A series of hijackings in Southeast Asian waters since January 2015 represents a continuation of a negative security trend observed since April 2014. A high demand for illicit oil will continue to drive fuel theft and the targeting of small, low freeboard tankers in the region. Regional efforts to penetrate organised crime networks suspected of responsibility for the attacks have failed to deter piracy. The hijackings show no sign of abating, particularly in the Malacca Strait and the eastern and western approaches to the Singapore Strait.
Despite the fact that the vast majority of recorded incidents remain small-scale robberies of vessels at anchor, Malaysian and Indonesian waters saw five serious hijackings involving cargo theft in the first three months of 2015. This marks the continuation of a trend observed between April and December 2014, when at least 17 hijackings targeted small oil and chemical tankers.
Tanker hijackings have put crew at increased risk of violence and have seen thousands of tonnes of fuel oil cargo stolen for the black market. On 9 March, a group of seven pirates armed with guns and knives hijacked a product tanker in Indonesian waters south of Pulau Repong, taking the crew hostage and injuring one crew member, damaging communications and navigational equipment, and transferring all fuel oil cargo to a secondary vessel. On 20 February, a similar group of seven pirates armed with guns and knives hijacked a product tanker southeast of Pulau Aur in Malaysian waters, transferring the tanker’s entire fuel oil cargo to another vessel. The pirates held the crew hostage through the night, stealing their belongings the following morning before escaping. Malaysian waters saw two others cases in January and February, while a tanker carrying 7 mn litres of diesel was hijacked near North Sulawesi, Indonesia in late January, with its crew and captain cast out to sea in a life raft. The vessel was recovered three weeks later, having been ransacked at a beach in Mati City, Mindanao, located in the southern Philippines.
These attacks observed over the past 12 months have been concentrated around the Malacca and Singapore straits and the eastern coast of peninsular Malaysia. The Singapore Strait has the highest concentration of incidents, although hijackings have taken place across a wide geographic area. This includes a case near Thailand at the northern approach to the Malacca Strait, as well as further out at sea to the east of Singapore near the Riau Islands, located between peninsular Malaysia and Borneo.
The vast majority of hijackings have targeted tankers with low freeboards, underway along these heavily transited and congested areas that present the best opportunities for pirates to approach and board vessels. The pirate groups typically comprise 5-10 men armed with knives and guns, and crew members are typically taken hostage for the duration of the attack. Attacks can last from a few hours to overnight, generally depending on how long it takes the pirates to siphon the tanker’s fuel cargo onto secondary vessels. Crew members have sustained minor injuries and beatings in several cases, and in December 2014 a crew member aboard a tanker off the coast of Pulau Aur, Malaysia, was shot and killed during a hijacking. Fatalities are still rare, but several incidents do demonstrate the willingness to use violence to extort demands.
The attacks are likely linked to organised crime, particularly illicit fuel sales onshore in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. Recent investigations by regional authorities have connected cargo thefts with several Indochinese organised crime groups. There are also indicators that many attacks have been carried out using insider information regarding vessels’ routes, ports of call and cargo. This highlights the importance of protecting company information, ensuring due diligence of outsourced crew and personnel, and protecting information systems against breaches by criminal organisations.
The involvement of organised crime and the high demand for illicit fuel in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand will continue to motivate hijackings and cargo thefts. If sustained, the rate of hijackings witnessed in the first quarter of 2015 will see serious incidents increase during the year to the highest levels ever recorded in the region. Furthermore, regional naval authorities have not demonstrated enhanced capabilities in combating hijackings. Indonesian maritime authorities have warned repeatedly against the likelihood of small-scale robberies carried out by local criminals along the Malacca Strait, but have shown little sustained progress in penetrating and disassembling the criminal groups behind fuel cargo thefts. Failure to address both the criminal drivers of tanker piracy and response capability – both on and offshore – will mean this trend is likely to continue in 2015.