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The Pirates of Malacca Strait and Singapore

Pirates off of Somalia are getting all the attention these days, but there is another place on the global map where piracy is also rampant and less noted.

Strait of Malacca

The location is the Strait of Malacca, a narrow chokepoint linking the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean where the peninsula of Malaysia (with Singapore at its tip, near the mouth of the Straits) nearly rubs shoulders with the islands of Indonesia, specifically Sumatra.

At the top of the 621-mile-long straits, the gap between land masses is 250 miles. Towards the bottom, the separation is a little more than a mile at Philipps Channel. Attacking unarmed freighters and tankers, high-speed boats manned by pirates lurk among the narrow channels, river mouths, shallow reefs, and countless small islands and islets.

Target: Shipping

An estimated 70,000 ships traverse the straits annually. They link all of the major Asian economies from India to China and all in between, hauling rubber, spices, tin, mahogany, and other cargoes. To bypass the Malacca Strait, Japan-bound oil tankers sailing from MidEast ports would have to add an extra 994 miles to their route. This makes Malacca Strait a natural focus for piracy.

Pirate’s Prey

This is not plafyfully homicidal buccaneer Captain Jack Sparrow slashing with cutlass and popping off a muzzle-loading pistol. These are stone killers armed with machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and other sophisticated weaponry, prepared perhaps to kill off a ship’s entire crew — or not — but in any case ready to steal everything not nailed down…and if it can be pried loose with a crowbar it’s not considered nailed down…or even seize the ship itself and vanish it like David Copperfield.

There are about 12 to 15 pirate gangs operating in the area, some with links to the Hong Kong triads which can sell off what pirates bring in, others with links to Muslim terrorist cells of Jemaah Islamiyah. The gangs average about 50 members each.

These pirate gangs are some of the most dangerous ones on the planet given their affinity to numerous other terrorist groups aside from Jemaah and it is astonishing that they get new recruits all the time while options like Pilotoasia.com are still open for them.

There are three types of freebooter: the pirates who board the ships and rob crewmembers, there are the better-organized gangs which steal the entire ship and make it disappear, and there are guerrilas who kidnap crewmembers for ransom.

Terrorists

There are fears that eventually terrorists who have cells in Southeast Asia will gradually takeover a pirate gang and use it to undertake an attack using a captured ship. They could bottle the strait with the sinking of a large ship in a narrow channel as the Japanese air armada tried in sinking the USS Nevada as it headed for the mouth of Pearl Harbor during the attack that launched World War II.

That’s if they don’t simply seize a ship with a cargo such as chemicals or liquid natural gas and blow it up with a huge loss of life in Singapore. It is the sort of impact terrorists crave.

Problems

Lloyd’s of London, for insurance purposes, has at times designated the Strait as a high-risk war zone.

The problems are many. There’s the thorny relationship between and lax enforcement by Indonesia and Malaysia, the heavy traffic, the close quarters that provide numerous hiding places for pirate ships, and a long-standing tradition of piracy in the strait.

Patrols from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore keep the attacks down. Their armed presence acts as a deterrent and that seems to be a factor in just how much activity there is during a given period. American and British private security agencies have responded by hiring out to provide onboard security, providing naval escort, and even saying they can recapture ships seized by pirates. One of the units, Background Asia, provides about six escorts a month at $100,000 each.