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Maritime Information Warfare Conference 2019 -London -November 18-19

November 18th 2019
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July 20th 2019

Sulu Sea/Celebes Sea, Philippines Piracy

Written by Jon Davies 
April 7th 2017
Written by Jon Davies
Following on from our news stream related to incidents off the Philippines in the Sulu and Celebes Seas, it was felt useful if our new in-house CSO looked at the challenge and the response to the threat.

It is sadly becoming clear that pirates operating at the juncture of the Sulu and Celebes Seas are becoming more capable and discovering the criminal advantages of taking hostages from vessels on transit and holding them for ransom. Most troubling is that this is being attributed to a designated terrorist group, namely Abu Sayyaf, who have been active ashore against Westerners since roughly 1991 and in the maritime domain, since 2016 starting with the kidnapping of local crews from fishing vessels, tugs and barges. Most of these kidnapped were freed through intervention by the Philippine or Malay governments, either by negotiation (potentially through the payment of ransom) or kinetic rescue by military force. Clearly this has given sufficient experience to the pirates and made the value apparent of going up the maritime scale to attack larger merchant vessels and kidnap selected crew members from general cargo vessels, bulk carriers and product tankers. Most concerningly is these vessels have been underway and attacks have been conducted using multiple speedboats (at least two or more), with pirates firing automatic weapons causing casualties amongst exposed upper deck or Bridge personnel and equipment. There is no evidence to suggest that attacks are Flag specific or sensitive[JC1] . ReCAAP advise to reroute/avoid the area if feasible.

Abu Sayyaf is currently facing a concerted effort by the Philippine military to end the group’s violent piratical and kidnap activities. The eradication of the group is one of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s main priorities, so much so that a six-month deadline was set for the military to crush the group in January this year. During the first six months of 2016, Abu Sayyaf made $7.3 million from ransom payoffs according to a Philippine government report.

This is a level of initial violence against seafarers and higher level of piracy than that experienced in either the Indian Ocean or West Africa. On approach, the pirates fire heavily against vessels with automatic weapons. Post boarding, pirates are reported as often damaging bridge communications and electronic equipment, as well as robbing personal gear. Seemingly, they are unconcerned by military intervention when they attack and it is unknown whether this is because they have some form of maritime awareness or local intelligence. The use of firearms has been reported in nearly every case at sea. The abduction of crew is clearly the pirates’ objective and over two thirds of attacks take place in daylight between 0800 – 1800. More than half of attacks may be undertaken by up to nine pirates but some may involve up to seventeen. Their overarching aim is the kidnapping and ransoming of multiple crew. In some early cases the pirates selected their abductees by passport, but this is not as much a specific nationality issue as a measure or tool to be able to identify their victim and provide proof of life evidence for ease of ransom settlement. There is an unknown possibility that if high value targets were taken (Westerners perhaps) there is a prospect that they might be used to further Abu Sayyaf’s political agenda, but this seems not to be the case with maritime hostages so far.

There seems little data on the success or validity of specific hardening measures. It is strongly recommended that vessels transiting this area observe full BMP4 precautions as for High Risk Areas (HRA), from 150nm north of the straits joining the Sulu and Celebes to 100nm south. No authority has declared this as a designated HRA, yet, nor provided any data on failed attacks.

It is recommended that a full lookout is established around the vessel. Vessels concerned by approaching suspicious fast contacts should activate SSAS and make alarm calls on VHF and satphone to:

Philippine Coast Guard District
Southwestern Mindanao Operation Centre

+63 929686 4129
+63 916626 0689

VHF: Channel 16 with call sign "ENVY"
Email: hcgdswm@yahoo.com

Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM)

Tel: +60 89863181/016
Fax: +60 89863182

VHF: Channel 16 with call sign "ESSCOM"
Email: bilikgerakanesscom@jpm.gov.uk

Vessels are advised by ReCAAP to report transits to the Philippine Coast Guard’s Operations Centre when their vessels are transiting the area for monitoring of transit and prospectively a response in any eventuality.

It is further recommended that CSOs for all vessels transiting these waters should see ReCAAP’s guide "Guide for Tankers Operating in Asia Against Piracy and Armed Robbery Involving Oil Cargo Theft."

Essential reading for vessels operating in Asia can be found on the ReCAAP site here.