SOMALI pirates are in the news again.
Kidnappings, ship hijacks, a run-in with the Australian navy and a Tom Hanks movie have put them back in the spotlight.
But, despite several high profile incidents off the Horn of Africa, the lawless brigands terrorising shipping heading in and out of the Suez Canal are not the worst offenders on the high seas.
The worst area for piracy is right on Australia’s doorstep.
Shipping industry figures show that the waters around Indonesia and the Malay Peninsula is the world’s hotspot for pirates.
And, in an ominous development, a third force of pirates is emerging off the west coast of Africa.
The Somalis may get all the press, but their heavily-armed rivals off the coasts of Indonesia, have been hard at work, boarding ships, terrorising crews and stealing what they can.
Indonesia has experienced a more than 50 per cent surge in pirate attacks in the first half of 2013. Of the 48 attacks reported, 43 involved pirates boarding vessels and assaulting the crew, the International Maritime Bureau announced.
Most incidents took place in the waters around the Riau province, particularly around the ports in Dumai and Belawan
In just the seven days up to October 25, three ships have been attacked in Indonesian waters alone.
Other attacks were recorded in the Singapore Straits, in Malaysian waters, in the Straits of Malacca and in the Philippines
This compares to just eight off Somalia in the same period.
Crews have been held at gunpoint, tied up and valuables stolen.
The masked bandits usually armed with machetes and sometimes guns, creep aboard at night or just before dawn when the vessels are at anchor. They go about their business and speed away to the jungles of Sumatra or Java.
And it’s not just South-East Asia and Somalia. The west coast of Africa is fast becoming a piracy hotspot, with a string of shipping attacks over the past year
In the latest incident, pirates attacked a commercial ship near the coast of Nigeria and kidnapped two US mariners last week.
The captain and an engineer were taken away from the offshore supply vessel C-Retriever during an attack in international waters off the Gulf of Guinea.
The International Maritime Bureau charts piracy around the globe.
It warns that armed pirates in the Gulf of Guinea took 56 sailors hostage and were responsible for all 30 crew kidnappings reported so far in 2013. One person was reported killed and at least another five injured. Attacks off Nigeria accounted for 22 of the region’s 31 incidents and 28 of the crew kidnappings.
In its latest report, released last week, it says that¬†piracy has hit its lowest levels in seven years.
Despite that, in the first nine months of 2013, pirates hijacked 10 vessels, fired at 17, and boarded 140. A further 21 attacks were thwarted. In total 266 crew were taken hostage and 34 kidnapped. One seafarer was killed, twenty were injured, and one is reported missing.
The clampdown by navies off Somalia had been the main reason for the fall in attacks there.
Even the Australian navy has been involved,¬†with sailors from the HMAS Melbourne chasing and capturing a pirate crew¬†last month.
The chase resembled scenes in Captain Phillips, the new Tom Hanks movie based on based on the five-day hijacking ordeal of an American cargo ship captain in 2009.
Captain Richard Phillips was steering the¬†Maersk Alabama¬†towards Kenya when it was boarded by four heavily-armed Somali pirates. Not getting what they wanted on board, the pirates took Phillips hostage, bundling him into the ship’s lifeboat and heading for the Somali coast.
SO, WHERE IS PIRACY A PROBLEM?
Shipping industry experts say piracy is moving back to its former heartland in the seas around Indonesia.
As fuel becomes one of shipping’s biggest expenses, pirates are targeting valuable cargoes of highly saleable and easily transferred oil – in some cases operating on the high seas as floating pumps for below-cost stolen bunker oil that is transferred from ship to ship.
“The statistics would seem to suggest it’s on the rise in Asia,” an industry source from a Hong Kong-based ship management company told¬†CNN¬†earlier this year.
“It’s now very dangerous for slow vessels with low freeboards to pass through piracy areas.”
Pirates have favoured Southeast Asian waters for centuries, picking off traders who sailed through the Straits of Malacca to and from India and China. Estimates suggest that around one-third of the world’s trade still moves through this waterway, so it is no surprise that piracy continues to thrive there.
Boat people fleeing Vietnam after the war were routinely targeted by merciless gangs who murdered and raped at will – showing no mercy even to small children.
SOMALIA and THE GULF OF ADEN
Since Somalia’s devastating civil war kicked off in the early 1990s, the country has become lawless and the scourge of pirates greater.
While attacks have dropped significantly in recent years, this is due to the increased military action on suspected skiffs, military land based anti piracy operations and an increase in armed guards on-board ships, The¬†IMB¬†reports.
Somali pirates is to attack ships in the northern, eastern and southern coast of Somalia using “mother vessels” to launch attacks at very far distance from coast. These “mother vessels” are usually hijacked dhows or ocean going fishing vessels and are able to launch smaller boats or skiffs to attack and hijack unsuspecting passing vessels.
Farther north, towards Yemen and the Gulf of Aden and the entrance to the Suez Canal, a safe passage has been established since 2009. The Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC) is patrolled by warships and planes to provide protection.
Piracy off the coast of West Africa has now overtaken Somali piracy.
In 2012, 966 sailors were attacked in West Africa, compared with 851 off the Somali coast.
West African pirates mostly steal fuel cargo and the crews’ possessions, often resorting to extreme violence.
Five of the 206 hostages seized last year off West Africa were killed. One has been killed this year.
The IMB warns that the waters off Nigeria are very risky. “Pirates are often violent and have attacked, hijacked and robbed vessels / kidnapped crews along the coast, rivers, anchorages, ports and surrounding waters,” it says.
Their target is usually oil.
The waters off Togo, Benin and the Ivory Coast are also at risk.
“Attacks in the region remain a cause of concern. Pirates in the area are well armed, violent and dangerous,” an¬†IMB report warns.
WHAT CAN CAPTAINS AND CREW DO?
It may sound like something from the 17th century, when buccaneers plundered the Spanish Main, but modern counter-piracy tactics include ringing the deck with razor wire, equipping freeboard areas with spiked fences, mesh grills on the bridge to deter RPG attacks, steam-jet nozzles and even strategic placement of dummies to make the ship appear better manned than it is.
Most importantly, industry guidelines advise ships’ captains to proceed at full speed through pirate waters, noting that no ships have been boarded when the vessel has been sailing at more than 18 knots.
Some ships operating in Somali waters have even resorted to “citadels”; safe rooms where the crew can barricade themselves into a ship that has already been boarded by pirates.
This tactic was employed by Captain Phillips, who was himself taken hostage.
But experts warn that committed pirates hellbent on capturing valuable hostages have been known to take plastic explosives onto vessels to breach citadels, drill through bulkheads to pour in petrol or shoot at the doors indiscriminately and the industry is still divided on whether citadels are a safe haven or a death trap.
Among the safest ships are those that employ armed guards – cruise companies as well as cargo ships have looked at this option. However the danger to all can increase when bullets are exchanged – and if the pirates are not repelled, they are likely to be lusting for brutal revenge.