What Do Pirates Want From Us?

Booty, of course.

Somali pirates captured a Ukrainian ship Thursday carrying about 30 T-72 battle tanks. Pirate attacks have been particularly common this year, the New York Times reports, with 50 ships attacked, 25 hijacked, and 14 currently being held. In 2005, Daniel Engber explained what these modern buccaneers are hoping to accomplish. The article is reprinted below.

Pirates who attacked a tugboat in the Malacca Straits last week have released three kidnapped sailors from an island hideout. In the past three weeks, pirates have also attacked another tug and an oil tanker in the same region. What do pirates want these days?

Booty, of course, in the form of cash, cargo, and—increasingly—ransom. Three hundred and twenty-five pirate attacks were recorded last year; we’re in the middle of a piracy renaissance. The swashbuckling “golden age of piracy” ended way back in 1730, as national navies grew more substantial and commercial vessels became bigger and faster. But since the beginning of the 1990s, pirate attacks have become more common—and much more violent—than they’ve been for quite some time.

In the mid-20th-century, most pirates were petty thieves: They used grappling hooks to sneak on board commercial ships at anchor, and grabbed all the loot they could find. These rapscallions were more likely to flee than fight if confronted by the crew.

In the Caribbean and in waters off the coasts of South America and West Africa, many pirates are still petty thieves, but they tend to be more violent. Maritime muggings now involve knives, automatic weapons, or even rocket-propelled grenades. In a typical attack, a handful of pirates will pull up alongside a boat in the middle of the night, climb aboard, and steal cash and jewelry from the crew and passengers. Commercial vessels often carry safes full of money for tolls and shipping taxes; pirates blow these open or force captains to unlock them at gunpoint. Attacks of this kind tend to bring in between $1,000 and $20,000.

In Asia—particularly the pirate-infested waters between Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula—pirates target commercial vessels for violent seajackings, hoping to capture not just cash but the ship itself and all its cargo. A rogue “mother ship” might follow a tanker or cargo ship out from port, and then send a fleet of powerboats to attack it in the middle of the night. Sometimes 40 or more pirates participate in a single assault, opening fire on the vessel at close range. Once they’ve boarded, they throw the crewmembers overboard, or murder them, or set them adrift. An entire ship with cargo might be worth millions of dollars.

Within the last few years, these pirate gangs have begun to go after tugboats pulling cargo barges that weigh thousands of tons. Tugs are slow, difficult to maneuver, and easy to board. But a big, slow target can be a burden when it’s time to make a getaway. So some pirates now take hostages instead of ships or cargo, and ransom them for tens of thousands of dollars.

As pirate attacks have worsened over the past 15 years, several international organizations have stepped up efforts to protect maritime shipping. The International Maritime Bureau of the International Commerce Commission runs a piracy reporting center from Kuala Lumpur, and keeps track of what attacks are happening and where. (They provide a free weekly piracy report.)

The United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, which went into effect in 1994, provides a framework for the pursuit and capture of pirate ships in international waters. Local governments are responsible for the arrest of pirates in their waters, but under the United Nations’ “hot pursuit” doctrine, they may cross national boundaries in the midst of a water-borne chase.

Several governments with rampant piracy problems have hired mercenary navies to patrol their ports. Commercial vessels can use fire hoses to fend off attacks, and some even have special equipment to prevent pirates from boarding. The Secure-Marine company sells a 9,000-volt electric fence, to be installed on a ship’s bulwarks.

Explainer thanks Captain Pottengal Mukundan of the International Maritime Bureau.