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The History of Maritime Piracy

Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P. O. Box 425, Keller, TX  76244-0425


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Profile of a Pirate
Modern Piracy, Part 4
By Cindy Vallar

In some parts of the world, such as Southeast Asia, piracy is an illegal but accepted part of the culture that provides additional income or allows people to survive.  Perhaps the failure of a countryís political, military, or economic system promotes piracy.  Often times the motive is pure greed.  No matter the reason, once pirates meet little or no resistance from their victims and arenít pursued by law enforcement authorities, they are more likely to strike again. The perpetrators of the crimes are playing the odds, and the odds are in their favor.  Their risk vs. reward is very favorable. (Captain David N. Kellerman, founder of MaritimeSecurity.com, Worldwide Maritime Piracy, June 1999)

Surprise is a key element in successful raids, but pirates also rely on speed and violence to ensure success.  Usually, six to ten pirates attack when the fewest number of crew are awake (10 pm-6 am).  If the target isnít at anchor or in port, they approach the stern in small high-speed boats and use grappling hooks to board.  They prefer portable goods and cash so they can hit and run.  Their weapons of choice include automatic rifles and knives, although they will use any object that can be fashioned into a weapon.  Their treasure includes clothing, rope, drugs, cigarettes, computers, VCRs, credit cards, and televisions.  They attack tankers (25%), cargo ships (23%), bulk carriers (13%), container ships (11%), fishing boats (16%), and coastal vessels and yachts (12%).  (Captain Kellerman, Worldwide Maritime Piracy)

Where do they prefer to prey?  Not the United States.  Our Coast Guard and Navy pursue pirates who attempt to board vessels in our waters and local law enforcement deals with those who rob berthed ships.  The hot spots according the IMOís 2000 first and second quarter reports are the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Malacca Straits.  In 1998, the countries with the greatest number of attacks were Indonesia (consistently high number of reports since 1991), the Philippines, India, Malaysia, Brazil, Ecuador, Bangladesh, and Somalia/Djibouti.  (Captain Jayant Abhyankar, Deputy Director of ICC International Maritime Bureau, An Overview of Piracy Problems, 1999)

Depending on the region in which pirates operate, their attacks can be classified in one of several ways.

  • Asian piracy is the popular modus operandi of pirates in Southeast Asia and the Far East.  They approach the intended target in high-speed boats after dark inside the territorial waters of various countries, and steal cash and valuables from the crew and shipís safe.  Pirates involved in boarding a ship underway possess a high degree of skill.  They are rarely violent unless provoked by the victims.  In 1999 five armed and masked pirates boarded the Vira Bhum off Sumatra.  They stole $2,348 and other items from the master, $2,500 in cash and valuables from four other crewmembers, and walkie talkies and binoculars before disembarking.
  • South American piracy occurs when ships are in port or at anchor.  Armed pirates prone to violence seek cash, cargo, personal items, and equipment.  A degree of pre-planning is involved in such attacks.  Law enforcement frequently fails to respond or does so in an untimely manner.  This type of piracy is also known as West African since that was the region where it first gained notoriety.  In 1999 six armed pirates attacked the Emilia Theresa, a chemical tanker at anchor in Brazil.  They ransacked the masterís cabin, taking $23,000 in wages and other valuables.  They assaulted two seamen, secured some of the crew in a cabin, and then fled.  Although the authorities, including the coast guard, were notified, all failed to react with urgency.
  • Military or political piracy occurs when the attackers wear military uniforms and fire upon intercepted targets.  In 1997 Somali pirates claiming to be members of the coast guard murdered the captain of a Russian trawler.  The next day they demanded money from the freighter Clove otherwise they would rob and/or murder the crew.
  • Hijackings occur while the ship is underway.  Pirates board the moving vessel, stow away, or pose as seamen.  They overpower the crew, steal the cargo, and later return the ship to the crew.  This type of piracy is likely to occur when response from shore authorities is remote.  In 1990 four armed pirates boarded the cargo ship Marta.  They handcuffed, blindfolded, and imprisoned the nine crewmembers.  They repainted her funnel and stenciled on her new name, V Tai.  After changing course, they dropped anchor and discharged her 2,000-ton $2,000,000 cargo with the aid of forklifts and manual labor from shore over a two-day period.  When they finished, the pirates sailed for six days before they released the crew and fled in a lifeboat, taking the shipís master with them.
  • Phantom ships are a new twist to hijackings.  Pirates seize a ship that is often without cargo, kill the crew or set them adrift, and give the ship a new identity.  Then the owners arrange to carry a pre-identified cargo, load the ship, and sail away.  Neither the ship nor the cargo is heard from again.  The Tenyu is one such ship.  She disappeared in the Malacca Straits in 1998.  Her crew of 15 was murdered.  Several months later she turned up at a Chinese port with a new name and a new crew.  Cross-referencing the enginesí serial numbers after several frustrating attempts to expose the falsity of the shipís documents proved her true identity.
© 2000 Cindy Vallar

Read Part 5 of this series on Modern Piracy


 
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