The Dangerous Straits

The Somali pirates have been in the news a lot lately, and their depredations off the Horn of Africa have become so extensive that shipping companies have begun re-routing their ships around the Cape of Good Hope instead of through the Suez Canal. Piracy is a big business in Puntland — grossing an estimated $100 million since the 1990s — and may be the largest source of foreign currency for the failed state of Somalia.

But Somalia isn’t the only source of 21st century piracy, and the Horn of Africa is not the only area where ships and mariners are at risk. Our Flemish correspondent VH sent us an article about a recent incident off the coast of Malaysia. He included this prefatory note:

If pirates are not sunk, shot, or thrown to the sharks at first sight and their harbors bombed back to the 7th century, it won’t be long until Al Qaeda takes over this profitable job. Essential straits are the Achilles’ heel of Western economy (but also for China’s essential trade with the West), and almost all lead past Muslim countries. This one, for instance…

From The Times of India:

Knife-Wielding Indonesian Pirates Rob Vessel Off Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR: Knife-wielding Indonesian pirates traveling in two speedboats attacked a coal vessel off Malaysia’s southern Johor state, a report said on Friday. Malaysian police said the vessel was sailing from Singapore to Thailand when it was intercepted and boarded by ten pirates at about 9pm (0630 IST) yesterday, state news agency Bernama reported.

“Pirates with knives stole cash and handphones from the crew, mostly Indonesians, before vanishing without injuring anyone,” district police chief Johari Jahaya told Bernama. He said the vessel was attacked 10 nautical miles off the tourist resort of Tioman island in Malaysia’s east coast state of Johor, in the South China Sea.

Johari told Bernama the crew reported losing 16 million rupiah (USD 1,300) to the pirates who, officers said, were from Indonesia.

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Police did not identify the owners of the coal vessel. Johari said this was the second robbery involving pirates in Tioman waters this year. Most pirate attacks in the area happen in the Malacca Straits, off the west coast.

Malaysia’s military says the waterway was pirate-free last year because of joint maritime and air patrols with neighbours Indonesia and Singapore.

Half of the world’s oil shipments pass through the strategic Malacca Straits. Last month ship owners were urged to contribute to a fund to ensure safety in the international waterway.

According to the article, “Malaysia’s military says the waterway was pirate-free last year”, but that is not precisely true. If you look at the IMB Piracy Map 2007 at ICC Commercial Crime Services (a fine resource recommended to me by VH), you’ll notice that there were a handful of attacks and “boardings” in the Malacca Straits in 2007.

Piracy in Malaysia

As you can see, piracy and maritime attacks were fairly widespread in the Malacca Strait, the Makassar Strait, the Java Sea, the Indian Ocean, with a few incidents even reaching the South China Sea, the Sulu Sea, and the Celebes Sea.

The IMB is a Google-based interactive map, so you can move around, zoom in and out, and click on the little red pointers to find out more about a particular incident. Pulling back to look at the entire region, you can see the devastation wrought by the Somali pirates clustered at the west end of the Indian Ocean and in the Gulf of Aden.

Piracy in the Indian Ocean

If you pull back even further, you’ll see a few incidents reported along the west coast of Africa, and another handful along the coast of South America and in the Caribbean. There was even a single incident reported in the UK during 2007. The incident report gives this information:

11.07.2007: 1650 LT: Liverpool, United Kingdom. The 2nd officer onboard a bulk carrier saw two men coming up the gangway, dressed as stevedores. When the duty officer asked to see their id, they replied that they did not have the ID but would go back and return with it. Due to prior police warning about thieves operating in the area and being suspicious, the local police were informed. The police caught one of the thieves who turned out to be on the wanted list of the police.

That’s it for Europe, and there’s nothing for the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, China, Russia, or Japan. The pirate industry centers on the Indian Ocean, and runs along an axis that hugs the coastal zones from Djibouti to Jakarta.

There’s an obvious correlation between the incidence of piracy and the percentage of Muslims in the population of nearby countries. I’d be interested to see a statistical analysis and a regression graph: Muslim population vs. number of pirate attacks.

But the map tells the whole story. On land, the bloody borders of Islam are marked by rapes, murders, kidnappings, suicide bombings, and slavery. At sea they are marked by piracy.

5 thoughts on “The Dangerous Straits

  1. There’s also a security gap. There are plenty of Muslims in the Mediterranean and there was only one incident there.

    The piracy incidents in South America and the West Coast of Africa do not correlate with Muslims being the near 100% of the population, there are hardly any in South America, and they are in the minority in Sub-Saharan West Africa in that “bend” area corresponding to places like Ivory Coast and Togo.

    The reality of modern life is that security, navies, anti-piracy, and making legalism not a handcuff on the ability to provide maritime security is HARD. It is not easy. We can’t expect it to happen by magic and can’t expect lots of legalism and security at the same time.

    Bad all around.

  2. Whiskey —

    Yes, the presence of European military and law enforcement in the Med is enough to deter piracy there, I would think.

    As for Latin America and West Africa — I didn’t say the correlation was 100%, just that there appears to be a correlation. Piracy goes along with lawlessness, corruption, and failed states. The more Muslims you have, the more lawlessness, corruption, and failed states are likely. There is a correlation.

  3. And people say we are not drifting into a new dark age’s? On a side note. This may not count as piracy but comes close. Haitian gangs in Florida have been raiding docked ships in Miami on and off since the 90’s. If piracy isnt stopped now we will see this become the next cash cow next to drugs. Something else I didnt know. According to a National Geographic show called “Gangland” there are over 50,000 members of the street gang “Mexican Mafia” in the US.

    Tie that together with MS-13 and all the other gangs, G*d help us if we do hit a depression, food shortages or national emergency. The new Barbarians are here and they are not even Muslims.

  4. We are never very far from barbarism.

    Civilization is a thin line, composed of 1, 2 or maybe 3 generations of people.

    And one of the indicator of the health and likely longevity of a civilization is the willingness of its members to fight for it.

    To simply blow the pirates out of the water will not save the west.

    But it would be cheering to think that we were at least still capable.

  5. They used knives to rob ships? People can spend money insuring, fueling, staffing and maintaining a ship to move cargo for profit but they can’t afford to hire one guy with a gun? It is one thing when the pirates have automatic weapons and rocket launchers but if ships are being robbed by people wielding sharpened bits of metal I find it hard to sympathize. As long as we are being clever, why not just throw the cargo into the ocean and hope it floats to the right port? Then you would never actually need to worry about pirates. Or customers.

    Why has no shipping company considered the benefits of actually getting goods to their destination without paying ransom? Shouldn’t there be a fair cost savings by doing that? Are the legal teams of Somalian gangsters really so efficient that squeezing off a few rounds is too much of a liability.

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