lucrative Again


August 19, 2014: Recently there was another piracy incident near the Malacca Strait. On July 15th pirates boarded the MT Oriental Glory, an 85 meter (276 feet) long tanker going from Singapore to Borneo with a valuable cargo; 2,500 tons of marine (for ship engines) diesel. The cargo was worth over two million dollars and the pirates got it all. The small tanker was missing for several days because the pirates had someone with them who knew how to disable the communications systems and disable the engines. The pirates apparently had another tanker or barge standing by to offload the marine diesel. The pirates also looted the ship of any portable valuables but simply locked up the crew of fifteen. Three crewmen were slightly injured during the nighttime takeover. This was the ninth such pirate attack since April and police believe it is the same gang. These pirates are well organized, apparently research their targets carefully and use competent people to board the target ships at night and quickly overwhelm the crew. These pirates are armed but disciplined and don’t fire unless they have to. The pirates know that as long as they don’t kill anyone there will not be a major police effort to hunt them down.

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. 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.

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.






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