The pirates are back in force in one of the world’s key choke-point waterways, the Malacca Strait, after a rare two-month lull afforded by Southeast Asia’s tsunami. Only their tactics have changed. DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports from maritime watchdog sources that three serious attacks were carried out in last two weeks – all kidnaps for ransom; the ships were allowed to sail on, their cargoes and property untouched.
The 24-mile wide channel is used by 50,000 ships a year carrying a third of world trade and half its oil supplies, including almost all of Japan and China’s energy imports from the Persian Gulf.
Malacca Strait is the pirates’ favorite hunting ground and Japanese vessels their favorite prey.
Monday, March 14, fourteen armed pirates in three fishing boats closed in on and boarded the Japanese-registered tug, the 323 gt Idaten, and kidnapped the Japanese master and chief engineer and Filipino chief officer. The vessel and rest of the crew were not harmed. But the tug’s crew came under fire when they sent out a distress signal which the International Maritime Bureau in Kuala Lumpur picked up. The IBM was able to track the vessel’s position because it was fitted with a ShipLoc satellite tracking device, an anti-piracy innovation of the last two or three years. The Malaysian marine police dispatched patrol craft to intercept the pirates and their captives, but were too late.
A deeply-concerned Tokyo asked Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore for help to rescue the three hostages. Indonesia, which has been repeatedly criticized for not doing enough to capture the pirates, sent three warships to the Malacca Strait to hunt them down.
Jakarta is equally troubled.
Two days earlier, a gang of 35 pirates armed with machine guns and rocket launchers seized a fully-laden Indonesian gas tanker the Mt Tri Samudra in the same waterway, rekindling fears of a terrorist attack. The ship was released but the captain and chief engineer were kidnapped for ransom and negotiations for their release are underway. That made five seamen abducted in three days in the strategic Malacca Strait.
Though piracy at sea fell by one-third worldwide in 2004, maritime violence in the Malacca Strait witnessed a rise – 37 attacks, up from 28 in 2003, with 36 seamen kidnapped, four killed and three injured.
When is a pirate a maritime terrorist?
With rising Islamic fundamentalism in the region, concerns about maritime terrorism are high. Indeed, the Indonesian ship’s owners believe the pirates were rebels from the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) of the northern part of Sumatra island who are fighting for independence – an added incentive for Jakarta to catch them.
But the IMB believes the attack was perpetrated by pirates and notes their modus operandi was the same as previous hijackings in the Strait.
At the same time, the cargo of methane gas is highly flammable, sparking fears that terrorists could hijack a similar type of small tanker and turn it into a floating bomb. A shipping expert said the 1,289-tonne Mt Tri Samudra tanker’s size and shallow draft would make it ideal for causing devastating explosions inside many ports and refineries.
Noel Choong, regional manager of the IBM’s Piracy Reporting Center, commented: “If this is a terrorist attack, it will have severe consequences for port security in the region. It looks as though they are becoming very daring and they are moving away from the normal coastal attacks towards the open sea and towards Malaysian water.”
Malaysia announced March 11 that it would boost security in the Malacca Strait with a 24-hour radar system. Deputy prime minister Najib Razak promised a new maritime enforcement agency would be operational by the end of the year to improve security in the Strait.
The Malacca Strait’s three littoral nations, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore last year began coordinated patrols of the waterway after Japan and Western countries complained that there was little stop terrorists hijacking a tanker and blowing it up to block the vital channel and disrupt world trade. However, Indonesia is flatly against foreign militaries or navies helping guard the Malacca Strait against terrorist attacks. None of the coastal states want to see outside powers conducting naval patrols in their waters. They say their own coordinated patrols are enough.
International cooperation is beginning to improve. The 1988 Rome Convention on the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation by Asian and ASEAN countries made piracy an extraterritorial crime and removed the issue of jurisdiction.
The ICC Commercial Crime Division of the International Chamber of Commerce, which issues a weekly piracy report, lists perilous waters this week as being the Gulf of Aden, Southern Red Sea, Somali and West African waters – in addition to the standing hazards of the Malacca Strait.
Rocket launchers instead of cutlasses
Piracy researchers are sometimes hard put to detect where piracy at sea ends and terrorism or organized crime begins. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s maritime and counter-terror experts note that all three depend equally on complex infrastructure on land. There is undoubtedly a certain amount of recycling, overlapping and subcontracting.
Today’s pirate would not know a skull and crossbones if he saw one or recognize an old-time buccaneer. To ply his trade he needs not cutlasses but automatic weapons, rocket-launchers and explosives. Hijackings are carried out by large seaborne gangs who depend on corrupt port officials and accomplices on land for escape routes, forged papers, brokers for stolen cargoes and a support system, in other words machinery on the same scale as that used by terrorist organizations and international crime alike.
Stolen vessels are repainted, reregistered and renamed several times over and need large spaces for the work. There is no doubt that some of the pirate gangs work to contract for hidden clients, whether terrorist masters or crooks.
They do not always have it their way – even in this fairly bad week. On March 11, three boatloads of pirates attempted to board a bulk carrier in the Singapore Straits. The crew raised the alarm, trained fire hoses on the assailants and switched on deck lights. The boarding attempt was aborted.
On March 8, 30 miles off the Yemeni coast in the Gulf of Aden, two fast boats with four men in each approached two yachts and opened fire at the cockpits. The crew of one yacht returned fire and wounded one pirate. One yacht then rammed one of the pirate boats and the attackers fled, leaving the yachts with bullet holes and damaged hulls but no casualties.
More anti-piracy devices are coming on the market in addition to the ShipLoc device fitted on the Japanese tug attacked last week.
SecureShip is a non-lethal, electrifying fence surrounding the whole ship which uses a 9,000-volt pulse to deter hostile boarding parties, and switches on an alarm, floodlights and a very loud siren.
The Inventus UAV is a state-of-the-art reconnaissance system packaged in flying wing form. Outfitted with cameras, this drone is customized to fly over large expanses of ocean and relay a real-time data link back to the ground station for early warnings of suspect craft movements.