Faced with increasing attacks, oceangoing carriers of vital oil cargoes find themselves fighting not just more pirates, but different pirates, too.
On March 13, in the Strait of Malacca off the east coast of Indonesia's war-torn Aceh province, eight pirates in a fishing boat armed with machine guns attacked a small tanker and attempted to board it. The unarmed tanker increased speed, raised alarm, and took evasive maneuvers. Pirates fired at the tanker damaging its navigation lights, accommodations, and the starboard-side lifeboat. After 15 minutes, the pirates aborted the attempt and fled.
Earlier, in February, four crew members of an oil tanker were shot dead by pirates in the Strait of Malacca after the tanker's owner failed to pay a ransom for their release. The International Maritime Bureau (IMB), part of the International Chamber of Commerce, called this a "disturbing new trend in pirate activity with attackers appearing more inclined to take the lives of sailors."
These are two of 446 incidents of ocean piracy worldwide last year. The crime is most intense in the Strait of Malacca. Some estimates are that more than a quarter of the world's trade and half its oil passes through the Strait. Obviously, this shipping is vital to the economic health of the entire Far East.
Last January, the IMB reported that pirate attacks increased in frequency and violence during 2003, with 446 incidents reported compared with 370 in 2002. The International Maritime Bureau is considered the world authority on oceanic crime; its reports are relied on by the UN and governments all over the world. It also is among the leaders in advocating and developing defensive measures for mariners.
The 446 incidents were the second highest number of attacks since the IMB Piracy Reporting Center in Kuala Lumpur started compiling statistics in 1991. The highest number was 469 incidents in 2000.
The IMB's annual report, "Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships," says 21 seafarers were known to have been killed--compared with 10 the previous year--and 71 crew and passengers were listed as missing.
The attacks in the Strait of Malacca were almost all in Indonesian waters. No attacks were reported in Malaysian waters during the last six months of the year. Figures below from IMB show the worldwide distribution.
Captain Pottengal Mukundan, Director of the IMB, said, hijackings for merchant vessels and their cargoes dramatically decreased last year. Instead, all hijackings reported were in two main categories--military-style operations by militant groups seeking to hold crew members for ransom to raise funds for their cause and attacks against soft targets such as tugs and barges.
New Brand of Piracy?
Last September, IMB's Piracy Reporting Center, warned of a "new brand" of piracy threatening the oil tankers in the Strait of Malacca. Gangs of heavily armed pirates using fishing and speed boats were targeting small oil tankers in the Strait of Malacca. IMB said the attacks follow a pattern set by Indonesian Aceh rebels.
In late July, there were three attempted boardings in less than a week off the Sumatra coast in the Strait of Malacca, one of the world's busiest sea lanes. Pirates fired automatic weapons at an LPG tanker, a gas tanker, and an oil tanker. On each occasion, preventative measures deployed by the crew thwarted the attack.
In another recent case, the Malaysian-registered tanker Penrider was carrying 1,000 tons of fuel oil aboard when she was attacked some 12 miles from Port Klang, Malaysia. The Penrider was en route from Singapore to Penang when a fishing boat containing 14 pirates wearing military-style fatigues and carrying AK-47 and M-16 assault rifles intercepted her. After robbing the crew and forcing it to sail into Indonesian waters, the pirates took the Master, Chief Engineer, and a crewman hostage, leaving the ship to continue its passage. After protracted ransom negotiations, the hostages were returned unharmed. The IMB said the attack bore all the hallmarks of the Aceh rebels.
Captain Mukundan said: "If Aceh rebels are behind the Penrider attack, we need to know...Politically motivated pirates are prepared to take greater risks to further their cause. We have seen the devastation that results from this in other parts of the world."
In October, the IMB officially warned that attacks by pirates against tankers in Indonesian waters could lead to an environmental disaster. Attacks on tankers rose to 22 percent of the total. Captain Mukundan commented, "...that these ships carrying dangerous cargoes may fall temporarily under the control of unauthorized and unqualified individuals is a matter of concern, for both environmental and safety reasons."
"In most cases the attacks are thought to be led by Aceh rebels," the IMB said. Their main purpose was to raise money to fund their separatist fight by holding hostages for ransom, it added.
Investigators were concerned that most of the attacks were within the same 30-nautical-mile radius of the rebel stronghold in Sumatra.
In defense of their ship against piracy, mariners have some new wrinkles. Two of the most promising are Secure-Ship and Ship Loc.
Secure-Ship is a non-lethal, electrifying fence surrounding the whole ship. Specially adapted for maritime use, the fence uses 9,000-volt pulse to deter boarding attempts. An intruder coming in contact with the fence receives an unpleasant non-lethal shock that will cause abandonment of the attempted boarding. At the same time an alarm goes off, activating floodlights and a very loud siren. IMB strongly recommends the device.
ShipLoc, an inexpensive satellite tracking system, allows shipping companies, armed only with a personal computer and Internet access, to monitor the exact location of their vessels. In addition to an anti-hijacking role, ShipLoc facilitates independent and precise location of ships at regular intervals. ShipLoc complies with the IMO Regulation SOLAS XI-2/6. This rule was adopted during the diplomatic conference in December 2002, requiring a Ship Security Alert System. The regulation, to be put into place this coming July, requires ships of over 500 gross tons to be equipped with an alarm that automatically sends a message to the ship owner and to competent authorities. The message is sent without being able to be detected by someone onboard or by other ships in the vicinity.
As tanker operators strive for improved safety and security against piracy, they also face new antiterrorism requirements.
Ports and shipping organizations must comply by July this year with the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code introduced by the IMO last December.
Shippers also face many other new regulations, among them the United States' 24-hour rule requiring advance manifest information to be delivered to US authorities before a cargo is loaded on ships bound for American ports.
Then there is the US Customs Container Initiative, designed to protect containerized shipping from terrorists. Recent amendments stiffen the Safety of Life at Sea Agreement (SOLAS), which covers everything from fire precautions to life-saving appliances and the stowing of dangerous goods.
With most of the crude oil in commerce moving around the world in tankers and with piracy growing and increasingly a political tactic, "The essential nature of the threat has changed," according to the words of Captain Mukundan. "Risk and potential targets used to be assessed on the basis of the intrinsic value of cargoes and the ships carrying them. That no longer applies.
"The main focus now has to be the strategic intentions of terrorist groups," he continued. "Those responsible for security of ports and ships have to put themselves in the minds of terrorists and ask: 'How attractive a target do we present in terms of terrorist objectives?'"
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