ReCaap’s July 2018 Monthly Report recorded not only a year-on-year decline in piracy incidents for January to July compared to 2017, but also a significant reduction in the number of violent incidents. ReCaap recorded no ‘Category 1’ incidents between January and July. ‘Category 1’ incidents are defined as those with a large number of perpetrators armed with guns and knives who are likely to harm crew and seek to hijack a vessel or steal its cargo.
In 2018 ReCaap also recorded the lowest number of ‘Category 2’ incidents during the January to July period of any year since 2009; ‘Category 2’ incidents being those where pirates are armed with knives and machetes, and are likely to threaten crew and steal vessel property.
NYA MarTrack™ data corroborates ReCaap’s findings. It shows a significant reduction in the number of hijacking incidents and attacks on vessels since 2015: in 2015 and 2016 a combined total of 50 incidents were record on MarTrack, whereas in 2017 and 2018 to date, the figure is 16.
SHIP FUEL THEFT GANGS AND ABU SAYYAF GROUP
In 2015 the high level of attacks on vessels and attempted hijackings in southeast Asia was primarily driven by two elements: the Islamist militant Abu Sayyaf group (ASG) and criminal syndicates involved in the illegal ship fuel trade. Incidents of cargo fuel / oil siphoning in the region were significantly high in 2014 and 2015 with at least 27 incidents recorded by authorities over the two years.
Typically, a pirate boarding team associated with criminal syndicates would board an oil / fuel-carrying tanker, take the crew hostage, then sail the hijacked vessel to a pre-arranged point where an unregistered ‘phantom’ tanker would take on the cargo. Vessels were normally targeted en route from the South China Sea to the Singapore Strait. It is unusual for vessels to be hijacked for longer than 48 hours, at which point the vessel and crew are typically released unharmed. Normally the criminal syndicates would have ‘insiders’ working for regional maritime authorities or in the shipping industry who would facilitate the operation by providing crucial intelligence.
However, after September 2015 there was a significant drop in the frequency of these incidents. In 2015 and 2016 the dramatic drop in the price of crude oil made fuel theft a less profitable activity. In 2018 to date, no incidents of ship fuel cargo theft hijackings have been recorded on MarTrack in the region, showing the overall decline in perpetrators’ activity in the area.
The other threat actor primarily responsible for hijacks and attacks in Southeast Asia, ASG, greatly expanded its maritime operations during 2016. From their heartlands in the southwest Philippines, they would mainly target slow moving vessels with low freeboards around the Sibutu passage and to the north and south of the Sulu archipelago. Rather than stealing vessel cargo, ASG’s main motivation was (and still is) to kidnap crewmembers and hold them on land for ransom.
In 2016 and 2017 a combined total of 29 hijackings and attacks targeting vessels around the Sulu archipelago were recorded on MarTrack. Whilst ASG were not responsible for all these, the militant group was the principal actor responsible for the dramatic increase in maritime violence in 2016 and 2017. By contrast, in 2014 and 2015 there were only seven hijackings and attacks in the wider area extending from the Sulu archipelago north towards the Palawan Island.
However, after mid-2017 ASG suffered setbacks which impacted its maritime kidnap operations. Many ASG operatives based in the eastern Sulu archipelago took part in the Siege of Marawi (May to October 2017), along with other Islamist militants, in which they fought against the Filipino military. Notably, just under a thousand Islamist militants from different factions – including the ASG’s leader Isnilon Hapilon – were killed in the Marawi siege.
Additionally, in April 2017 Filipino security forces killed three senior ASG leaders including Alhabsy Misaya, whose faction was responsible for kidnapping many of the Indonesian and Malaysian sailors at sea in 2016. Muamar Askali (alias Abu Rami), also killed in April 2017, was one of ASG’s principal maritime operations commanders and his death reportedly left a ‘leadership vacuum’. MarTrack data for 2018 to date shows there were only five recorded hijackings or attacks around the Sulu archipelago – indicating ASG’s degraded maritime operations.
Given the decline in fuel cargo theft hijackings since late 2015 and the current threat environment in the region, the frequency of such incidents is likely to remain low in the short term. However, the rise in oil prices this year could make cargo-theft hijackings more attractive again to criminal syndicates. If the oil price continues to increase, then it is probable attempted attacks on vulnerable vessels (low speed / low freeboard vessels with predictable routes) en route to the Singapore Strait will resume.
The ASG remains a capable threat actor around the Sulu archipelago, as their operations are enabled by the challenging geography of the area including multiple scattered islands and vast, difficult to patrol maritime areas. In its July 2018 report ReCaap reiterated that “Although there was no actual incident of abduction of crew in the Sulu-Celebes seas…during January-July 2018, the threat…still remains.” Furthermore, Filipino intelligence sent out alerts in July, April and January of this year, alerting seafarers that ASG militants in the Sulu archipelago and off Sabah, Malaysia continued to harbour the intent to carry out maritime kidnap for ransom operations. However, the lack of successful hijackings and reduced number of attacks by the group in 2018 suggests a weakened capability and a possible change of strategy.
HOW NYA CAN HELP
NYA24’s team of analysts produce a weekly Maritime Security Report that records and details global piracy incidents, helping stakeholders in the maritime sector stay on top of global piracy trends. NYA24 in London constantly monitors for maritime security incidents and sends immediate alerts to clients once information about significant incidents has been verified. Clients’ vessels can also be directly contacted to ensure they are aware of recent attacks and take necessary precautions. Additionally, NYA’s crisis response team have also helped clients resolve kidnapping incidents, as well as other crisis scenarios, in the region. Speak to us if you would like to find out more about the services we offer.
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