The Growing Threat of Modern Piracy

By Thomas B. Hunter

Piracy and National Security

Piracy has been labeled by some as maritime terrorism, but although this term might encourage international attention, it is a misnomer. Piratical attacks are profit driven and have no relation whatsoever to political or religious agendas. Of course, a nation that relies on safe shipping lanes for a significant portion of its economy might be tempted to term such actions terrorism. For example, Japan imports the majority of its oil from the Middle East. Almost all of the tankers making their way to Japan from ports in the Persian Gulf do so via the Strait of Malacca, one of the most dangerous areas in the world with regard to pirate activity. A significant impedance to the flow of this oil could be perceived, rightly, as a direct threat to the national security of Japan.

Piracy does not, however, just affect the larger nations that can afford massive supertankers. On 3 November 1991, pirates attacked a fleet of Bangladeshi fishing trawlers in the Bay of Bengal, leaving 13 injured and 50 missing. It was thought that the pirates, who attacked under cover of darkness, came from either Burma or India and apparently took advantage of the fact that Bangladesh lacks fast patrol boats to combat piracy. This incident highlights the threat to those nations whose small fishing fleets provide needed foodstuffs to the local populace. Any interruption can have a telling, and perhaps deadly, effect on Third World nations whose economies already are barely functioning at subsistence levels.


Pirates have demonstrated an ability to use commercially available surface radar and have been known to intercept radio distress calls to locate and engage targets of opportunity. They prefer laden tankers and ships with low freeboard—which can be boarded relatively easily with grappling hooks—and usually strike at night, because darkness affords greater stealth and facilitates the eluding of law enforcement.

Vessels that are experiencing mechanical difficulties or are otherwise immobilized are at particular risk. Reports of attacks on stranded or adrift vessels are numerous. On 12 February 1991, the U.K.-based insurance house Lloyd's of London announced that pirates had boarded a Danish merchant ship that had broken down off the coast of Qatar. The individuals reportedly were armed with machine guns and robbed the crew of cash and unspecified documents before escaping.

In another incident, a Thai cargo ship stopped in international waters off the coast of Yemen in December 1992 to make repairs on its engines. In a short time, five motor boats appeared and requested aid in the form of water supplies. As this assistance was being given, the cargo ship came under fire by automatic weapons and hand- and rocket-propelled grenades. Two crew, including the ship's captain, were severely wounded.

On 11 September 1991, the U.S.-flagged tanker Ranger was attacked by pirates while transiting the Phillips Channel after leaving Singapore, and another merchant ship was attacked later that same day, ten nautical miles northwest of Mangxi Island, south of Singapore. Generally, however, the United States has been fortunate in that there have been few incidents involving ships under U.S. flag. Much of the credit for this can be given to a varied, if decentralized, network of agencies that track international piracy, including the U.S. Navy, the Defense Mapping Agency, and the Maritime Administration. The news that U.S. vessels largely have escaped the pirates' attention may be short-lived, however, as reports of piracy in the Americas are on the rise.

The International Maritime Bureau's Regional Piracy Center, the international locus for reports of pirate attacks, reported that 1997 had been the worst year on record, with 229 incidents. It also found a disturbing trend: while piracy has been decreasing overall in Asia, it has risen dramatically in South American waters. Listed along with Indonesia, Brazil was the country worst hit by maritime piracy. This report also indicated that attacks had become more audacious and violent, with the majority occurring while the ships were docked or anchored.

Corporate Piracy

A significant and noteworthy anomaly in high-seas piracy occurred in 1990, when the Philippine government announced that a Singapore-based firm was behind a string of nine hijackings of international cargo vessels over a three-month period. The firm, Ten Tac, Ltd., was found to have participated in the disappearance of the motor vessels Comnicon , Antonette , Silver Mead , Negotiator , and Isla Luzon . The Philippine government requested that Interpol crack down on the company in the face of the Coast Guard and maritime officials' admission of "virtual helplessness" in preventing the piracy. Officials stated that agents associated with Ten Tac were witnessed participating in negotiations for the sale of one of the missing vessels at the port of Kao-hsiung, Taiwan, and that another was sold for scrap in Pusan, Republic of Korea. This series of incidents also was significant in that it played a major role in the increase of insurance premiums on vessels traveling through Philippine waters.

Trouble Spots

Africa in general has experienced a rise in the number of incidents occurring off its shores. There have been reported a number of thwarted attempts as well. On 4 April 1997 a Malaysian-flagged containership was boarded by three pirates while the ship was at Toamaina Anchorage, Madagascar. Alert security personnel chased off the individuals. Another incident occurred two days earlier when 20 pirates in a canoe attempted to board a Cypriot flagged cargo ship near Conakry, Guinea, as the ship awaited berthing instructions. A fierce gun battle ensued between the ship's crew and the would-be raiders before the vessel weighed anchor and proceeded westward toward the open sea at full speed.

Historically, the South China Sea has proved itself one of the most dangerous with regard to piracy, especially along Hong Kong-Luzon-Hainan, a heavily traveled commercial route that attracts a high level of commercial maritime traffic. A Danish-flagged containership reportedly received small arms fire from a fishing vessel as it transited off the southern coast of Vietnam on 28 March 1997. A Belize-flagged cargo ship reportedly was hijacked off Malaysia on 5 March by an estimated ten armed pirates and held for six days. The pirates approached in a speed boat, fired shots in the air, and then boarded the ship. They handcuffed the crew and beat them before making off with the ship's cargo of cigarettes worth about $3.5 million. They also reportedly took the ship's documents, charts, books, radio equipment, and the crew's passports. One radio was missed by the pirates, however, and the crew were able to alert officials at a regional piracy center.

A well-documented January 1993 incident highlights what has become an effective tactic for the pirates: deception. Under way in the South China Sea, the Danish flagged cargo vessel Arctic Star was approached by a speedboat carrying six men wearing Chinese military uniforms and steel helmets. The captain of the Arctic Star , familiar with reports of similar incidents, refused orders to stop. The attackers then opened fire with handguns before speeding off. They returned later, having rearmed from a nearby trawler serving as a mother ship, and continued their attack with rocket-propelled grenades. Two of these rounds struck the deck cargo, starting a fire. The captain again refused orders to stop and only after a two hour chase did the would-be boarders break off their pursuit. At no time during the incident did law-enforcement or naval forces arrive to intervene.

This same shipping line, Elite Shipping, reported that its 26-vessel fleet had suffered four earlier attacks in Indonesian waters. One of the most lucrative incidents in modern piracy occurred in September 1996 when the Ann Sierra was hijacked and its $4 million cargo of sugar offloaded at a Chinese port. The vessel itself was detained for a time with the suspected pirates on board, although the final disposition of the vessel and the perpetrators has not yet been reported.

The use of military uniforms by pirates was demonstrated once again in June 1995, when a Panamanian-registered freighter was hijacked in international waters en route from Singapore to Cambodia. The hijackers, dressed in Chinese Army uniforms and using a vessel described as appearing to be a Chinese patrol boat, fired shots in the air during the boarding, apparently harmed none of the 14 crew members, but ordered the vessel to divert to the port of Shanwei in southern China. The captain also recounted that his crew had been forced to sign documents indicating that they were smuggling the ship's cargo into China. On arrival, the cargo of an estimated $2 million in cigarettes and photographic equipment was offloaded and the crew freed. Naval forces apparently were unable to locate the vessel after authorities lost radio contact.

An unnamed Chinese daily recently announced that the provincial government of Guangdong Province has issued a warning to seafarers in its coastal waters to be on guard against pirates impersonating Marine Frontier Police. An official of the Guangdong police told the paper that there had been some criminal activities conducted by persons masquerading as Marine Frontier Police. The paper warned that fisherman and seaman should know how to identify the real police officers and differentiate their legal practices from those of the fake officers. Reports of piracy and hijacking of vessels in the South China Sea by people in Chinese-style patrol boats dressed in uniforms resembling those of police are commonplace.

There has been some speculation that the Chinese government may actually be involved in some incidents—the use of Chinese military uniforms, military patrol boats, and Customs launches has been reported regularly. In some cases, individuals have identified themselves as officials from China's Public Security Bureau, which is, in fact, authorized to carry out inspections of cargoes. These allegations have been denied by the Chinese government; however, the same officials admitted that rogue officials operating illegally may have played some role. In 1993, the Russian government considered the threat serious enough to deploy a number of warships to the area following a series of incidents, including one in which Chinese patrol boats fired on and boarded a Russian freighter. These occurrences provide a glimpse into a potential future security threat: state-sponsored piracy.

The Ecological Threat

The use of increasingly powerful weapons by pirates has brought with it the danger of a potentially devastating ecological disaster. A direct attack on an oil- or chemical-laden tanker could cause a breach of the vessel's hull and a catastrophic spill. More than 80 tankers reportedly were attacked worldwide from 1992 to 1995. None of these attacks resulted in a major spill, but the potential is obvious.

On 30 September 1992, pirates attacked a Panamanian flagged tanker in the South China Sea. Unidentified individuals fired automatic weapons and incendiary pyrotechnics at the vessel before the captain was able to increase speed and escape. Later inspection of the ship's hull revealed no fewer than 50 bullet indentations.


The most effective method of combating piracy is willing coordination between governments. As far back as 1992, Indonesia and the Philippines permitted the operation of the other's patrol craft in territorial waters for purposes of search and rescue. This has resulted in a number of successful recoveries. On 12 October 1992, three Indonesian naval vessels located and recovered a hijacked motor vessel and its crew, who had been forced into the sea following the attack. Recovered also was the ship's cargo of plywood, which was left behind when the pirates realized that they did not have the necessary equipment to offload the bulk cargo.

In 1992, 7 of the world's 115 reported cases of piracy occurred in the Malacca Strait; in response, the governments of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore combined forces in early 1993 to aggressively patrol the strait. The result of this six-month operation was to reduce the number of documented incidents to one, in which a ship was robbed while berthed at the port of Belewan. Nonetheless, the effort required an impractical allocation of naval and air resources and was drastically reduced soon after.

There have been very few occasions on which naval vessels have been able to counter the actions of pirates. In one, the arrival of the Canadian frigate HMCS Fredericton prevented the boarding of a British-owned racing yacht off the coast of Somalia in April 1995. The captain of the yacht managed to radio for assistance following a mortar attack on his vessel by the small craft, which then closed in proximity to board.

Whatever the solution, it must take into equal account legislation to punish those who engage in piracy and the need for enhanced and adapted military forces that can operate effectively against this new threat. The Philippine government has taken the lead in this endeavor and may provide a glimpse into the efficacy of aggressive action against piracy. In February 1996, the chief of the Philippine armed forces announced that piracy was a serious threat to the economic development of his country and that this new danger would be one of the primary considerations in the long-term planning of the Philippine Navy. As a result, the Navy requested a significant number of offshore patrol boats as part of its $12 billion, 22-year modernization and expansion program. These new craft will be supplemented by the purchase of maritime surveillance aircraft and should provide a cohesive, well-balanced force to do battle in the war against modern piracy.

Mr. Hunter has written more than 200 articles on international terrorism and special operations, and is a frequent contributor to Jane’s Information Group.



Conferences and Events

Maritime Security Dialogue

Mon, 2016-10-03

You are cordially invited to: Maintaining Maritime Superiority A discussion with Admiral John M. Richardson, USNChief of Naval...

2016 Coast Guard Academy Conference

US Coast Guard Academy

WEST 2017

San Diego Convention Center, San Diego, CA

View All

From the Press

Guest Speaker & Book Signing

Tue, 2016-09-27

Guest Speaker & Book Signing

Tue, 2016-09-27

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership