The Pirate Hunters

As buccanneering is back with a vengeance, stepped-up law enforcement and high-tech tools work to help protect shipping on the high seas

In the Persian Gulf, authorities are concerned about terrorism as well as piracy. Coalition vessels (the Coast Guard cutter Aquidneck, behind Coast Guardsman Zachary Coone) patrol exclusion zones around Iraq's Al Basrah and Khawr Al Amaya terminals, where tankers take on millions of barrels of oil daily. (US Coast Guard)
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If you enter an anonymous office 35 floors above Kuala Lumpur's lush tropical streets and pass through a secured door, you will come to a small room dominated by maps of the world taped onto two of the walls. This is the IMB's Piracy Reporting Centre, which operates round-the-clock. When pirates attack anywhere in the world, this office almost always receives the first report of it and radios out the first alert. Tens of thousands of vessels depend on the IMB's information.

Red pins mark the latest attacks. On the day I visited, the pins looked like a rash covering much of the world. Another wall was covered with thank-you plaques from the admirals of many nations, including the United States. Noel Choong, who ushered me through this command center, spent more than ten years on oceangoing ships as a mariner. Now, in a dark suit, the soft-spoken Choong looked more like a corporate middle manager than a supersleuth of the seas.

Choong showed me the center's reports on the 239 major pirate attacks it recorded in 2006. One hundred eighty-eight crewmen were taken hostage and 15 were killed—9 in Asia, 4 in Africa and 1 each in the Middle East and South America. "Modern-day pirates can be just as merciless as the Caribbean buccaneers," Choong told me. He recalled the 13 pirates—12 Chinese and 1 Indonesian—who hijacked the Cheung Son, a Hong Kong-registered cargo ship, off China in 1998. "They blindfolded the 23 crewmembers, beat them to death with clubs and threw their bodies overboard," he said. Then they sold the vessel to an unknown party for $300,000. But they were caught, convicted of piracy and murder in a Chinese court, and sentenced to death.

On their way to the firing squad, Choong said, the 13 sang Ricky Martin's bouncy 1998 World Cup soccer theme, "La Copa de la Vida," jumping up and down in their chains as they bellowed the chorus: "Go, go, go, ale, ale, ale." (Afterward, Choong said, "the Chinese charged their families the cost of each bullet" used in the executions.)

Because much of Choong's work is under cover, and because he's been the target of assassination threats, he's careful to protect his anonymity. He has a wide network of informants—usually members of pirate gangs or corrupt government officials looking for a fat payoff—and when a big ship goes missing, he will jet to distant cities at short notice to launch recovery operations. The pirates' going rate for the return of a hijacked ship, he said, is about $800,000. "If I can get it back by paying an informant a fraction of that, then the owners and underwriters are happy."

Recently, an informant called Choong's cellphone to say he knew where pirates were holding a hijacked ship. The next day Choong flew to Bangkok and, in the bar of an airport hotel, listened to the man's offer: the ship's whereabouts in exchange for $50,000.

Choong forwarded the offer to Chinese authorities, who found the ship at anchor in the South China Sea, sporting fresh paint, a new name and a fake registration. After the ship was in hand—Choong said he never pays without results—he arranged a $50,000 deposit to an account the informant kept under a false name. The entire transaction—from phone call to payoff—took no more than a week.

But Choong doubted that the man got to enjoy his loot. "I heard he was murdered by the gang not long after," he said.

Between rounds of whiskey in a plush Kuala Lumpur bar, a ship broker who asked not to be named because of security concerns told me that besides buying and selling ships for his clients, he sometimes arranges ransoms to get their vessels back from hijackers, for about the same sum that Choong had mentioned. "The owners usually pay up without question," he said. Bringing in the authorities "might tie up the ship for weeks, even months, at a port while they investigate the crime. That could lose them millions of dollars."

Of course, not all negotiations go smoothly. Along the coast of Somalia—which Choong pinpointed as one of the world's likeliest areas for pirate attacks—brigands can, and often do, drag out negotiations for months.


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