Tanker Hijacking Part of Broader Pattern, Experts Warn

The Thai-flagged MT Orapin 4. Photo (c) MarineTraffic.com/Hanz Rosen
The Thai-flagged MT Orapin 4. Photo (c) MarineTraffic.com/Hanz Rosen

This weekend’s hijacking of an oil tanker in Southeast Asia follows a broader pattern of crime in the region, security experts warn.

As gCaptain reported this weekend, the Thai-flagged MT Orapin 4 departed Singapore laden with fuel oil on May 27, but attempts from the shipowner to contact the vessel a short time later failed, prompting a missing vessel alert and sparking fears that the vessel was hijacked. The ship was recovered two days later with its 14 crew members unharmed, but officials confirmed that pirates hijacked the vessel, stole its cargo and damaged communications gear.

The incident prompted Dryad Maritime, a specialist maritime intelligence agency, to issue an advisory to its shipping clients on the basis that the crime follows a pattern in the area, which has seen up to six such attacks over the last nine months.

“The vessel’s last communicated position report, just two hours after departing Singapore, suggests that the hijackers most likely boarded the ship in the Singapore Strait, a body of water densely populated with shipping as well as police and coastguard vessels,” said Ian Millen, Dryad Maritime’s Chief Operating Officer. We believe that the criminal gang involved either had prior knowledge of the ship’s intended movements or followed her out of the anchorage. While details at this stage are sketchy, there is good reason to believe that the incident may be linked to other similar crimes over this period.”

Even more concerning is the chance that such incidents in the region are far more prevalent than thought, according to Stephen McKenzie, a senior analyst at Dryad, who expressed concern over the under reporting of such crimes.

“We believe that this type of organised crime is far more prevalent than reporting would suggest,” McKenzie said. “It is clearly well organised and executed, orchestrated by criminal gangs who are involved in the marine fuel black market across Asia. Although we don’t yet know the full details of what happened on Orapin 4, it is likely that the vessel has been the victim of one of these gangs. In previous incidents, crew members have reported bunker barges and other small tankers waiting to transfer fuel at predetermined rendezvous sites. The hijackers clearly have knowledge of the operation of radio and satellite communications, along with some proficiency in handling fuel lines other ships’ equipment. Violence is often used against crew members and vessels are often ransacked for cash, personal belongings and portable electrical equipment before the criminals depart. This might suggest that those involved in the hijack are not particularly well paid for their part in the operation.”

Operators and masters of product tankers in the region are reminded to keep information on vessel movements and cargoes strictly to those that need to know, Dryad warns, while recognizing that insider information may be at the heart of criminal planning. It is also believed that the threat is unlikely to be dealt with in the near term.

“This latest hijack is clearly not an isolated event and it is likely that such crime will continue to be perpetrated to feed the black market,” Millan adds. “The unfortunate victims we have seen tend to be small, local product tankers, mainly working out of Singapore, with no obvious threat of this type of crime against larger Supertankers transiting through the area.

“The key to defeating the criminal gangs involved lies in comprehensive reporting of all such incidents to the IMB and appropriate regional authorities, alongside the sharing of information with local law enforcement. This kind of threat ultimately needs to be tackled at the point of criminal origin ashore. Once in control of a vessel, it’s just too late,” added Ian.

IMB's 2014 Live Piracy Map shows reported piracy incidents in the waters surrounding Singapore. Click to interact
IMB’s 2014 Live Piracy Map shows reported piracy incidents in the waters surrounding Singapore. Click HERE to interact