National Geographic Today
A resurgence of piracy haunts the high seas. This year, as of December 10, 2002, pirates have attacked 338 vessels, on par with 335 for 2001, according to the International Maritime Bureau, part of the International Chamber of Commerce.
"There are basically two types of armed robbery," says Jayant Abhyankar, deputy director of the London-based ICC-IMB, who himself served 17 years at sea in merchant ships. "Between 85 and 90 percent are maritime muggings, in which the whole object is to steal cash or anything of value. Then there are the well-planned, highly sophisticated hijackings carried out by organized crime gangs."
The recent downturn in the global economy and the increase of Third World poverty have contributed to the rise in piracy, according to John Burnett, author of the just-published "Dangerous Waters: Modern Piracy and Terror on the High Seas."
Political terror also plays a role in hot spots like Somalia and Sri Lanka. Whatever the motivation, pirates prowl waters all around the world.
The stakes are high. About 95 percent of the world's commerce, including most crude oil, moves by ship, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Organized Crime Gangs
And pirates prey on all types of ships, from luxury yachts to fishing trawlers to oil and chemical tankers, particularly any vessel with few crew members. (They tend to ignore large cruise ships because of the number of crew.)
Pirates attack with guns, parangs (a machete common in Indonesia and Malaysia) and, on occasion, dynamite. The new breeddecidedly not the swashbuckling pirates of lorecan range from local seamen looking for quick cash to organized-crime gangs and rogue military units.
The most dangerous pirates are gangs toting Uzis and using satellite navigation devices, mobile phones and James Bond-like speedboats. Dressed in black, they board ships at sea in the darkness and take the crew hostage, brutalizing and sometimes killing (with six recorded murders through September).
"Ships are sitting ducks at sea," Burnett says. "It's very difficult to stop pirates these days. Ships and their crews are not equipped to defend themselves."
The ICC-IMB runs the Piracy Reporting Center, a worldwide monitoring agency in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and issues an annual report, "Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships." Its Web site tracks piracy week by week throughout the year at Weekly Piracy Report.
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