‘Pirates with black magic’ attack shipping in Indonesian waters

Modern-day pirates still operate in Indonesian waters. Author provided

‘Pirates with black magic’ attack shipping in Indonesian waters

At 4.20am, 3 perpetrators climbed up tug boat by using rope and hook at about 3 miles from South Perasi Island. (…) Later perpetrators tied up a machinist (…). Perpetrators consist of 4 persons using portable engine boat in pairs and portable propeller and at least 4 machetes.

This attack happened in February 2018 and was reported by the Singapore-based Information Fusion Centre, made up of about 20 international navy liaison officers from European and Asian countries.

Modern-day pirates still roam Indonesian waters. The Malacca Straits in particular provide crucial access to transport hydrocarbons, such as oil and gas, as well as to the European and African markets for Asian tankers and container ships.

From 2012, the archipelago nation was the most piracy-prone country in the world, according to a 2017 report by the International Maritime Bureau. Some 43 violent events in the sea were reported in 2017. These include one hijacking, five attempted attacks and 33 incidents at berth or at anchor, when ships were not underway.

The number of attacks in Indonesia in 2017 was higher than in other piracy-prone areas in the seas off West and East Africa. Thirty-six ships were attacked in Nigeria and only nine in Somalia (together with the Gulf of Aden).

As of the first quarter of this year, Nigeria overtook Indonesia as the country with most pirate attacks – 22 incidents compared to nine in the archipelago.

The Joint War Committee, with representatives from underwriting companies, still classes Tanjung Priok, Indonesia’s busiest port, as a “war-risk zone” due to “war, piracy, terrorism and related perils” in general, but without specific explanations.

But the reality of pirates in Indonesia is not a made-in-Indonesia Jolly Roger that would take sea transport hostage. Indonesian-style piracy is closer to sea-thieves than Hollywood-style pirates. Piracy is carried out on the high seas, while these armed robberies occur in territorial waters.

The sea muggings in Indonesia are a major concern for small and middle-sized vessels. Sea-robbers usually steal salaries in cash, mobile phones, laptops and shipping equipment.

I visited in the 2000s and early 2010s the various pelabuhan tikus (literally translates as rat harbours), which are small informal and/or illegal harbours along the Malacca Straits to decipher these statistics and find out what the situation is really like.

‘Pirates’ on standby in Batam. Author provided

Who are the pirates and how do they operate?

In these pelabuhan tikus and in nearby cities as well, we can find two different categories of the so-called “pirates”.

The first group are local taxi-boat drivers and fishermen who know the area well. They hide in mangroves along straits and steal valuables from boats passing close to the shores.

Mainly amateurs, they put on masks and use their own household machetes (parang) when they strike at night. “Black magic” helps give them confidence. They believe water from sorcerers (dukun) will make their sampans invisible.

Most of the incidents reported by the Information Fusion Centre are muggings by these local gangs. They are led by either a “violent” or “generous chief”, one of whom considered himself a “sea Robin Hood”. He provided funds to build a village and a mosque from his loot.

The second group consists of young people from remote Indonesian islands such as North Sumatra and Flores. Lured by the promise of the Riau Islands Special Economic Zones, they come to coastal cities like Nagoya in Batam, but end up struggling to find proper jobs. Between the dirty market and their wooden houses in the surrounding slums, they kill time by drinking coffee in places where offers for legal and illegal jobs circulate.

When a foreign bad-intentioned businessperson gets intelligence from a nearby shipping company and decides to hijack a vessel, he asks his Indonesian partners to find freelance henchmen (anak buah).

‘Pirates’ on standby in Batam. Author provided

The volunteers gather in a cheap hotel, where they wait for money to rent a sampan and to buy oil. Then, they move to a pelabuhan tikus from where they launch their attack. During the operation, the ship crew are either taken hostage or left at sea on a lifeboat. Once on board, another crew takes over to sell the cargo.

The informal chief of one pelabuhan tikus admitted that he knew people who carry out sea muggings. But he chose not to confront and stop them. He rationalised that the villagers can get some money from the sea muggings, while the legal and original crew were reimbursed by insurance companies and never injured.

Not connected to terrorism

Is the context favourable to a third category of incidents, namely terror attacks at sea? This is what analysts suggested in the 2000s.

But a former member of Jamaah Islamiyah, Nasir Abbas, admitted to me in interviews in Jakarta that an attack at sea was much too difficult to be perpetrated and lacked a big media impact compared to bombs on land.

Pirates operate discreetly, for money. This is the exact opposite of terrorists, who have a political agenda and want to gain an audience.

The pelabuhan tikus chief who refused to stop sea muggers told me: “If I see radical people coming to plan attacks, for sure, I will warn Jakarta.”

What next?

To deter pirates from sea mugging and to take action at sea, Jakarta is facing a major issue: who takes the lead? The co-ordinating minister for maritime affairs and fisheries, the Maritime Security Agency (Bakamla), the navy, the maritime police, or coastguard?

Indonesia passed a 2014 law on state action at sea. However, to implement the law, the government has to stipulate action by decrees. With the evolving challenges at sea in general – from foreign warships to neighbouring coastguards and illegal fishermen – Jakarta needs to establish proper co-ordination between its agencies.

The shipping industry cannot rely only on local chiefs (kepala desa) to stop sea muggings.

Patrolling the Malacca Strait. Author provided

France has been focusing on this co-ordination since 1800, under the authority of maritime prefects, who report to the prime minister, in the second-largest exclusive economic zone in the world thanks to numerous French islands in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans.

Indonesia can also look at the approach the European Union is taking in Somalia. EU forces not only patrol the sea, but also fight the roots of piracy on land (corruption, unemployment, coastal ghettos) through the implementation of both civilian and military EU missions in East Africa.

UNESCO is also working on coastal projects, with Indonesian ministries, to improve living conditions across the archipelago.

A more anthropological dimension is necessary to gain a holistic picture of the situation, complementing security studies.

Love this article? Show your love with a gift to support The Conversation's journalism, matched dollar-for-dollar.