Crime on the high seas: The world’s most pirated waters

SINGAPORE – The Ai Maru steamed alone under night skies on June 14 when a speedboat slipped in from the darkness and overtook the tanker about 30 miles off the coast of Malaysia. At 9:15 p.m., seven men with handguns and knives clambered up over the side, smashed through doors, tied up crew members at gunpoint and bashed the Ai Maru’s communications equipment.

The attackers stripped the 13 crew members of their personal belongings, locked them in a room and spent the next eight hours getting to the real work at hand: stealing the cargo. A second tanker, this one piloted by more pirates, pulled alongside. The maritime robbers siphoned a total of 620 metric tons of marine gas oil from Ai Maru to their own ship.


At 5 a.m., when naval and coast guard vessels arrived at the Ai Maru, dead in the water with its lights glowing, the pirates were long gone. Their total haul, at black market fuel prices, came in at about $550,000.

Welcome to the world’s most dangerous waters, where a whole new style of piracy is rewriting the playbook of maritime crime. The attack on the Ai Maru, which was documented by¬†ReCAAP, a multinational body that combats piracy, and the¬†International Chamber of Commerce’s International Maritime Bureau¬†(IMB), is a textbook example of the piracy plaguing the seas of the Singapore Strait and Strait of Malacca-the world’s busiest commercial waterway.

Unlike the Somali pirates-who, incidentally, are now almost out of business-the pirates of southern Asia rarely, if ever, seize hostages. They’re in the business of stealing cargoes of liquid fuel. And they’re often not small-time, ad hoc gangs from coastal villages like the Somali crews. Instead, experts say, they’re highly organized criminal enterprises that gather intelligence, coordinate attacks, work in discrete teams, sometimes have their own tankers and then sell what they steal to big, pre-arranged buyers.

“The the Horn of Africa is slowing down because the cop is on the beat there,” said Richard Phillips, the subject of the Oscar-nominated film “Captain Phillips” and the real-life ex-captain of the Maersk Alabama, which was taken by Somalian pirates in 2009. “But Indonesia is a target-rich environment, with lots of vessels. And there’s definitely cooperation from onshore that helps these pirates who are out there.”

From a business standpoint, the boom in south Asian piracy makes a lot of sense. A third of the world’s shipping moves through the Strait of Malacca and Singapore Strait each year, including most trade between Europe and China, and nearly all the crude oil that moves from the Persian Gulf to the big Asian economies like China, Japan and South Korea. About 130,000 vessels arrive in Singapore each year alone, according to both Singaporean and international estimates. That breaks down to a ship entering the strait every four minutes. And the global trade that flows through that bottleneck-only 1.7 miles wide at its narrowest point-is growing.

The great majority of those vessels make it to their destination without any problems. The Singapore Strait is in no danger of shutting down. But the number of attacks is on the rise. There were 125 pirate attacks reported in the region in 2013, triple the number from 2009. (Over the same period, attacks off the Horn of Africa shrank from 197 to 13.)

And even those estimates from Asia are conservative. Only a minority of attacks are reported, experts contend, since handing over such information is voluntary, and many shippers don’t want their names associated with lost cargoes or a perception of lax security.

But the costs of piracy extend far beyond the actual vessels that are attacked. The U.S. Merchant Marine estimates that global piracy costs shippers $4.9 billion to $8.3 billion a year. Half of the world’s attacks now take place in the waters off Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia.

Those higher costs come in the form of lost cargo, higher insurance, added shipping times, extra compensation to crews, litigation and legal fees. Even cruising faster in an effort to discourage pirates adds costs. (Pirates prefer their targets “low and slow,” in the parlance of the shipping trade.) Jon Helmick, a captain with the¬†United States Merchant Marine Academy, overseen by the Maritime Administration at the Department of Transportation, said that cruising at 17.9 knots in a supertanker, versus the typical 12.8 knots, adds an extra $88,000 in fuel expense per ship per day.

Those extra costs inevitably get passed on to consumers in the increasingly interconnected global markets, where losses in one part of the world affect costs in another. And while it’s impossible to quantify exactly how much more Americans pay for regular consumer goods as a result of piracy and higher shipping costs, it’s worth considering that more than 90 percent of the world’s trade is carried by sea, according the United Nations’ International Maritime Organization.

As the example of the Ai Maru shows, pirates in the Strait of Malacca and Singapore Strait prefer tactics that are very different from the chasing, seizing and kidnapping that were employed in the past by Somali pirates on the Maersk Alabama and hundreds of other targets.

Maritime bandits in south Asia prefer stealth, and they make money by selling what they steal, not by ransoming seafarers. But that doesn’t mean that hair-raising confrontations with a high possibility of violence don’t occur from time to time.

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