The New Piracy

Charles Glass on the High Seas

On the morning of 17 April 1998, the Singapore merchant ship Petro Ranger set sail carrying 9600 tonnes of diesel and 1200 tonnes of Jet A-1 fuel for delivery to Vietnam. Three hours beyond Singapore’s territorial waters, north of what is called the Horsburgh Light, the Petro Ranger’s Australian captain, Ken Blyth, found himself surrounded by armed men on the bridge. A dozen pirates, faces covered in balaclavas, had apparently boarded the tanker from a small craft that the crew did not see. They put a machete to Blyth’s throat, then another to his scrotum, and told him he must order the crew to surrender.

The Bangladeshi chief engineer, Mohieddin Ahmed Farooq, was in his bunk reading Time magazine. He remembers hearing men rush past his cabin. A few minutes later, a call from the engine room informed him that the men were pirates. Hoping they would just make off with cash from the ship’s safe, Farooq stayed in his cabin and turned out the lights. He waited there, until he heard Captain Blyth calling: ‘Chief, chief!’ The captain’s feet, and many others, were visible through a gap under the door. Farooq let them in. Blyth was surrounded by four or five pirates holding knives.

Farooq told me the story on the waterfront in Singapore. After what had happened he abandoned a career at sea for a desk job with the Petro Ranger’s owners, Petro Ships. He is still in his thirties, a slight, well-spoken man unaccustomed to violence. His body trembles when he describes how the pirates tied his hands and legs with rope and took him to the second mate’s cabin, where the third officer and radio officer were lying on the floor, bound hand and foot. Within half an hour, the pirates had assembled all the officers and crew and taken them to the captain’s cabin. They had become hostages at sea, where captives are more discreetly disposed of than anywhere else.

The pirates forced the engineers to show them how to operate the ship and offload the cargo. They ordered the boatswain to paint a new name, Wilby, over Petro Ranger and replaced the Singapore colours with a Honduran flag. No one would be looking for a Honduran-registered ship called the Wilby. In one of the world’s busiest waterways, the Petro Ranger had ceased to exist.

Still tied up below decks, Chief Engineer Farooq did not see two ships arrive the following afternoon. He did hear them buffet the Petro Ranger as the three vessels rolled together in the waves. They called to the chief mate to help them discharge the cargo, Farooq remembered. ‘And all of us, we are asked to stay in the cabin, not even allowed to go to the toilet. For about six or eight hours. For six hours, the other tankers loaded cargo, then they left.’ The Wilby sailed on for four more days. A compass in a crewman’s wristwatch allowed them to determine the ship’s course: north, towards China. On the fifth day, Chinese coastguards intercepted the ship to make a routine inspection. For a moment, it seemed to Farooq that the crew’s ordeal was about to end. But when the pirate chief claimed to be the ship’s captain, the Chinese indicated that everything was fine. ‘Later,’ Farooq said of the pirates, ‘they told us that they already contacted their boss, and he told them not to be worried.’ The ‘boss’, apparently, had influence. ‘He’s very powerful in this area,’ the pirates said to Farooq, ‘and he will manage everything.’ The Chinese summoned the crew on deck. ‘I thought that I’ll just disclose everything then, but, surprisingly, I saw that none of them could speak English.’

According to Farooq, the ‘boss’ had told the pirates that the Chinese would treat them as smugglers and release them with a small fine. They waited in Hankow harbour for two days. Blyth, still carefully hidden from the Chinese, realised that if the ship were cleared to sail from Hankow, it could put in at any other port with what appeared to be a valid document. ‘All the pirates had to do was kill the crew and then go to another port, sell the ship or just get away,’ Farooq told me. He and the rest of the crew were terrified that the pirates would murder them as soon as the Wilby set sail.

After midnight, Blyth and a crewman who spoke some Chinese made their way to the bridge, hoping not to be spotted by the pirates. When they got there, they explained to the Chinese guards that part of the crew and the so-called captain had hijacked the ship. In the morning, a squad of Chinese police boarded the vessel to arrest the pirates and the crew. The pirates, belying a reputation in film and legend for bravado, wept and pleaded. Farooq and the crew were not much moved. On 1 May, the Chinese informed Alan Chan, the ship’s owner in Singapore, that the Petro Ranger was safe. The crew remained in Chinese custody until 28 May, when they were allowed to leave. The Chinese confiscated what remained of the cargo – about half the total fuel on board.

The Petro Ranger, valued at $16 million, was restored to Alan Chan’s Petro Ships in Singapore, but the company lost cargo worth $2.3 million to the pirates and the Chinese authorities. Alan Chan blames the Chinese for abetting the piracy. They did not reimburse him for the cargo they seized as ‘evidence’, and they were lenient with the pirates. ‘The hijackers were arrested by the authorities,’ Chan recalls, ‘12 of them, carrying Indonesian passports. They were put behind bars for some time, I think just under a year, and surprisingly were released – no charge, no prosecution, so very disappointing.’ Chan is now a leading and lonely advocate of strict maritime security and an international naval force to escort merchant ships through the world’s most menacing waters.

The Petro Ranger’s crew were lucky. Five months later, in September 1998, the cargo ship Tenyu was taken by pirates. In due course it fetched up in the Chinese port of Zhangjiagang with a new Indonesian crew: its original crew of two officers and 13 sailors were presumed dead. And on 16 November 1998, another pirate gang hijacked the Chang Sheng. The ship was transporting coal cinders from Malaysia to Shanghai. The pirates dragged all 23 crew members on deck, placed rubbish bags over their heads and beat and stabbed them to death. They weighted the bodies and dumped them in the South China Sea. The murders were discovered when six mutilated corpses were dredged up in fishing nets. Fifteen of the dead seamen had been members of the Chinese Communist Party. The Chinese authorities apprehended the pirates – they had taken photographs of themselves celebrating the ship’s capture. Like the pirates who seized the Petro Ranger, they believed their powerful boss would protect them. He didn’t. After a trial in which the photographs were submitted in evidence, the Shanwei Intermediate People’s Court sentenced 13 of them to death. The ‘boss’, a powerful Indonesian Chinese businessman known as David Wong, was arrested in Indonesia and sent to prison for six years.

Wong is by no means the only boss. Sony Wei, the leader of the pirates who hijacked the Chang Sheng, spoke, in the course of his testimony, of working for another Indonesian Chinese businessman, a close friend of the former Indonesian dictator, General Suharto, for almost forty years. Piracy, like crime on terra firma, has its great syndicates and its petty criminals. On the high seas, neither is an easy catch.

After the sentencing of the Chang Sheng’s 38 pirates, the incidence of piracy in Chinese waters, as well as official Chinese tolerance of pirates, declined. Almost everywhere else, piracy is soaring.

Ninety-five per cent of the world’s cargo travels by sea. Without the merchant marine, the free market would collapse and take Wall Street’s dream of a global economy with it. Yet no one, apart from ship owners, their crews and insurers, appears to notice that pirates are assaulting ships at a rate unprecedented since the glorious days when pirates were ‘privateers’ protected by their national governments. The 18th and 19th-century sponsors of piracy included England, Holland, France, Spain and the United States. In comparison, the famed Barbary corsairs of North Africa were an irritant. Raiding rivals’ merchant vessels went out of fashion after the Napoleonic Wars, and piracy was outlawed in the 1856 Declaration of Paris (never signed by the US). Since the end of the Cold War, it has been making a comeback. Various estimates are given of its cost to international trade. The figure quoted most often is the Asia Foundation’s $16 billion per annum lost in cargo, ships and rising insurance premiums.

The International Maritime Bureau (IMB), which collects statistics on piracy for ship owners, reports that five years ago pirates attacked 106 ships. Last year they attacked 370. This year looks worse still. In the first nine months, there were 344 attacks, up from 271 for the same period in 2002. Twenty crewmen have been murdered so far this year, up from six a year ago. If violent crime increased more than 300 per cent in five years in New York or London, the public would demand urgent police action. At sea, where the only lives lost are those of poor seafarers from the Third World, no one cares.

‘Piracy is a historical problem,’ said Rahan Gunaratna of Singapore’s Institute for Defence and Strategic Studies. ‘It is rooted in these societies.’ In waters where piracy flourished in the past, the tradition embodied in figures such as Captain Kidd has persisted: off the Ganges delta in Bangladesh, in the Java and South China Seas, off the Horn of Africa and in the Caribbean. Three conditions appear necessary: a tradition of piracy; political instability; and rich targets – Spanish galleons for Drake, oil tankers for his descendants. A fourth helps to explain the ease with which it happens: ‘The maritime environment,’ Gunaratna said, ‘is the least policed in the world today.’

The IMB has not been able to persuade the international community or the more powerful maritime states to take serious action. The Bureau’s director, Captain Pottengal Mukundan, believes there is nothing crews can do to protect themselves. National maritime laws are not enforced beyond national boundaries – which is to say, over more than half the earth’s surface. Beyond territorial waters, there are no laws, no police and no jurisdiction. Many countries lack the will or the resources to police even their own waters. The IMB advises all ships against putting in anywhere near states like Somalia, for instance, where there is a near certainty of attack. Just after I spoke to Captain Mukundan at IMB headquarters in Essex, he released a new report: ‘Despite all the information now available on piratical attacks,’ it says, ‘there are hardly any cases where these attackers are arrested and brought to trial.’ Piracy is a high-profit, low-risk activity.

The IMB urges crews to take more precautions, but owners can’t afford every recommended improvement: satellite-tracking devices, closed circuit cameras, electric fencing and security officers on every ship. Owners and trade unions discourage the arming of merchant ships in the belief that firearms will put crews’ lives at greater risk. Only the Russians and the Israelis are known to keep weapons aboard. Competition in the shipping business forces owners to minimise expenditure on crews as on everything else. A commission of inquiry into the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill that nearly destroyed the Alaskan coast reported that ‘tankers in the 1950s carried a crew of 40 to 42 to manage about 6.3 million gallons of oil . . . the Exxon Valdez carried a crew of 19 to transport 53 million gallons of oil.’[*] With the automation of many shipboard tasks, vessels today carry even fewer seamen than they did when the Exxon Valdez ran aground. That means fewer eyes to monitor the horizon and the decks for intruders. ‘It is no secret that the vast majority of ships at sea are being run at their minimum safe manning level,’ the British National Union of Marine, Aviation and Shipping Transport Officers reported two years ago. ‘Telling crews to carry out extra watches, additional patrols, special lockouts, and to practise and prepare countermeasures is all very well – but it may be meaningless if there are not sufficient people to put the measures into place.’

Although the shipping world is demanding protection, neither the United Nations nor the United States sees piracy as a priority. The American Government’s concern for seafarers’ security is no greater than its attention to the health and safety of industrial and mining workers in the United States, where protective regulations are vanishing in the quest for easier profits. The only way to make Washington, and thus the rest of the maritime world, take notice is to project a connection between the pirate enemy and global terrorism. The connection is not far fetched.

Private security firms, such as Tim Spicer’s Aegis in London and British-American Defence Ltd in Dubai, have been warning for the past few years that a seaborne terrorist attack is inevitable. The IMB and the US Coast Guard, charged with protecting American ports from attack, concur. Air and land transport routes have come under tighter scrutiny since 11 September 2001, but improvements to maritime security are few. An oil tanker can carry a load that is far, far more explosive than any civil aircraft. And most piracy, including the seizure of oil tankers, takes place near countries with powerful Islamist movements – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Yemen and Somalia. Lloyd’s List reported on 4 November that Indonesia is ‘the global black spot’ with 87 attacks in the first nine months of this year – ‘the number of attacks in the Malacca Straits leaped from 11 in 2002 to 24 this year.’ Indonesia, which consists of two thousand islands, is the world’s most populous Muslim country. It has experienced decades of repression by a kleptocratic military, communal violence and the degradation of a once vibrant economy. Radical Islamists have made it the focus of their activity and recruitment in Asia.

Poor Indonesians who want money may become thieves on land or sea, while those who want change become Muslim fundamentalists – Indonesia put an end to secular dissent in 1965 when General Suharto massacred at least half a million suspected Communists and leftists. There are already indications that a major terrorist incursion against the West or one of its satellites will come from the sea. The use of machine-guns, mother ships and attack craft suggests that modern pirates are either in the military or have had military training. Naval patrols from Indonesia’s more remote islands, where the Navy has traditionally complained that the Army takes all the spoils, have participated in pirate attacks. Some pirates have abseiled down from helicopters onto ships. The business has become too lucrative to leave to amateurs, and the targets are too tempting for anyone to assume terrorists will ignore them.

Recently, and ominously, the seizure of ships has failed to conform to established patterns. In February and March armed pirates fired on two chemical tankers, the Suhailaand and the Oriental Salvia, from speedboats off the Indonesian coast. Dominic Armstrong, a maritime specialist at Aegis, is particularly alarmed by a pirate attack on the Indonesian tanker Dewi Madrim in April. ‘They were fully armed with automatic weapons,’ he says of the perpetrators, ‘which is a departure from the norm. They went straight to the bridge rather than the safe room. And instead of ransacking the crew’s goods’ – or indeed harming the crew – ‘they steered a laden tanker for an hour through the Malacca Straits . . . The implication is that what we’re seeing in this northern stretch of the Malacca Straits is the equivalent of a flight training school for terrorists.’ Once acquired, the steering and navigating skills ‘could be deployed to block any major trading route in the world’.

Rear Admiral Kevin Eldridge of the US Coast Guard is alert to the danger of a chemical tanker being run into a bridge or other target near a large population centre. As the commander of the Pacific Ocean’s Eleventh District, Eldridge has, among other responsibilities, to protect the Golden Gate Bridge from an attack by sea. The US has increased the notification period for large ships entering American harbours from 48 to 96 hours, and the Coast Guard has established six SWAT teams. Is it likely that some organisation would ram a chemical tanker or a barge loaded with explosives into San Francisco or some other American port city? ‘Is it likely?’ Admiral Eldridge says. ‘It’s likely enough for us to put a lot of effort into planning for it.’ Little effort goes into preventing pirates from seizing ships, however. If al-Qaida operatives copied the Petro Ranger scenario, taking a ship and masquerading as its captain and crew, they could come into any port in the world in exactly the same way as the Petro Ranger cruised into Hankow. ‘Frankly,’ Eldridge concedes, ‘if we have a vessel in our port that’s a problem – it’s too late.’

Political violence at sea is already a fact. On 7 October 1985, Palestinian gunmen hijacked the Italian passenger liner Achille Lauro and murdered an American passenger. In the same year, French intelligence agents detonated a bomb that killed a photographer aboard the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand. ETA operatives were caught plotting to bomb ferries from the Spanish mainland to Britain and to Majorca. Tamil Tigers have often attacked ships in Sri Lankan waters. In 2000 the Abu Sayyaf group, as well as kidnapping and murdering foreigners and Christian Filipinos, blew up a ferry and killed 45 passengers and crew.[†] Muslim extremists attempted to blow up the USS Sullivans in January 2000, and succeeded in ramming a suicide craft into the USS Cole in Yemen nine months later. A similar assault on the French oil tanker Limburg on 6 October 2002 near the Yemeni shore killed one crewman and set alight 55,000 tonnes of crude oil. Only a few days before the Limburg attack, Internet ads invited ships in the area to join convoys for mutual protection – a practice that had faded with the end of U-Boat attacks during World War Two. In Indonesian waters, the separatist Free Aceh Movement (known by the initials GAM for its Indonesian name, Gerakin Aceh Merdeka) has taken ships and exchanged hostages for ransom. In August this year, three crew from the oil tanker Penrider were released after payment of $100,000. The Malaysian Government says the money went to the GAM, which GAM officials deny. The GAM attacked Indonesia’s Exxon Mobil Arun gas processing plant in 2001, forcing it to shut down for five months. And it has announced that merchant ships must seek its permission to sail through the Malacca Straits.

Security officials in Washington and Singapore dispute which country first spotted the Islamists arrested in December 2001 who seemed to be planning to blow up the American Embassy, US Navy ships, the British Consulate, the Australian High Commission, public transport stations and foreign business offices in Singapore. Singapore police said they had the cell under observation for a year before US Intelligence shared its information with them. At the time of the American invasion of Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance discovered, amid the rubble of a bombed house in Kabul, a reconnaissance videotape shot in Singapore which showed high-profile targets marked for destruction. The Alliance passed the tape on to US Intelligence, who informed the Singaporeans of its existence on 14 December 2001. Singapore police then arrested and interrogated 13 suspected Muslim radicals. Police in Malaysia arrested another 22; four more were apprehended in the Philippines. By 28 December, when the US provided Singapore with a copy of their tape, the Singaporeans had located the master tape. It had been among the maps, documents, false passports and doctored immigration stamps in one of the suspects’ houses. The twenty-minute tape, containing grainy pictures taken between 1997 and 1999 of diplomatic missions and American warships in Singapore’s naval harbour, was broadcast on Singapore television. A voice describing the targets and suggesting ways to bomb them belonged to one of those arrested, 40-year-old Hashim bin Abas. All the local suspects were bona fide Singaporean citizens, six were military reservists. Singapore police said they belonged to Jemaa Islamiya, some of whose operatives had trained with al-Qaida in Afghanistan. They also learned that the suspects had attempted to purchase 21 tonnes of ammonium nitrate for attacks on Singapore. (Between one and two tonnes of ammonium nitrate destroyed the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.) The four tonnes that the group actually bought have disappeared from a warehouse, and police still don’t know where they went. The other 17 tonnes, due to be sent to Singapore by sea, probably never arrived.

Before all this happened, Singapore had imagined it was an unlikely target for Islamic extremists. Its Malay Muslims, a small minority in an ethnic Chinese republic, were assumed to be loyal to Singapore’s secular and authoritarian regime. The Singapore Straits which divide the country from Indonesia are said to be the most secure of the world’s great waterways, and Singapore is unusual among sea states in having no piracy at all. A dozen Singaporean Naval vessels with names like RSS Freedom, Victory, Valiant and Dauntless patrol the Straits day and night to protect merchant shipping. Looking like larger versions of the American PT boats that cruised the South Seas in the Second World War, Singapore’s patrol craft guard the trade on which the island-state’s prosperity depends. Singapore has the world’s largest and perhaps most efficient container port, where cargo can be taken off one ship and stowed aboard another within 24 hours. Its oil refinery and farms of storage tanks disburse petroleum products to much of South-East Asia. The port and refinery form part of the city skyline and are within walking distance for Singapore’s three million or more inhabitants. About two hundred ships pass through here each day, carrying more than half the world’s oil exports and a quarter of all its cargo.

Singapore’s gooseneck of territorial water opens onto treacherous seas. To the south is Indonesia, one of the world’s most turbulent countries. To the north-west lie the Malacca Straits, five hundred miles of international water, bordered by Malaysia to the north and Indonesia to the south, which are barely policed. Beyond the eastern flank of the Singapore Straits are the Java and South China Seas, notorious pirate hunting grounds during times of international disorder. The tiny Republic at the tip of the Malay Peninsula is Asia’s Fort Apache in a watery wilderness, a fortified coach stop for ships traversing the long, undefended seas between Singapore and the Suez Canal to the west or Shanghai in the east.

In recent times, pirates have found refuge in tiny inlets along the shores of the Malacca Straits and on remote islands in the Java Sea. In the past they launched occasional, mostly non-violent raids from there, usually with the aim of grabbing the crew’s cash. Now, here as elsewhere, they carry machetes, automatic weapons and navigation equipment. Merchant vessels sail undefended against pirates who hijack oil and gas tankers, seize containers from cargo ships and murder entire crews without fear of capture; and they are doing so more often, with better weapons and in faster vessels, than at any time in the modern era.

Aboard the Freedom, officers and men wear a breast patch with the motto ‘We will prevail.’ The Freedom is cruising the Singapore Straits on a clear morning, followed closely by the identical Independence. Rear Admiral Sim Gim Guan, head of Singapore Naval operations, tells me that pirates used to launch raids in Singapore’s waters. Then, in 1992, the country increased its Naval strength, ran more patrols and inspected more ships. For the past five years, he says, Singapore has suffered no acts of piracy. Its Navy has prevailed, but only in this minuscule stretch of water. A few miles away in the Malacca Straits, he tells me, a Taiwanese fishing vessel was recently attacked by pirates armed with machine-guns – several hundred rounds were fired. Singapore has not stopped piracy so much as confined it to its neighbours’ backyards. From the deck of the Freedom, we do not need binoculars to see Indonesia’s Bintan and Batam islands. David Wong oversaw the seizure of the Chang Sheng and the murder of its crew from Bintan, a place as poor as Singapore is rich.

The Singaporean maritime authorities, Dominic Armstrong of Aegis and Rear Admiral Eldridge all take the view that the rising tides of piracy and Muslim extremism will soon meet: that a terrorist will become a pirate, seize an oil tanker and steer it at full speed into a refinery or port. Tony Tan, Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister and Co-ordinating Minister for Security and Defence, is worried that Singapore is already a prime target for terrorists. ‘If the terrorists are not able to attack targets on land, because we have hardened these, or in the air, because we now have air marshals and our airlines are taking precautions, the next alternative,’ he says, ‘is to attack targets at sea.’ They could ‘hijack a ship, ram it into a port and cause a great deal of damage’. Is this, I asked, just a possibility or a serious worry? ‘We are not looking at it as a possibility. We are looking at it as an event which is likely to happen and we are taking precautions against it.’ Tan was involved in the investigation that led to the December 2001 arrests of Singapore Islamists. ‘These terrorists,’ he says, ‘while they may be fanatical, are not irrational.’

On 6 December 1917 the French munitions carrier Mont Blanc collided with the Merchant ship Imo in the port of Halifax, Nova Scotia. The explosion in the Mont Blanc’s powder magazines destroyed Halifax harbour and more than three hundred acres of city buildings. Nineteen hundred people died, and another nine thousand sustained serious injuries. Singapore, with a much larger population in a more confined space, would sustain tens of thousands of casualties. Many of the Republic’s 17,000 American residents and other foreigners would leave. Merchant ships would not be able to dock for months or years. The Singapore Straits would have to close, interrupting half the world’s oil exports. Insurance rates would force shipping companies to take longer and more expensive routes far to the south of the Malacca Straits. Japan’s oil supply, 80 per cent of which passes through the Malacca Straits, would be jeopardised, as would China’s exports to Asia. If Western consumers refused to pay the greater cost of shipping clothes and trainers stitched in the East, Western corporations would pay less to seamstresses in Indonesia and Malaysia. More poverty would push people to robbery, on land and sea, or awaken them to the Islamist call to redress the balance of power with the secular West.

Military adventures further American business interests. Halliburton becomes an East India Company running portions of Iraq. Bechtel disburses contracts to be paid from Iraqi oil revenues. Third World economies and former state services become the preserves of Securicor, American Medical International and Monsanto. The subjugated watch their masters to see how it is done. The American way of life is dividing people into two ‘communities’ – those on the inside and those on the outside. Afghanistan, Iraq, Colombia, the city ghettos of the Western world and the frontier badlands of Russia are more restive than ever. So are the oceans. America constructs nuclear shields in space, fortifies its borders and patrols its coasts. The barbarians are at the gates, and shortly they will be at the harbour walls, but they are inside, too – washing the dishes, shoplifting and, occasionally, beating someone to death to pay for a fix. If Washington’s war on terror does for Islamic extremism what its war on drugs did for the drug barons, we may all end up praying towards Mecca.

[*] Quoted in Dangerous Waters: Modern Piracy and Terror on the High Seas by John Burnett (Plume, 368 pp., $14, October, 0 452 28413 9).

[†] ‘Terror Attacks Threaten Gulf’s Oil Routes’, Jane’s Intelligence Review, 1 December 2002.