[In 2015, there were 178 attacks in Southeast Asia and none in the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea region near Somalia, according to the maritime bureau, after a multinational security crackdown there. The bureau also reported that in the first half of this year, Southeast Asia was the scene of more than one-third of the 98 attacks and attempted attacks globally.]
By Joe Cochrane
A group of Indonesian tugboat crew members in the Philippines in May after
their release by Abu Sayyaf militants. Credit Office of Sulu Governor,
via Associated Press
JAKARTA, Indonesia — Sembara Oktafian was in the engine room of a tugboat chugging toward the Philippines when something didn’t sound right.
There was shouting on deck, and shots. Gunmen had boarded, and their message was clear: Come with us, or we will kill you. They shot one crew member and kidnapped four others.
“They were a terrible-looking group, running around with AK-47s,” Mr. Sembara said. “I thought they were going to kill us all, but they only took my friends.”
The April attack, in the Celebes Sea south of the Philippines, was not isolated, or even out of the ordinary. Southeast Asia now accounts for the majority of seafaring attacks globally, surpassing the Horn of Africa, according to the International Maritime Bureau. And governments in the region are scrambling to combat the problem.
“In Somalia, the attacks have gone down,” said Noel Choong, the head of the maritime bureau’s piracy reporting center in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. “In Nigeria, the numbers are still there, but not as much as in Asia.”
In 2015, there were 178 attacks in Southeast Asia and none in the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea region near Somalia, according to the maritime bureau, after a multinational security crackdown there. The bureau also reported that in the first half of this year, Southeast Asia was the scene of more than one-third of the 98 attacks and attempted attacks globally.
The men who attacked the tugboat, an Indonesian-flagged vessel that had been hauling a coal barge, were later identified as members of Abu Sayyaf, an extremist group based in the southern Philippines that has acted as a hostage-for-ransom gang for more than two decades. It has also pledged its allegiance to the Islamic State.
Abu Sayyaf is responsible for most of the kidnappings at sea in Southeast Asia, but several other criminal gangs also operate in those waters.
Between March and August, Abu Sayyaf kidnapped 25 Indonesian and six Malaysian seamen in attacks along vital trade routes for coal barges in the Sulu Archipelago. The extremist group continues to hold nine Indonesian sailors from the recent attacks.
Alarmed by the spate of kidnappings for ransom, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines agreed in May to conduct coordinated naval security patrols in the Sulu Archipelago, and establish a hotline among themselves. In August, they agreed to allow “hot pursuits” of kidnappers and armed robbers by their maritime security forces into one another’s territory.
“The idea is for the closest patrol boat to take the necessary action,” said Arrmanatha Nasir, an Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman.
The Indonesian Navy thwarted the hijacking of an oil tanker by pirates off the southwest coast of Borneo in May, and arrested nine suspects. But attacks on oil tankers have become less frequent as global fuel prices have dropped, according to a recent report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.
Many attackers are instead targeting ships carrying valuable commercial cargo that can be sold on the black market, such as crude palm oil.
“Most of the criminal gangs that hijack fuel tankers are waiting for fuel prices to go up again, and then they will resume hijacking them,” said Karsten von Hoesslin, a maritime piracy expert and the host of the National Geographic Channel’s “Lawless Oceans,” who wrote the report.
“Until then, they are attacking ships carrying other types of cargo that is now more valuable,” he said.
Before the recent surge, Southeast Asia did have some success battling maritime crime.
In 1993, the maritime bureau documented about 20 maritime criminal attacks and attempted attacks in Southeast Asia, but that number steadily rose to nearly 250 by 2000.
Joint patrols by Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand in the Strait of Malacca — one of the world’s busiest sea lanes — drove down maritime crimes between 2006 and 2009. In 2008, there were only 54 attempted or actual attacks in the region, according to the maritime bureau, compared with 92 in the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea region.
The recent kidnappings have alarmed the Indonesian government in Jakarta, in particular, because Indonesian tugboats have been the primary targets of Abu Sayyaf militants.
Indonesia orchestrated the release of 10 sailors who had been kidnapped in late March by Abu Sayyaf and held for nearly two months by paying, according to the Indonesian news media, a ransom of more than $1 million. Days after that attack, Abu Sayyaf attacked the T. B. Henry, the tugboat that Mr. Sembara was on. He and five other seamen aboard — including the man who had been shot and wounded — were left behind as four others were taken because there was not enough room on the attackers’ speedboat.
Abu Sayyaf attacked another tugboat in June in the Sulu Sea, taking seven Indonesian sailors hostage. Two of those hostages, after being threatened with beheading, escaped in August by swimming out to sea from the Philippine separatist island of Jolo, where Abu Sayyaf is based. They were later rescued.
Some doubt that the recent security agreements to counter the kidnappings will be effective or that the countries will carry through on their pledges of cooperation.
Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington, who specializes in Southeast Asian security issues, said the agreements would not satisfy the Indonesian government.
“They have been trying to deal with this for several months, and it does not match because there is such a disconnect, and a lack of political will and capabilities,” Mr. Abuza said. “These countries are so very guarded about their territories, but they have very little ways to defend them, which makes them very insecure.”
That is little comfort to shipping company bosses such as Suharjono, the operations manager of Global Trans Energy International Jakarta, which owns the T. B. Henry.
The four sailors kidnapped from the T. B. Henry were released after 25 days. The company said no ransom had been paid, but the local news media speculated that ransoms had been paid for all Indonesian and Malaysian sailors who had been released.
“My crew is still traumatized,” said Mr. Suharjono, who, like many Indonesians, goes by one name. “And security is just getting worse.”
Follow Joe Cochrane on Twitter @datelinejakarta.