Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Piracy down, caution up

Amid all the gloom and doom in the news coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan, the anxiety over the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran, and the struggle in the war on terror, comes a ray of sunlight: Piracy is down in Southeast and South Asia.

The International Maritime Bureau in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, says in a fresh report that the number of pirate attacks in Asia plunged to 17 in the first quarter of this year from 68 in the comparable period last year. The bureau, which tracks pirate assaults around the globe, also reported a worldwide downward slide to 239 attacks last year from 445 in 2003.
All as reported here.

Remember that the vast majority of the reported piracy attacks are the functional equivalent of ship burglary followed, maybe, by larceny or robbery. There is always the question whether all incidents are being reported to authorities or whether there is underreporting due to fears of insurance rate hikes. Incidents of the kidnapping of ship officers or crew and them for ransom still occur,but the number of such has apparently declined. A major source of sea robberies, seems to have fallen off the map-Chittagong anchorage, Bangladesh, where
Forty seven incidents have been reported since 28.01.2006. Pirates are targeting ships preparing to anchor.
The most recent reports have reflected no activity by pirates in that area.

Increasing patrols, cooperation between adjacent states may also have had a effect. Land operations against potential terrorist and pirate organizations has had an effect. Certainly, the threat of some combination of piracy/terrorism grabbed attention:
Equally important, the possibility of a potentially devastating lash-up between pirates and terrorists in that part of the world has lessened.

"Our greatest fears are the possible nexus between terrorists and weapons of mass destruction and the use of a large commercial vessel as a weapon," retired Admiral Thomas Fargo said in 2005.

The former commander of US forces in the Pacific told a conference on maritime security in Honolulu: "Armed with these weapons, undeterrable, unaccountable enemies could inflict enormous damage without warning. If pirates or sea robbers can board a ship, what is achievable by a trained terrorist willing to give up his life?"
I'm not sure how we can quantify any reduction in risk of such an attack. There have been recent boarding where the pirates have grabbed ships or fishing vessels or crew, for example: (1) Chinese fishing boats captured in the Spratlys (see here), (2) 263 sailor hostages and 3 deaths last year (see here), (3) Tamil Tiger forces capturing a ship and stealing its cargo, presumably using the booty for funds to allow them to continue their operations (see here). And this curious incident from March 2007:
3. INDONESIA: Tanker (AI MARU) boarded 14 Mar at 1630 local time while underway
in position 01-07.29N 105-03.66E approximately 30NM east of Pulau Bintan. Ten heavily
armed pirates intercepted and boarded the product tanker in two navy grey fiberglass speed crafts with outboard engines. The men were dressed in camouflage and carried shot guns, rifles and daggers. One of them had on a ski mask. They boarded the tanker and tied up all crew members and blindfolded them. The master of the ship was punched several times with no serious injuries. The gunmen also damaged the ship’s radio communications equipment and took the ship’s documents, crew passports, seaman books, cash, and hand phones before they fled in their speedboats. After steaming for 45 minutes the pirates smashed all the communication equipment. The ship’s engines stalled 40NM from Horsburgh, Lighthouse. When the pirates could not restart the engines they abandoned the ship and escaped in their speedboats. All crew were accounted for with no injuries and all cargo intact. The master reported that there was not a single shot fired by the men during the incident. The ReCCAP ISC Focal Point (Singapore) advises ship-owners and masters to exercise vigilance while transiting this location (ReCAPP ISC, IMB).
There is one trend that is very positive - the increasing cooperation among neighboring states:
"The continued coordination and cooperation within and between nations is probably the biggest contributor to the positive trend," the spokesman said.
An obstacle to cooperation has been the legacy of anti-colonialism. Asian nations, having rid themselves of Western colonial rulers have been reluctant to engage in operations that might seem to infringe on their sovereignty, such as allowing ships of a neighboring nation enter their waters in hot pursuit on police missions.

Malaysian Defense Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, was quoted in the report as pointing to more coordination between his nation, Singapore and Indonesia.

"The formation of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency and the increase in coordinated patrols among the authorities of the littoral states has proved most effective in securing the straits." he said.
I'd advise keeping a wary eye when transiting certain areas.

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