Briefing: The return of the pirates

The owners of three merchant ships recently paid ransom to Somali pirates who had been holding the ships and crews hostage since May. When did piracy make a comeback?

The owners of three merchant ships recently paid ransom to Somali pirates who had been holding the ships and crews hostage since May. When did piracy make a comeback?

There still are pirates?

Yes, but as State Department official Christopher Hill put it, “these are not pirates who will remind you of Johnny Depp.” Most of today’s pirates are not the rakish swashbucklers of old movies but rather desperately poor Africans and Southeast Asians who are aggressively targeting the international trade that passes by their shores. Most of the piracy is occurring off the coasts of war-torn Somalia and Nigeria, as well as in the Malacca Straits between Malaysia and Indonesia. Some modern-day pirates are rogue navy or coast guard crews from dysfunctional governments that can’t keep them in line. But most are dockworkers and fishermen who enlist in criminal syndicates controlled by ruthless bosses. “There is nothing remotely ‘romantic’ about the perpetrators of these appalling crimes,” said British official Gwyneth Dunwoody.

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How extensive is the piracy problem?

So far this year, merchant ships worldwide have reported more than 200 successful or attempted pirate attacks, a 15 percent increase over last year and more than double from a decade ago. Nearly a quarter of the pirate attacks this year were off the coast of Somalia (see box), a nation left destitute, lawless, and close to anarchy by years of civil war. Last year, 15 merchant seamen were killed in pirate attacks, and 188 taken hostage. Annual property losses are estimated to be $15 billion. But the problem is more widespread than official numbers suggest, since most attacks never get reported; shipping companies would rather accept their losses than see insurance rates hiked or have a ship stuck in port for months while authorities investigate—usually without results.

What do modern pirates do?

What pirates have always done, but with modern-day weaponry and boats. In one typical hijacking several years ago, 15 men in a small speedboat pulled alongside the cargo vessel Alondra Rainbow off the coast of Indonesia. Using ropes and grappling hooks, they swarmed the deck and overpowered the crew of 17. The masked pirates then transferred the sailors to a rusty freighter, where they were kept bound and blindfolded for a week while the pirate crew made off with the ship and its cargo. When the job was done, the kidnapped sailors were marooned in a rubber raft with the barest provisions. They drifted for 10 days before being rescued.

Do pirates still use swords?

The ones that attacked the Alondra Rainbow did. They also carried knives and handguns. But pirates of late have become more heavily armed. Many now wield automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. Sometimes, they use speedboats; in other cases, they rely on cheap rubber craft equipped with outboard motors and automatic weapons. Their tactics have also become more sophisticated. Pirates may choose targets using stolen manifests, track them with GPS devices, and communicate by satellite phone. They have been known to send out distress signals and then capture ships that come to help.

What are they after?

Booty of every kind. Most merchant ships pay their crews in cash, so on-board safes may contain thousands of dollars. Pirates also often take any equipment that’s not nailed down. In more elaborate raids, they repaint and rename their captured ships, turning them into “phantoms” that sail from port to port, collecting new cargo. The pirates’ latest tactic—used in the case of three ships held for months by a band of Somalis—is to abscond with the ships and the crews and hold them for ransom by their employers or governments. Last March, in a typical incident, 10 men riding two speedboats—carrying shotguns, rifles, and daggers—took over a tanker off the coast of Indonesia. They beat up the captain, tied up the unarmed crew, and made off with cash, passports, and communication equipment.

Why is piracy on the rise?

There are several factors, ranging from the increasing desperation found in several chaotic Third World nations to the end of the Cold War. Piracy on the high seas was largely eliminated in the 19th century by the rise of imperial navies. But countries began scaling back their navies after World War II, a trend that accelerated after the collapse of the Soviet Union. That left vast tracts of ocean unpoliced. At the same time, technology made piracy easier. Automated systems allowed merchant ships to operate with smaller crews, leaving them more vulnerable.

Can piracy be stopped?

Some individual attacks can be fought off. Merchant ships are now equipping themselves with high-pressure water hoses on deck to repel unwanted borders. (Captains prefer not to travel with guns on board or get involved in firefights with armed pirates.) The Seabourn Spirit, a U.S. luxury liner unsuccessfully attacked by Somali pirates in 2005, used a “sonic canon” to blast the intruders with an unbearable sound wave. Other ships lubricate their hulls to keep anyone from climbing up. But combating piracy in a systemic way is more difficult. The Geneva Conventions declare pirates “enemies of mankind” who can be pursued in international waters, but pirates easily slip into territorial waters of countries where foreign ships can’t follow. And in the rare cases when pirates are captured, tangled international legal systems are often ill equipped to deal with them. Experts say the law has not kept up with the outlaws. “Today’s pirates are too often ignored,” said Pottengal Mukundan of the International Maritime Bureau, “or quite literally allowed to get away with murder.”

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