Rates of theft around Asia have risen precipitously in recent years, making the region the pirate capital of the world. Last year it was home to 75 percent of all piracy operations — 183 of the 245 instances of actual and attempted piracy reported worldwide were in Asian waters, a 22 percent increase over 2013.
The stealing of oil from a tanker on Friday shows just how bold the region’s pirates have become. Pirates boarded the Thai tanker Lapin in Malaysian waters and siphoned off its cargo of 2,000 metric tons of bunker oil and five metric tons of diesel before leaving an improvised explosive package onboard and escaping.
Investigators for the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) confirmed the attack on Tuesday. The ship was passing through the Strait of Malacca that separates Indonesia from Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand.
Map of the Lapin’s movements (Image via ReCAAP ISC)
The attack was carried out by up to eight pirates suspected of being Indonesian. They boarded the Lapin from a small boat armed with guns and blades, gathered the 15 crewmembers, tied them up, and took control of the tanker. A larger vessel approached alongside onto which the oil and diesel were siphoned.
Before leaving the tanker early on Saturday morning, the men destroyed the ship’s communication devices collected the crew’s belongings. They then told the crew that they’d planted a bomb aboard the tanker.
The crew freed themselves and sailed the Lapin into Thai waters where, with the help of a passing fishing boat, they notified authorities of the attack. The Royal Thai Navy reached the tanker on Sunday and dispatched a bomb disposal unit, which determined that there was no explosive or detonator attached to the “bomb.” None of the crew were harmed.
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The ReCAAP Information Services Center (ISC) Deputy Director Nicholas Teo told VICE News that fuel-siphoning piracy is an ongoing problem.
The Lapin attack was the first successful siphoning incident reported in 2015, but the frequency of these attacks has escalated significantly in recent years. Last year there were 15 such attacks, 12 of them successful — a dramatic increase on the previous three years when a total of only eight cases were reported.
“Illegal siphoning of fuel/oil has become a lucrative business owing to the market price and taxes imposed on fuel,”a recent ReCAAP ISC report said. “With continued demand for fuel/oil in underground markets, siphoning incidents are here to stay.”
Most attacks occurred in the South China Sea or Strait of Malacca. The region offers much opportunity for this kind of piracy: over a third of all shipping passes through the Strait of Malacca, including 15.2 million barrels of crude oil and petroleum transported every day.
“The general trend is that the crew report that people come onboard and lock all but one or two of them in a cabin while the others are left on the bridge,” Teo said. “An unknown boat then comes alongside takes the cargo and leaves. But in most of these cases we find that these stories don’t gel.”
Rather inconsistencies usually render the crew’s version of events implausible and suggest the perpetrators acted with insider knowledge, Teo explained.
There is a required level of knowledge to successfully execute an attack, such as the one carried out onLapin, where fuel is siphoned from one vessel to another.
ReCAAP ISC’s report into siphoning said that perpetrators “would need to have good knowledge or insider information” of the type of manifest onboard, the tanker’s route, and the type of siphoning equipment it carried onboard.
“In some cases we have a particular company or vessel hit multiple times,” said Teo. “There’s one company that was hit six times and another four. We approached these companies and told them that these must be inside jobs.”
The perpetrators need to consider a location to conduct siphoning to avoid detection by authorities, coordinate a vessel to carry the stolen fuel, and have a location where it can be stored for potential buyers. The perpetrators also need to understand market demand, including the type and grade of fuel and the going price for siphoned fuel.
“We cannot conclusively point the finger and say that this group and this company is involved in the incident, but it’s clear that this is being conducted with insider information,” Teo added.
The interior of Lapin’s cabins. (Image via ReCAAP ISC)
Many perpetrators are connected or belong to well-organized syndicates that, with local and perhaps even transnational networks, have channels to sell on the stolen oil. ReCAAP ISC considers there to be at least three major groups conducting syphoning attacks in the region.
The stolen fuel is distributed to illegitimate petrol stations selling cheap fuel across the continent and eventually finds its way into the thousands of boats in South East Asia’s many rivers and around its islands.
“We have come across tugboats and fishing boats that have been modified as fuel tankers, but these can generally only take around 5 tons,” Teo said.
This makes the 2,000 metric tons siphoned from the Lapin seem like quite the load, but Teo noted that it’s all relative. “Some tankers carry around 30,000 tons,” he said.
Notwithstanding the threat of violence, the lack of harm to the crew on the Lapin is typical. The perpetrators of these incidents are generally only interested in the cargo, and rarely have intended to hijack the vessel and kidnap those onboard.