International Maritime Health Association

Textbook of Maritime Medicine v2

12.10 Pirates today and their Modus operandi Print E-mail
Written by S.I.Baniela   


In short, an act of piracy, such as it is proposed here following the definition adopted by IMB for statistical purposes, can happen when a ship is at port docked, anchored or sailing, being in this last case on territorial seas of a nation or on the high seas. From the analysis of lots of recognized cases of acts of piracy, we can stand out that the pirates´ modus operandi acquires one of the following ways:

 Acts of piracy at port or anchored



 Ships with their cargo on board have always been an attractive target for robbers who are present in lots of dock areas. This problem has worsened in the last years, in such a way that the robbery of the cargo is an endemic trouble in many countries and in some ports generally “soft” in their pursuit; and it seems so inevitable that it gives the impression of an almost tolerable trouble in some cases.

 There is an emerging tendency of gangs organized to act in a planned way in some ports; they attack the ships by force and are prepared to frighten the crewmembers and use violence, even murder.

After an analysis of the existing cases in the last years we can draw three conclusions in general:

 The attackers are predisposed to make use of the strength to achieve their goals;

 Once the attackers have managed to get on board, it is useless and perhaps imprudent to offer resistance;

 In a general way, there is a lack of response to the application of the law on the nations´ behalf where these acts of piracy happen.

The more common regions for these acts of piracy both in ships at port and anchored are West Africa, South America, and Bangladesh. These attacks are carried out by armed gangs who use much violence and a certain degree of planning of their criminal acts if compared to other parts of the world. These attacks usually contain:

 The great degree of violence which the criminals strongly armed use once they get on board;

 The purpose of their haul is the money from the safe as well as the cargo, personal effects and the ship´ s equipment. In short, any property they are able to move;

 The total average value of this haul in an attack is higher than the one carried out during the pirates´ attacks using a short time in SE Asia; besides, there is usually some previous planning of the attack before it;

 There is a lack of competence or disposition to face the problem on the police behalf in these regions;

 Some targets are anchored ships.

 More specifically, this kind of piracy mainly takes place in ports in Brazil (Santos), Nigeria (Lagos and Bonny River) and Bangladesh.


Acts of piracy at port

 When the ship is at port, directly tied to the dock or brought alongside another ship, it is generally boarded by the scale to it if it is not watched, by climbing up the mooring lines or the anchor chain as appropriate, or by using grappling hooks and/or aluminium modified ladders in order to climb to the ship rail and get on deck


Acts of piracy anchored

 The attack to anchored ships has the same characteristics as the ships docked at port, although naturally the attackers need to have an additional capacity to move on the water in order to gain access to the ship. This kind of attack happens while the ships are anchored, either unloading the cargo to barges or to other ships, or while waiting for a dock. It is usually carried out from small boats seeking protection in darkness[1] and the pirates get on the ship either by the stern by means of grappling hooks and/or aluminium modified ladders in order to climb and get on deck or by climbing up the dropped anchor.

In the 90´s decade, this kind of attacks was quite common in adjoining waters to West Africa ports, especially in Nigeria (Lagos and Bonny River) and Tanzania (mostly in port, anchorages and surrounding waters of Dar Es Salaam)], with gangs who reached the ships by canoes and robbed everything they could take, from the ship equipment to the crew´s personal belongings, the safe, the cargo and mooring lines. Taking the flight was quite easy on their canoes moved by outboard motors of about 40 HP which cannot be pursued by patrol boats supposing they were led to response to such act of piracy.

 According to the last IMB statistics, there are no reasons to believe that this kind of criminal acts is decreasing in those areas of the world; however, there are other more sophisticated signs of this crime in other regions which present even a more disturbing tendency. Thus, most of the Brazilian ports are exposed to acts of piracy. There is more than one reported incident where groups of armed people have managed to get on the ship, not with the purpose of an opportunist and fortuitous robbery, but with the previous knowledge of what they could find in the specific containers; and what is more discouraging, the authorities have not helped the ships, victim of these attacks.


Acts of Piracy on Sailing Ships

 To these effects as it has been said, we consider acts of piracy both those taking place on territorial waters and on the high seas, as the difference between one and the other case concerns the derived problems of the lack of international legal uniformity in the concept of piracy. In the cases of sailing ships we have to make a difference according to the time and seriousness of the criminal act in each case. Consequently, we have to distinguish among those acts of piracy on the short term, the longer ones which usually imply the unloading of the cargo to another ship in order to be sold fraudulently, and those ones where the robbery of the total ship is the purpose of the act of piracy, followed by other illegal acts similar or even more serious, without forgetting those ones where there are involved nations after which there is a military or political background.


Acts of piracy on a short term

 In numerical terms, until 1992, this kind of acts was the most common and frequent in the area of the NW Island of Sumatra, the Straits of Malacca and Singapore, the Phillip Channel and the territorial waters of Indonesia; so it is in SE Asia where most of this kind of incidents take place. Fortunately and according to last IMB report[2], there are reasons to believe that those criminal acts are decreasing in these areas.

 The method is basically very simple although there are some exceptions worth reviewing. The criminals place themselves at one side of the ship in a small quick boat able to reach the same speed as the ship victim of the attack (there are assumptions where they have managed to gain access to a ship which sailed at 18 knots). The approach usually happens on the stern, avoiding the side or the bow of the ship because they can be seen, therefore losing the surprise factor. Once on board, they reach the bridge, dining rooms and the crew´ s cabins using great skill in their action. Generally, the attackers terrify or immobilize the crew from the bridge and then they reach the Captain's cabin as they know the safe is there and they open it or force the Captain to do it. Sometimes when they have not been able to open it, they have taken it out from its fitting stowage to carry it with them.

 The attackers often steal personal effects and money from the crewmembers, too before running away quickly. The average time of an act of piracy of this kind is between thirty minutes and two hours[3] and the average value of the stolen goods in each attack usually ranges from 10,000 to 20,000 $. A complete analysis of different cases of this kind is useful to exemplify different techniques although the object of their attack is generally the money and the valuable objects.

 In most cases, pirates always use threats in their acts, although they do not often use violence unless they are offered resistance; there is more than one registered incident when they have gained access to the ship without being seen, stolen the safe from the Captain's cabin taking it out from its fitting stowage and left the ship without been detected by any of the crew.


Acts of piracy on a long term

 This kind of incident is the one which probably most look like the acts of piracy in the old days. In these cases, the pirates hijack a sailing ship either on territorial waters or not. The crewmembers are defeated and the ship goes off the previous course/track and destination, keeping this situation for some days while the ship is completely unloaded and only then the crew and ship are released.

This kind of acts of piracy does not normally represent fortuitous criminal acts, but they are previously organized and need a detailed planning to carry it out. An example of this kind of attack is the case of the M/V “Marta”. In August, 1990 the ship “Marta” with a flag from Cyprus sailing from Bangkok to Busan (South Korea) was boarded at the frontier between Thailand and Camboya at night by four armed pirates who obviously knew exactly where the ship was at the moment and the details related to the tinplate cargo worth two million USA dollars. The attackers brought the nine crewmembers under control and started an odd trip, repainting the funnel with another watchword and renamed the ship as “V TAI” by using a template previously and specially made for this purpose. They raised the Honduran flag though they did not bother to change the port of the ship register painted at the stern.

The ship was forced to sail to the South for two days, being the crew handcuffed and blindfolded. Finally, the ship anchored and during the night the pirates unloaded 2,000 tons of tinplate to a barge brought alongside with land people and lift trucks to help the process. After unloading the whole cargo, the ship weighed anchor and sailed to the North. Two days later, when they were at the NE Malaysian coast, the pirates left the ship on the lifeboats with the Captain as a hostage who had been given a tranquillizer the night before. After destroying the radio of the ship, the rest of the crew was released with a large-scale map[4] from the Gulf of Thailand half torn so that they were able to reach Bangkok again. The crewmembers were left physically and mentally shocked due to the hard experienced suffered.

 From this act of piracy we can infer not only a great degree of organization, but also of impunity of the attack, corroborated with the fact that one of the pirates stated that it was the sixth successful attack he had carried out in the last eighteen months.


The named phantom ship: The literal theft of a ship as a trigger of a series of more serious crimes


This kind of act of piracy is the most serious and it consists of a scheme designed by the organized crime of SE Asia in order to get a ship. The modus operandi is quite simple.

 By means of a system of agents and contacts, the criminal group finds out that there is a shipper willing to find a means of transporting a cargo. One of the pirates’ options, luckily not the most frequent, consists of the literal stealing of a ship to transport this cargo. This is the act of piracy in the true sense of the word although the illegal acts which this entails are with no doubt even more serious.

 The chosen ship is usually hijacked on the sea, transferring its cargo (in this kind of crime, they even prefer a ship in ballast) to another ship accomplice to the operation and the crewmembers are left to their fate on the sea. Then a series of illegal acts start to take place, all of them tending to change the ship into what has become to be named a phantom ship. This is possible due to the temporal registers of ships made by Marine service officials of some countries. The register applications are sent to the named “Shipping Bureau”, Shipping Assistance” or “Marine Companies” in SE Asia. Documents with false information are sent to the Officials in charge of such register and as a result of this, the reflected information in the “Provisional Register Certificate” referred to such ships, as their main characteristics or the shipowner´s name, is actually false, but valid for the next three months. This means that the same ship may be registered under different names with different characteristics; this makes very difficult to follow the trail of these ships named “phantom ships”, being possible to get a false register of these characteristics before the false shipowner takes the control of the ship.

 This phantom identity gives the shipowners of these ships an essential weapon to make this new kind of crime after an act of piracy. Equipped with this new false name, the ship is offered to load the cargo to a shipper willing to find a ship for such purpose and to accept the bills of lading. Once the ship has been loaded, the charter man trusts that the ship sails to the established destination and the person who receives the cargo waits for the arrival of the ship with his cargo there; but it is an effort in vain: the ship never arrives at its destination. In the whole known cases of an act of piracy of these characteristics, the ship alters the established course and arrives at another port where the cargo is sold to another person who may or may not have been part of the fraud prepared from the first moment. Once the ship has been unloaded, it starts a new process to give the ship a new false identity, a phantom ship ready to commit a new fraud of big dimensions. It is virtually impossible to make a tracking of these ships because none of the register details are safe and when the moment of getting the necessary information for its pursue comes, the ship has stopped existing as such, in spite of all the attempts and efforts and it is probably sailing with another identity.

 During the eighties last century, Philippines got the sad fame of constituting a country where this kind of crimes was hatched. The first ship we have heard that has disappeared without trace in a decade of great number of ship hijackings was the M/V “Comicon” on the 15th of February, 1980. Neither the ship nor the 25 crewmembers have ever been found. With the detention of the Philippine Captain Emilio Changao, this chain of illegal acts ended.

 In November, 1996 the M/T “Suci”, an oil tanker loaded with diesel oil, was hijacked in the Philip Channel (E end of the Malacca Strait). The crewmembers were left adrift except for the two engineers who were finally disembarked on land after ten days. For the time being, nothing is known about this ship in spite of the attempts carried out for its finding.

 But perhaps the most paradigmatic example of attack is the incident of the “Alondra Rainbow”, which shows how the maritime industry and the authorities can work together with the purpose of defeating the pirates. Due to its importance, a summary of the episode about the incident is described next[5].

On 22nd October, 1999, the “Alondra Rainbow” loaded with 7,000 tons of aluminium ingots left Kuala Tanjung in Indonesia towards the Japanese port of Liike. Soon after the departure, a gang of pirates armed with swords and firearms hijacked the ship. The 17 members of the crew were threatened with death and transhipped to the MV “Sanho”, which was brought alongside at sea, keeping them captive for a week until on 29th October, 1999 they left them adrift on a lifeboat. On 8th November, 10 days later, they were rescued by a Thai fishing boat on NE Sumatra.

On 28th October, the Information Centre about piracy of the IBM[6], started the broadcasting of a message to other ships at sea via Inmarsat C SafetyNet, asking for information of any ship whose characteristics were similar to those of the “Alondra Rainbow”. The excellent answer of some Captains at sea helped find the disappeared ship. On 14th November 1999, the Captain of a Kuwaiti oil tanker informed of the sight of a ship with the outline of the “Alondra Rainbow” setting course for the Arabian Sea. The centre of information about piracy of the IBM gave this information to the Indian Coast Guard together with a photograph of the ship asking for his assistance. The answer was immediate and the Coast Guard sent a maritime patrol plane in order to trace the area. After catching sight of the suspicious ship, the Coast Guard informed that the outline of the ship matched with the photograph he had of the “Alondra Rainbow”; however, its name was “Mega Rama” hoisting the Belice flag. Several verifications, carried out in the Information Centre of the IBM about piracy, showed that such ship was not registered in Belice. The Indian patrol plane tried to keep contact with the ship on the radio, but it did not answer. Then, a coastal security patrol was sent to block the suspicious ship 70 miles away from W Ponnani. In spite of several threatening shots on the prow, the suspicious ship increased the speed and went on its track. It was necessary that the missile launcher corvette INS “Prahar” turned into action so that this unfortunate episode started to come to an end. The war ship used the force gradually in order to carry out the capture which finally took place on 16th November, about 300 miles SW Mumbai. The 15 Indonesian pirates found on board presumably tried to spoil the criminal evidence by starting a fire on board; they also tried to sink the ship by causing a leak. The naval assault group who got on board were able to control the fire, to keep the generated flood under control and finally to tow the ship to Mombai.

The investigation showed that the ship engineer, Burham Nanda and Captain Christinous Mintando met an agent of a boarding agency in a café in Batan, Indonesia on 4th October, 1999. They finalized the plans to hijack a ship and boarded on the MV “Sanho” which was anchored in Yakarta; 35 people embarked, 12 of whom were armed. The person in charge of them was known as “boss”. The first port where they stopped was Batam, where fuel, water and provisions were loaded. On 17th October it sailed towards Kuala Tanjung, Indonesia reaching this place on the evening of 22nd October, 1999. One of the pirates had already embarked on the “Alondra Rainbow” while the ship was loading the cargo. Then about 12 people armed with guns and lethal weapons went from the MV “Sanho” to a speedboat. When they caught sight of the “Alondra Rainbow”, the speedboat reached it on the stern. In order to help them get on board, the pirate who had been hidden on the “Alondra Rainbow” had let out ropes steady to the handrail on the stern. The crewmembers of the “Alondra Rainbow” were captured and tied. Then, the MV “Sanho” came alongside and Captain Mintando and other 14 “crewmembers” went on board and took control of the “Alondra Rainbow”. The real crewmembers of the “Alondra Rainbow” were transhipped to the MV “Sanho”.

On 23rd October 1999, Mintando and the 14 crewmembers changed the name “Alondra Rainbow” into “Global Venture” and sailed to Miri in E Malaysia, arriving on 26th October. They bought black paint and repainted the hull changing the old blue colour by black.

On 27th October, 3,000 tons of aluminium ingots were transferred to the “Bonsoon II”, brought alongside for that purpose. After this, the ship agent gave orders to Mintando to sail to Karachi in Pakistan. At a given moment of the crossing, the name of the ship was changed again, naming it “Mega Rama”.

Meanwhile, the “Bonsoon II” sailed to Philippines loaded with the stolen aluminium ingots. The “Mega Rama” was captured almost two months later and taken to Mumbai as already described. At least two of the 15 Indonesian pirates had taken part in the hijack of the ship “Tenyu” in September 1998, what suggests that they were part of an organized criminal gang.

Although India had ratified the UNCLOS Convention of 1982, they had not incorporated it to their national legislation. The Indian Penal Code does not specifically deal with piracy at sea or the hijacking of ships. Besides, when arresting the supposed pirates, India had not ratified the UNCLOS Convention of 1988. However, seeking protection in the Indian laws, pirates can be pursued on the base of the juridical principle “Piracy Jure Pentium”, considering it a crime to every country. The punishable act of the offender is said to turn out punishable on the part of his captors by virtue of this principle anywhere he is, whatever the nationality he belongs to and as a consequence, any Court is legitimated to judge him.

 In spite of the reviewed difficulties, the Mumbai police charged the supposed pirates with 11 charges according to the previsions in the Indian Penal Code. Initially, the supposed pirates were presented before the metropolitan Magistrate in Mumbai after their capture and later before the competent High Court to judge them. The public trial started on 14th March, 2001 and in March 2003 they were condemned to seven years of hard labour.

 As we have seen, the act of piracy -literal theft of the ship- is usually insignificant in this kind of crimes when compared with the criminal act it is used for; but it is obvious that the beginning of the chain of crimes is an act of piracy.

 Fortunately, and according to the last IMB reports, nowadays there are reasons to believe that this modus operandi is not in use in this area, even though it always exists the risk of a new outbreak of these criminal acts.


Acts of piracy with a military or politic background

 Unlike the frequent acts of piracy, maritime terrorist attacks are clearly much less usual.

Perhaps the most famous event has been the terrorist attack of the passenger ship “Achille Lauro” on October 7th, 1985 in the eastern Mediterranean and as mentioned, it was a trigger of the Convention on the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation adopted in Rome in 1988- SUA Convention.

From 1993 and until about 2000, it began a new kind of piracy acts in China, where the ships manned by people dressed with military uniforms blocked and started fire over merchant ships or yachts, stealing and kidnapping them. These attacks have diminished or even disappeared in the last years due to the advertising given to them on the international press, which caused that the Chinese authorities tried to solve the problem.

Other relevant maritime terrorist attacks that can be mentioned are the attack on the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden in 2000 and the French tanker, MV Limburg off the coast of Yemen in 2002, both carried out by the terrorist group Al-Qaeda.


Hijacking a ship and demanding ransom for the vessel and the kidnapped crew

 Pirates operate by using small low-tech skiffs, made of wood or fibreglass (typically 10 armed pirates into three skiffs fitted out with grappling hooks and aluminium ladders, rocked propelled grenades (RPG´s), AK-47 rifles, knives, satellite phones and GPS´s) with powerful outboard engines (40-50 horsepower). These boats are fast and manoeuvrable, but they lack the necessary range for getting better hauls. Nowadays, pirates regularly launch attacks by using ‘mother ships’ to increase their range from the coast. These are generally fishing trawlers that the pirates capture near the shore and then use as a means of transport for attacks on the high seas. Generally, the pirates use deceptive tactics such as false GMDSS DSC Distress Alerts, posing as fishermen or carrying out dummy attacks to divert warships from the area of a real attack. The use of mother ships helps to understand how pirates have managed to increase their range so dramatically; this explain how the old warning to stay at least 50 nautical miles away from the coast has now been replaced by warnings to stay at least 200 nautical miles away[7]. It is generally thought that the time sine de pirates are seen to the moment they are boarded is between fifteen and twenty minutes. Such a short space of time helps to explain why even with international patrols in the area, ships are still captured. In order to prevent an attack, a naval vessel would need to be close and have a helicopter ready to go at the moment’s warning.

Vessels are fired and compelled to slow their speed of approach while pirates climb on board, take the command of the ship, and sail to anchorage off a friendly coastal town such as Eyl, where ransoms are then negotiated while crews and cargo are held for a long time. Unlike in other parts of the world which are engaged in this kind of attacks, where it might be more likely to kill or seriously wound merchant ship crew members, most attacks carried out by Somali pirates rarely showed a willingness to harm their hostages gratuitously in the course of their raids, since extracting ransom payments is their objective.

Whereas in 2007 a lot of piracy was focused on Southern Somalia and Mogadishu port where, according to the UN monitoring group, port officials helped facilitate several attacks, in 2008 the most noticeable change was the shift in the main area of activity, since the most of the attacks have taken place in the Gulf of Aden. This makes sense since, as noted above, the Gulf of Aden is a major shipping route with around 20,000 ships passing through the it each year, carrying oil from the Middle East and goods from Asia to Europe and North America; this shift offers better hauls than Mogadishu and the consequence is that one of the most important trade routes in the world is now threatened by the chronic instability in Somalia.

Piracy has been a problem in Somali waters for at least ten years. However, the number of attempted and successful attacks has risen over the last three years. The only period during which piracy virtually vanished around Somalia was during the six months of rule by the Islamic Courts Union in the second half of 2006. This indicates that a functioning government in Somalia is capable of controlling piracy[8].

Whereas until recently most of these attacks occurred off the eastern coast of Somalia, in 2008 this was overtaken by the north coast of the same country, i.e. the Gulf of Aden, at the entrance to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal at the other end. The difference between the two is of some significance, as attacks on shipping along the east coast mainly affect the Somali population, inter alia by hampering humanitarian aid, whereas those on the north coast mainly affect international shipping linking the Middle East and East Asia with Europe.


[1] Most of these attacks happen between 2200 and 0600, local hours namely in dawn or dusk hours.

[2] ICC-IMB Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships Report – First Quarter 2009.

[3] In Anglo-Saxon terminology it is called “hit-rob-run”.

[4] For non-marine readers, a large-scale map is the one which represents a large extension, therefore being of a large scale, used for the oceanic navigation, in comparison to the small-scale map, the one which is of a small scale representing a little piece of the nautical map, more detailed and mainly used for landfalls, ports and coastal sailing areas.


[5] There are many sources about this case in different papers, reports and on the web. Here we use as a reference: Abhyyankar, Jayant “Piracy and Armed Robbery and Terrorism At Sea”, ORF Workshop on Maritime Counter Terrorist, Delhi, 29 November 2004.

[6] The IMB Piracy Reporting Centre in Kuala Lumpur, established since 1992, issues regular reports of piracy via routine radio communication broadcasts and the Internet.

[7] On April 8th 2009, Somali pirates seized the U.S.-flagged merchant vessel MV Maersk Alabama approximately 250 nautical miles south east of the Somali town of Eyl, placed on the northern semi-autonomous region of Puntland. Nowadays the distance warnings have increased; accordingly the IMB (see ICC-IMB Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships Report – First Quarter 2009) in cooperation with the Maritime Security Centre-Horn of Africa (MSC-HOA) advises that vessels not making scheduled calls to ports in Somalia should keep as far away as possible from the Somali coast, preferably more than 600 nautical miles.


[8] Nevertheless, in this case and as Bjørn Møller states, “This does, however, pose the question of whether the cure is worse than the decease”. See MØLLER, Bjørn, “Piracy off the Coast of Somalia”, Danish Institute for International Studies, Copenhagen, January 2009, p. 4.

Last Updated on Monday, 04 March 2013 10:30
Copyright © 2014 Norwegian Centre for Maritime Medicine - Knowledge is power and should therefore be shared.
Developed by Kjetil Horneland / Sixty AS. Website powered by Joomla. Website Disclaimer Notice. ISBN: 978-82-999303-0-7.