Most of us think of piracy as something perpetrated by men with peglegs and parrots, with heroic action as well as villainy and death. We also think of it as something that happened long ago in the Caribbean, or in the Mediterranean, not as a modern crime.
The truth is that piracy on the seas today is on the rise. In 2000, piracy jumped by 57% worldwide, with most attacks recorded in Indonesia. Merchant vessels are regularly fired upon and boarded by pirates; according to reported statistics, in 1998 when piracy was not quite as prevalent, fifteen ships were hijacked; four hundred crewmen were taken hostage, and another seventy-five murdered in cold blood. Pirates in the Persian Gulf region based in Yemen often attack oil tankers, and blend freely with terrorists. Pirates off Somalia fired upon a cruise ship not long ago, and were repelled by security on board (a retired Gurkha warrior).
Pirates today engage in terrorism, robbery, hijacking, murder, rape, mutilation, and other crimes against those whose ships they attack. And they don’t fight with a cutlass and cannon; they’re often supplied by terrorists and warlords, and are often as well-equipped as government-sponsored military units.
The Rise of Modern Piracy
After the early 1700s, when piracy reached its peak in the Caribbean, it began a decline around the Atlantic. In the East Indies and the Mediterranean, it remained robust through about the middle of the 19th century, when the same factors that killed piracy in the Caribbean reached other parts of the world.
Technology was the first killer. Merchant vessels grew larger and faster; in the 19th century, steam power was implemented, and then iron-clad ships became much harder to take over. The second reason for piracy’s decline was the improved coordinated naval and coast guard suppression of piracy; improving government administration and serious regulation by increasingly strong naval forces throughout the world made it very difficult for pirates to survive easily.
After World War II, however, things shifted. Though ships continued growing technologically, this blessing brought with it a curse – decreased crew sizes. Without large crews able to easily guard a boat and repel boarders, pirates found a new set of targets. Small boats and weaponry also took advantage of technological improvements; it grew significantly more difficult for the small crews to guard, flee, and defend against small pirate crews.
On top of this, world navies began to shrink, and to focus on things besides warfare. Ocean patrols started to vanish, replaced by things like satellite surveillance that has much more difficulty picking up small vessels. Governments grew less centralized, and with the fall of imperialism former colonies found themselves less able to defend against piracy on their waters.
But the view of piracy has changed over time. Many nations take the view that piracy isn’t a problem, or that it’s someone else’s problem. The United States and Europe have been fortunate in that strong coastal security has prevented piracy from taking hold in our waters; the rest of the world is not so fortunate. In Brazil, wealthy environmentalist Sir Peter Blake was murdered in 2001 by pirates; and the attack on ocean liner Seabourn Spirit took place off the coast of Somalia, where both pirates and terrorists have found sanctuary among battling warlords.
In many ways, this is a result of globalization and the end of the Cold War. The Russian Navy is almost gone, and the U.S. and British navies, while still as powerful on a global scale, are not as present in many areas attractive to pirates. And increases in international shipping is making the trade of piracy quite lucrative as well. Charted out, the decrease in world navy presence is perfectly correlated with increases in pirate activity.
Worse, it’s not just large merchant ships that are under attack; yachts and small boats are coming under increasing attack, but often don’t report the attacks. By some estimates, ten times as many small boats are attacked by pirates as large merchant vessels.
Where Piracy is Found
The most dangerous area in the world is the coastal portion of the Strait of Malacca. This body of water is the equivalent of an ocean superhighway with over 50,000 ships going through each year. With Malaysia on one side and Sumatra on the other, the many hidden shallow coves and weak government intervention combine to make this a pirate haven. Bangladesh is also very dangerous, as is India, where in some areas sailing is restricted to daytime so that piracy is deterred and can be controlled at night. In the Atlantic, Brazil is the most dangerous area. Somalia, also, is growing increasingly dangerous with the combination of unstable government and the incursion of terrorists; throughout a large part of 2005, it was common for Somalian pirates to seize UN food aid boats trying to bring help to starving Somalians.
A few areas that are being watched due to some growth in piracy include the Philippines, the Arabian Peninsula, West Africa, Venezuela and Columbia (where piracy and drug smuggling share a common culture), and a few other areas. Most piracy is oceangoing; river pirates are fairly rare.
Pirates may include ordinary criminals (who will kill you), organized crime branches, and pirates affiliated with real militaries; the Chinese Coast Guard in particular is known to have recently had ships that moonlight as pirates, and this happens as well in Somalia. You may also find terrorists among pirate crews today.
Pirates aren’t only interested in money, just as historical pirates are interested in much more than cash. If there is a cargo of value – oil, cigarettes, many spices – it may well be seized and sold. Small, fast vessels may be stolen entirely, a sort of trading-up. Often, pirates will use radar and GPS systems to track and capture prey.
Ships are typically boarded from the stern; today’s small crews are generally focused on what’s going on ahead of the ship. In some cases, pirate crews will board with grappling hooks in the dead of night, particularly when the ship has made port. Other times, pirates plant a crew member aboard the target ship, who later calls the rest of the crew to describe the location and route of the ship. Or prostitutes and other distractions are used to distract the crew. When a ship itself is taken, it is quickly renamed and reflagged, and fake paperwork created so that she can be sailed by pirates or sold off at a port. Pirates doing this may even take on cargo, contracting to deliver it at a fair price, and then simply not show up at the destination with the cargo.
Victims who dare to make a distress call may find their communications monitored and deadly punishment meted out by the pirates. Even those fortunate enough to survive a pirate attack may find themselves in a bad position, without provisions or cash and sometimes with radio and navigation equipment disabled. Often, the pirates just kill the crew; dead men tell no tales, after all.
When the pirate crew returns to port, they usually return to small coastal villages where their friends and family live, and where the economy is supported by piracy. It is unlikely that such communities would turn over the pirates who live among them.
Potential Results of Piracy
Piracy, in today’s world, is everyone’s problem. Pirates disrupt trade and murder crews; they are also starting to attack passenger ships, which is a disaster waiting to happen. But more importantly, a pirate crew taking over certain types of ships can be a disaster for more than just those at sea.
Suppose you had a pirate crew member planted on an oil tanker. He disables the radio antenna and helps his companions take over the ship. The pirates take what they can after murdering the crew. But with a full oil tanker, they have much more than just a financial haul; they have a deadly weapon. Drive it into a port – the right port – at full speed, and the resulting oil slick could poison waters for months; setting the oil on fire first could create an even worse situation. This, unfortunately, is not an unreasonable scenario. More and more pirates are working with terrorists today. And there are far more flammable cargos than oil; supercooled flammable gas, such as liquid natural gas, could cause an explosion quite similar to that of a small nuclear weapon.
Piracy is one of the most underreported crimes in the world. Because of increased insurance premiums (and the time local authorities will spend investigating a reported incident, delaying the ship) resulting from piracy, only about a tenth of all piracy incidents are ever reported. Only about 1% of pirates are ever captured and prosecuted.
Fortunately, there are movements afoot to fight piracy. The International Maritime Bureau, based out of London and under the control of the International Chamber of Commerce, is coordinating the war against international piracy. Many, many nations are empowering their coast guard navies to go after pirates, even when the pirates leave their coastal waters. Though crews on merchant vessels are forbidden to carry weapons, smart ship owners have been instituting training in pirate-repelling techniques, such as using hoses to sweep the deck and wash them overboard.