The Sulu-Celebes Sea is an area which has become a huge risk to shipowners worldwide, and has even been described as the ‘new Somalia’ by Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs, Luhut Pandjaitan.
According to a ReCAAP ISC Special Report on the Abducting of Crew from Ships in the Sulu-Celebes Sea and Waters off Eastern Sabah (Part III), a total of 22 incidents (13 actual and 9 attempted) have been reported from March 2016 until March 2017 in the area - with a total of 58 crew members being abducted.
This represented a 120% increase in attacks from 10 in 2016, with the majority being low-level attacks at Manila and Batangas, on anchored vessels, the country's two busiest ports.
This rise in piracy to the west of the Philippines has even forced some shipowners to divert voyages by sailing to the east, adding valuable time to their journey and incurring unnecessary costs.
The area had been of particular concern since 2016, with piracy watchdog ReCAAP issuing a statement urging seafarers to reroute from the area where possible, or to take particular care and be extremely vigilant when transiting the area.
The biggest concern is the worrying trend of kidnappings which has emerged, with Philippine extremist group Abu Sayyaf thought to be responsible for the majority of attacks.
The Philippines and surrounding areas in particular has seen a disconcerting rise in incidences of Islamic extremism, with the ISIS-associated Abu Sayaff largely at the forefront.
Abu Sayyaf started as a group of militants in 1990s, initially linking itself to al-Qaeda before later pledging it’s loyalty to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
As the line between terrorism and organised crime becomes more and more blurred, organisations such as Abu Sayaff have turned to kidnappings as a way to generate revenue more effectively.
Compared to traditional methods of piracy which would involve pirates stealing cargo, there has been an obvious shift towards kidnapping as a less labour intensive, more cost-effective way of making money.
Rather than lugging around cumbersome stolen cargo or machinery, pirates have found it easier to kidnap crewmen and demand ransom.
Seafarers have been particularly vulnerable to kidnappings since 2016, with Philippine-based militants demanding ransoms for people abducted in the region.
However, fortunately the number of abductions decreased from six to three from 2016 to 2017 although the trend towards lethal violence means seafarers should still say vigilant.
2015 was a year in which no seafarers died due to pirate attacks – however during 2016 violence at sea was far deadlier with two seafarers killed by their kidnappers, and another four dying because of pirate-related incidents.
Abu Sayaff are now relying on kidnappings to fund their criminal activity, and have in some instances demanded up to 6.4 Million US dollars for each hostage.
However, on numerous occasions the terrorist organisation has shown they will kill detainees if payment is not received.
In 2017 alone, there was multiple incidents of Abu Sayaff beheading detainees after not receiving any payment.
Abu Sayaff has shown their main goal is to make money, and those who are kidnapped are often let go once the ransom is paid.
Despite this, the various governments involved have continued to let innocent seafarers die.
Following the beheading of german-born Jurgen Kantner, Jesus Dureza, presidential adviser on the Philippine peace process made a statement to the press. It said
“We grieve as we strongly condemn the barbaric beheading of yet another kidnap victim. There must be a stop to this killing of the innocent and the helpless.”
Not once did it reference the ransom that they had refused to pay.
As recently as February 2018, pirates attempted to board a merchant vessel five miles southeast of Sibago island in the Philippines.
Three hostile motorboats overtook and attempted to board the local merchant vessel, MV Kudos 1, but the crew were able to successfully evade their attempted boarding using boiling water.
The pirates, using ropes and hooks, fought to board the ship but were deterred by the crew's use of medieval defence methods.
The pirates abandoned the boarding attempt but proceeded to open fire on the ship. Luckily, they were able to escape with only one minor injury.
This incident, among so many others, proves the complete disregard for the safety of crews within the industry. It is astounding that in 2018, crewmen are left to fend off pirates using boiling water – a tactic that was left behind centuries ago.
What is the industry doing about it?
In response to the varying acts of violence and crime committed on unarmed crews, industry and government agencies created a source of reference called the “Guide for Tankers Operating in Asia Against Piracy and Armed Robbery Involving Oil Cargo Theft”.
Unfortunately, like BMP4, the advice and recommendations is too vague and is not descriptive enough for a layperson to develop security plans from.
This not only leaves crews vulnerable but can also lead the crew into a possible false sense of security and potentially make them more vulnerable.
Having witnessed time and time again crews being left ill-equipped in dealing with hostile situations, with only their own ingenuity and DIY defence mechanisms to separate them from their attackers, it’s time the industry took note.
In an ideal situation, a crew should be far enough away from the attackers so to mitigate any risk. The process of creating multiple layers of defences between the perpetrators and crew is best practice, and careful planning and consideration should be taken to incorporate the use of a citadel, which has been proven to be successful on numerous occasions.
This approach has proved successful all over the world, and needs to become ingrained in security policies, especially with the current trend towards kidnapping in the Sulu-Celebes Sea.
Attacks are an inevitability, but with better crew training and understanding of the threat, more can be done to mitigate the likelihood of been attacked.