On the morning of October 17, 1999, after an uneventful crossing of the Java Sea, the Alondra Rainbow arrived with empty holds at the outer anchorage of Kuala Tanjung, an equatorial port dominated by an aluminum smelter on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, west and north of Singapore, at roughly the midpoint of the Malacca Strait. Captain Ikeno posted a normal pirate watch through the night, and in the morning eased his ship into the port, to an assigned berth. Over the next five days the Alondra Rainbow took aboard a full load of 6,972 bundles of aluminum ingots, each bundle weighing about a metric ton, or 1,000 kilograms. The work was unhurried, as loadings go. It was supervised by the ship's chief mate, a Filipino with the musical name of Voltaire Lapore. The cargo had a value of about $10 million, which happened to be the value of the Alondra Rainbow as well. Captain Ikeno's job was to shepherd this $20 million package 3,300 miles north across the open ocean to Omutashi, Japan, on the southern island of Kyushu. Once free of the Malacca and Singapore Straits the route would take the ship through the waters between the Malay Peninsula and the island of Borneo, across the South China Sea past the Philippines, past Taiwan, and finally across the East China Sea. The trip would require about a week. In preparation Captain Ikeno had the ship fueled.
Only ten weeks remained in the twentieth century. As always, the air at Kuala Tanjung was hot and humid. Local chandlers came aboard with their supplies and paperwork, as did the port's hawkers, who scampered up the gangway and sold directly to the crew. The hawkers' goods were global things like garish radios and running shoes, many of them stolen from other ships. They haggled in broken English, the language of the sea. It was a typical port scene, too industrialized to seem exotic, but beneath its machinery and concrete, much wilder than it appeared to be. By late afternoon on October 22, the Alondra Rainbow was ready to sail. The sun set behind Sumatra at 6:06 P.M. Two hours later, after maneuvering to clear the dock, the ship got under way. By the time it cleared the outer anchorage and was headed down the Malacca Strait, the deep night had fallen. The crewmen were tired as usual after a stay in port, as much because of the disruption of their sleeping patterns as because of any work or drinking they might have done.
The bridge was darkened to allow the watch to see outside. Captain Ikeno stood duty there, along with the ship's third officer and a helmsman steering by hand. The steering was passive on such a calm night. Occasionally Captain Ikeno asked for a heading correction or a small turn. The Alondra Rainbow moved to the southeast at a moderate speed, barely trembling with the exertion. An almost full moon illuminated the waters from high overhead. The ocean's surface drowsed in the balmy air; it foamed with the ship's passage and rose into little waves in the wake, but shortly settled down again and slept. In the moonlight that wake would have been clearly visible to anyone looking back from outside on the bridge's wings, but the seamen's attention was focused necessarily on what lay ahead. There were islands around, dark masses, some sprinkled with lights. Among them moved ships, ferries, and coastal craft—obstacles that appeared as masthead lights, or as ghostly shapes, or not at all. Despite radar's appeal as an all-knowing eye, the smaller vessels would have been invisible to it, and even some of the larger ones might occasionally have been missed. As an experienced mariner, Captain Ikeno was aware of these dangers, of course. But eventually he felt he had the necessary space, and he accelerated the Alondra Rainbow to its full 13 knots. At 10:00 P.M. he ordered the helmsman to switch on the autopilot and set in an east-southeasterly heading of 113 degrees, outbound for the Singapore Strait and the ocean beyond. Having reminded the third officer to keep a careful lookout for pirates, he left the bridge for his quarters, one deck below. He intended to relax, draft a departure telex to the ship's owners, and take a bath. A few minutes later, with the moon now directly overhead, the Alondra Rainbow came under attack.
The assault was not a casually opportunistic act—yet another case of native fishermen suddenly striking at passing wealth—but, rather, the culmination of an elaborate plot. The operational phase appears to have started nearly three weeks earlier, with a meeting in a coffee shop at the port of Batam, Indonesia, just across the strait from Singapore. At least two of the future pirates were there—a local resident and ship's engineer named Burhan Nanda and a Sulawesian named Christianus Mintodo. Both men were middle-aged. Mintodo said he held a master's certificate, variably from Honduras or Belize. Both men were short and slight but physically tough, and undoubtedly they had spent hard years at sea. Mintodo in particular had a dangerous air, a quiet voice and restrained demeanor belied by a ruthlessness that was obvious in his eyes. It is presumed that he knew Nanda already, and that both men had been involved in piracy before. They were joined at the table by a recruiter for the current venture, an "employment agent" who went by Yan, or Yance, Makatengkeng, and who outlined the plan. Makatengkeng has since become a fugitive from justice, though at little risk of being found. He was serving as an agent for the real power, an anonymous figure known simply as "the Boss." This man is believed by investigators to be Chinese, though such distinctions mean little on the ocean today.
For the pirates in Batam the Boss was a disembodied voice on a throwaway phone. He telephoned Makateng-keng at the coffee shop and welcomed the new "officers" aboard. The conversation would probably have seemed legitimate to anyone listening in. The words were those of an honest employer, working through an honest agent to hire an honest crew: Christianus Mintodo was to be the captain of a ship, Burhan Nanda his chief engineer. The setup reflected normal arrangements on the high seas. All that was required was a slight shift of a word or two, or even just of implication, to unleash the mayhem that followed.
But intricate planning was involved, most of it logistical. Mintodo and Nanda flew to Jakarta, on the northern tip of Java, where they hired a port service boat to ferry them to the Sanho, an old freighter lying inconspicuously in the outer anchorage. The Sanho was a pirate ship, pure and simple. It was financed by the Boss or his syndicate and commanded by a man who called himself Marnes Zachawarus and is now another fugitive from justice. While lying off Jakarta the Sanho took on fuel and provisions. Over several days a crew of thirty-five pirates was assembled, including of course Mintodo and Nanda. Most of these men were Indonesian, but they included Chinese, Malaysians, Thais, and perhaps other nationalities. They were divided into groups according to skill and function. The hijacking team was made up of fifteen armed men equipped with a fast boat that probably was stowed somewhere aboard.
On October 16, after receiving a satellite call from Makatengkeng, the Sanho left Jakarta and headed upcoast for the port of Kuala Tanjung. It arrived there on the night of October 21, and lingered in the outer harbor. The next day word came from a port informant that the Alondra Rainbow would depart around sunset. The timing was convenient. There is a theory that one of the pirates may have gone aboard when the ship was berthed, perhaps by posing as a hawker, and that he hid himself away in order later to emerge and lower ropes to the others. But the hijacking team consisted of nimble men who would have had no trouble securing grapples and ropes on their own, and who were practiced as well at the art of shimmying barefoot up bamboo poles. It is unknown how they actually proceeded, though it seems likely that the Sanho put to sea first, that it was one of the ships the Alondra Rainbow passed by on the sleeping, moonlit ocean, that the pirates approached from behind in their small, fast boat, and that while the Alondra Rainbow plowed ahead under autopilot at 13 knots, they easily climbed onto its stern.
At 10:30 P.M. Captain Ikeno was at work at his desk one level below the bridge when he noticed thumping on the deck overhead, and simultaneously heard garbled shouts on the intercom. He rushed up the stairs and found that the bridge door was blocked from the inside. When he shoved at it hard enough to force a small opening, he saw pistols and knives, and wisely desisted. The pirates yanked the door open, pushed him against a wall, and held a knife to his throat. In the same thick English used to haggle for goods, they threatened to kill him if he resisted. One of them fired several rounds into the ceiling to make the message clear.
There was a sign on the bridge that read SAFETY FIRST in block letters. However, safety is always a relative condition. The Alondra Rainbow was proceeding unmanned and at full speed through some of the busiest waters in the world, but Captain Ikeno was occupied with more immediate concerns. He counted about ten pirates on the bridge, armed with knives, guns, and bolo swords. They wore ski masks and loose clothes, and were barefoot. From their language and build and what he could see of their skin, he thought they included both Malaysians and Indonesians. They had roped the hands of the third officer and the helmsman behind their backs, and they did the same now to him. Ikeno was afraid of their tempers, and he did not speak. One of the pirates took his wristwatch, and another took the ship's master key out of his pants pocket. They then forced him to guide them through the accommodation decks, where they pulled terrified sailors out of their cabins, bound and blindfolded them, and sent them to be held in the crew's messroom.
Captain Ikeno's fellow Japanese officer, the aging chief engineer, tried desperately to hold his cabin door closed from within, but he was quickly overpowered. The third engineer was on duty deep in the engine room, working in its cacophonous isolation, when suddenly the pirates appeared as if in pantomime, shoving the captain before them. They made the third engineer reduce the ship's speed, and then bound and blindfolded him, and shoved him up the stairways to the messroom. The entire crew of seventeen had now been captured. Captain Ikeno was led to his cabin and forced to open the ship's safe. The pirates grabbed the cash that was kept there—several thousand dollars, in U.S. and Japanese bills—and took the crew's papers and passports and the captain's second wristwatch. They also ransacked the other cabins for anything of value, which wasn't much. They took the captain to the messroom, blindfolded him like the others, and threatened to slaughter everyone if anyone rebelled.
Ikeno and his crew had every reason to believe the threat. Merely one year before, in September of 1998, a smaller Japanese-owned freighter named the Tenyu had gone missing soon after departing from the same port of Kuala Tanjung with a similar load of aluminum, and a crew of fifteen. Three months later the Tenyu was discovered under a changed name and flag in a Chinese port, but the cargo was missing, as was the original crew, all of whom are presumed to have been killed. The strangers found aboard the Tenyu were arrested by the Chinese under suspicion of piracy, but because they claimed to have joined the ship legitimately in Myanmar, and possessed used airline tickets to Rangoon along with valid Myanmar visas issued in Singapore, the Chinese authorities released them for lack of evidence. In the background was the understanding that they had not committed any crime in China. For Captain Ikeno and the crew sitting captive in the Alondra Rainbow, it was just as well not to know that at least one of the pirates on their ship had been among those released by the Chinese.
It is not clear whether the designated captain, Christianus Mintodo, had yet come aboard, or who exactly was on the bridge, but it seems likely that the Alondra Rainbow was again under control, and being steered by experienced hands. Was it midnight now? The captive crew sat in blindness on the messroom floor, each man in isolation, feeling the familiar vibrations of the ship in motion. Because there were guards in the room, they probably did not talk. Captain Ikeno tried to keep track of time. A couple of hours after being shoved into the room, he noticed a change in vibration, which he recognized as a reduction in speed, and he heard a pump start up. He then felt a sharp bump. Soon afterward the pirates began to take the men, still bound and blindfolded, one by one from the room.
They were led down the corridor, through a door, and out onto an aft deck, to the railing. The pirates then removed the captives' blindfolds. Ikeno found himself looking three feet down onto the deck of a small freighter that had come up alongside. There were many armed men aboard. In the moonlight Ikeno saw that the freighter was rusty and badly maintained, and that it was riding high, as if its holds were empty. It was probably the original pirate vessel, the Sanho, commanded by Marnes Zachawarus. Ikeno dubbed it "the dirty ship," a name that stuck. He and his crew were made to jump down onto its deck, after which they were led below to two separate rooms, where they were blindfolded again, and ordered to lie on dirty mattresses spread on the floor. The pirates warned them to be silent, and said that anyone who tried to stand or look outside would die. From the sound of things—the occasional bump, the clatter of equipment, the voices of men moving back and forth—the two ships lay together for another hour or more. But the night was still deep when they drew apart and went their separate ways.
For nearly a week Captain Ikeno and his crew lay bound and blindfolded in sweltering rooms as the dirty ship carried them northwest through the Malacca Strait and on into the vastness of the Andaman Sea. They were fed only twice, taken to the toilet, and given dirty drinking water from a can marked ESSO on the side. This last detail they learned from Voltaire Lapore, the chief mate, who saw it from beneath his blindfold. As the blindfolds naturally loosened, others learned to see as well. Ikeno's vision got to be so good that he could discern among the pirates, and was able to study the man he thought was the leader—about forty-five years old, five feet eight inches tall, muscular, potbellied, dark-skinned, and with the features of an Indian or a Pakistani. The pirates were going around unmasked, whether because they trusted the blindfolds or believed that the prisoners would not survive.
On the seventh night the engine stopped. The pirates came to the rooms, took the Alondra Rainbow's crew outside, and made them lie on the deck. The scene was similar to one that had occurred less than a year before, and that the crew must have been aware of: a bulk carrier named the Cheung Son, loaded with steel-mill slag, had been hijacked on the South China Sea by pirates dressed in Chinese customs uniforms, who had lined up the twenty-three crewmen and then systematically clubbed them to death before attaching heavy objects to their bodies and heaving them overboard. It would have been of little consolation to the Alondra Rainbow's crew, lying prone on the deck of a dirty ship in the middle of the Andaman Sea, that the killers had recently been arrested in China, and that a rare trial was about to begin. The men standing above them now were clearly not the sort to care.
It turned out, however, that the pirates had a different solution in mind. Rather than dirtying their hands with killings, they floated the Alondra Rainbow's inflatable life raft, which they had purloined at the start, and with disregard for their prisoners' ultimate survival, they forced the crew to crawl aboard. Captain Ikeno was last to go. The pirates cut the rope. The dirty ship steamed away, disappearing so thoroughly into the night that neither it nor the pirates aboard have yet been found.
The crew felt little relief at having been freed. They were now marooned in a crowded rubber raft, without effective means of propulsion, adrift on the open ocean. They had no radio or navigation gear, and they were completely lost, with no idea even of what ocean they were in. The raft came equipped with the barest provisions: a few cans of food, a supply of fresh water, a first-aid kit, two sponges, two safety knives with buoyant handles, two bailers, two paddles, ten signal flares, and a pamphlet of survival instructions, written in English. The instructions amounted to Don't get cold, don't get hot, try to stay out of the sun, and do not drink seawater.
There may also have been something about keeping up morale—but that was especially hard. For ten days the crew drifted. Ten ships passed within sight, and did not stop. All ten flares were fired off. The water rations grew precariously small. The crew caught a few fish, which they held up and squeezed over their mouths for the juice that dripped out. As the days went by, the men began to pray and cry. The mood grew so surly that Captain Ikeno feared that he and the chief engineer, as the only Japanese in the raft, might be attacked and even murdered. He formally ceded command—most critically of the water supply—to his Filipino chief mate, Voltaire Lapore.
On the tenth day adrift, around noon, a small commercial fishing boat came into view. The stranded crew took off their shirts and waved them in the air. The boat slowly approached. Several times it changed direction, as if the fishermen were uncertain whether to get involved. Eventually it drew to within shouting range and stopped—maintaining a wary distance. Pirates were known to have posed as stranded mariners to lure innocent vessels into traps. The men in the life raft could see that the boat flew the flag of Thailand. One of them shouted in English that they were fifteen Filipinos and two Japanese, that they were victims of pirates, and that if they were not rescued they would die. The fishermen might have understood a few key words. They remained suspicious and shouted back, demanding passports. It was an odd request, since pirates have passports too, sometimes in abundance, but this was not the moment for a debate. The immediate problem was of course that the crew's passports had been stolen. One man had an expired passport tucked away in his clothes, and he held it up. The fishermen were not convinced, but finally their skipper grudgingly allowed Captain Ikeno, alone, to climb aboard. Once on the fishing boat, Ikeno tried to explain what had happened, but he could not make himself understood. He wrote out his name and the Alondra Rainbow's, and waited while the skipper radioed the details to his company. The radio conversation was in Thai, and unintelligible to Ikeno. It clearly reassured the skipper, however, and he gave permission for the remaining crewmen to come aboard. The next day they arrived at the Thai resort island of Phuket, where amid all the beach hotels and sunburned vacationers they finally stepped ashore. It was November 9, 1999, eighteen days after the attack. The Filipinos flew to the Philippines, where, for want of better jobs, most if not all eventually hired on to other ships. Captain Ikeno and his chief engineer flew home to Tokyo, and both retired from the sea.
The Alondra Rainbow, however, was still going strong. After the hijacking, Christianus Mintodo and his pirate crew sailed it brazenly through the Singapore Strait and across the southern edge of the South China Sea to the Malaysian port of Miri, on the island of Borneo. While under way they painted the hull sides black (a one-day job), and rechristened the ship Global Venture—a particularly apt name, which they carefully inscribed on the bow, the stern, and the superstructure. They also painted over the funnel's stripes—the blue, white, and red now becoming a single somber black. In the sheltered waters off Miri another ship came alongside, and took on 3,000 metric tons of the aluminum ingots—nearly half of the Alondra Rainbow's $10 million treasure. The transfer must have required several days. The receiving ship was a freighter named the Bansan II. It sailed for Subic Bay, in the Philippines, where apparently it arrived renamed as the Victoria, and presented satisfactory import documents for the cargo. The Alondra Rainbow's aluminum was quickly sold for a small fortune. Attempts to recoup the loss by the insurance company bogged down in the Philippine courts. The local police mounted a criminal investigation of the Victoria, which went nowhere. There has been no prosecution of any kind.
Meanwhile, Christianus Mintodo on the Alondra Rainbow was suffering from a problem related to the sheer size of the heist—where to find a buyer for the 4,000 metric tons of industrial material that remained in the ship's holds. Little is known about the tactics that he used once the Alondra Rainbow left Miri—only that the name was changed again, to the Mega Rama, that the home port was shown on the stern as Belize, and that the ship steamed generally westward, either through the Strait of Malacca or by a more roundabout southern route, before finally gaining access to the Indian Ocean. One week after the hijacking, when the Alondra Rainbow became overdue in Japan, its owners had reported it missing. The meaning was obvious. From an office building in Kuala Lumpur a piracy-reporting center maintained by the international shipping industry sent out alerts and descriptions, along with notice of a $200,000 reward that was offered by the insurance company for information leading to the ship's capture. For several days a search was mounted by patrol ships and airplanes from several nations, including Japan. But the Alondra Rainbow had vanished.
IV. A 95,000-Mile Problem
That a ship can hide in plain sight would hardly come as a surprise to the U.S. Coast Guard, which for years has been locked in a fight against smugglers skilled at pulling disappearing acts, and has had to deal as well with the reverse side of the magic trick, which is the sudden emergence as if out of nowhere of ships that may pose a threat—either because they are decrepit and may spill something or because they are involved in crime. The Coast Guard is a peculiar organization, a militarized hybrid that is as much a shipping inspectorate as a maritime police force. It consists of 5,700 civilians and 43,000 people in uniform, some of them wishing for battle, but most of them not. As the only armed service required to reside outside the Pentagon, it has long been a bastard child, with a bastard child's complaints—lack of love, lack of funding—and it remains a little uncomfortable in its skin. But through difficult experience it is also very familiar with the interwoven disorders of the sea; and by chance of history now, with the United States facing this new form of oceanic threat, it is unexpectedly in a position unique among American forces, of being able at least to respond in relevant ways. As a result it has been shunted from the Department of Transportation to that of Homeland Security, given a bigger allowance, and assigned the lead role in protecting American shores. This may prove to be a thankless task, but the Coast Guard is basking in the implicit praise, and it has set diligently to work.
The challenge is daunting. The United States has 95,000 miles of coastline, and more than a hundred seaports capable of handling large ships. It is the most active sea-trading nation on earth, accounting for a large percentage of long-distance maritime traffic worldwide, and annually accommodating more than 60,000 port calls by oceangoing ships, the great majority of which are foreign-flagged and many of which are operated by fictitious offshore companies, whose real owners are difficult or impossible to identify. The owners are mostly ordinary businesspeople (and quite a few are American), but they could easily include terrorists as well, and they certainly do include smugglers of goods and drugs and people. Moreover, the ships are crewed by several hundred thousand nearly anonymous foreign sailors drawn on short contracts from a much larger pool. Many of them are Muslims, and almost all come from troubled parts of the world, where America is resented, corruption is rife, and authentic documentation can easily be bought. These sailors necessarily bypass all the standard screening procedures by immigration authorities, and arrive with their vessels in American ports. It is believed that in the past many jumped ship, though how many is unknown, because the captains had no reason to report their losses to authorities on the shore. Procedures have tightened somewhat now, but the United States remains utterly dependent on these crews, trust them or not. Their ships bring in six million containers a year, 3.7 million vehicles, 53 percent of the nation's oil, and mountains of other goods and materials too numerous to name; and they take away significant amounts as well. They carry more than three fourths of American foreign trade as measured by weight, and somewhat less than half as measured by value. Interrupt the flow with a terrorist attack, and the backup would instantly reach around the world, with devastating results. Institute heavy-handed inspections and other procedures to head off an attack, and the damage could be even worse.
The Coast Guard has no choice but to move gingerly. It has followed a logical path, starting with tightening the security of the largest ports by means of harbor patrols, cruise-ship escorts, civilian-based "harbor watches," better fences, and tighter gate and ship-access controls. The costs of the effort have been high, grossly estimated in the billions so far, and as the controls have expanded, ferrymen, tour-boat operators, and others have begun to object to the burden of expensive and inconvenient restrictions. Still, if safety has no price and is defined narrowly, the improvements have been real: ports, waterfront facilities, and ships in harbor are certainly better protected now against land-based or small-boat attacks. None of this, however, does much to address the more serious threat of a heavy maritime attack—a ship that delivers a weapon, for instance, or simply steams in and blows itself up. The desire for funding and power is typically difficult to differentiate from genuine patriotic concern, but the vulnerability is real, and Coast Guard officials make the valid point that by the time a ship pops over the horizon and pulls into port, little defense is possible. The problem is that popping over the horizon is what inbound ships just naturally do. The only solution is to push the horizon farther away—a Herculean task that Coast Guard members are now straining to perform. "Increasing the maritime domain awareness," they call it, borrowing unnecessarily from the Pentagon's pompous, self-indicting jargon. They have been aware of the maritime domain for years, and for better or worse they understand full well that as they push the horizon out into it, they are pushing into anarchy.
There is no obvious technological solution. With the exception of ten highly localized vessel-traffic services designed to prevent collisions in the major harbors, there is no U.S. coastal radar picket system, no maritime version of an early-warning system, for the good reason that it would be enormously expensive to build and maintain, and would not be able to look over the horizon anyway. An additional problem would be informational clutter. One of the high-ranking officers I spoke to at the Coast Guard's Washington, D.C., headquarters laughed at the idea, often suggested by landlubbers, that radar could provide a panacea. He said, "We've got thirty million boats out there." Referring to the radar's adjustable sensitivity, he said, "Can you imagine how we'd have to turn down the gain?" That brought up the subject of attacks by vessels smaller than 300 tons, the Coast Guard's minimum definition of a ship and currently the bottom limit for much of the security thinking. It was a possibility that left the poor man shaking his head at the complications; he said that the Coast Guard was aware of the problem, and would be turning to it as soon as it could. In any case, for the physical monitoring of coastal seas, alternatives other than radar are being pursued, including increased ship and air patrols, the use of surveillance satellites, and a hard-wired shipboard GPS-based transponder system. This last, however, the shipping industry is resisting, arguing that it will reveal proprietary information to competitors and (less plausibly) provide targeting coordinates for attacks by terrorists and rogue states. All these initiatives will require years to implement, and even in combination will leave loopholes big enough to steam a ship through. At best, the sort of information they can provide is crude—a ship by some name is approaching from some location out there on the ocean—and does little to answer the more important questions of who the owner is, who and what is aboard, and (the big one) how legitimate its intentions are. Transparency, in other words, will still be lacking.
The Coast Guard is also shoving at the horizon with a regulatory change: the requirement for four-day advance notice of arrival, where before only one day's notice was necessary. This notification, along with a crew list, a cargo description, and several other details, has to be sent to a new Coast Guard operation in West Virginia, known as the National Vessel Movement Center. For the Coast Guard, the term "movement" means merely the arrival or departure of a ship. But the center's name has ended up being an embarrassment, because to outsiders it conjures up visions of a high-technology war room providing an omniscient view of the ocean, and this in turn requires the Coast Guard to explain that such views are not possible, and if not, why not. Where would you even start? The National Vessel Movement Center is an office full of clerks. They receive about 600 notices a day, by phone, fax, and e-mail, and they enter the information into a consolidated database, which Coast Guard intelligence and operations people can then contemplate, trying to discern which ships seem somehow out of whack—one that's importing wheat from Indonesia, for instance, or carrying an oversized crew, or maybe just belonging to Nova Spirit and flying Tonga's flag. The idea is to intercept, board, and inspect those ships while they are still safely at sea. Nationwide this is being done on average about twice a day.
The Coast Guard, like the Navy, searches for bombs only on the basis of specific information, which does occasionally arrive, but so far has turned up nothing. For want of action, therefore, the emphasis is on the crews, and particularly those from certain Muslim countries, who are fingerprinted and photographed by immigration authorities upon arrival, and unless they have valid visas are restricted to the ships while in port. It is said that this is a temporary adjustment, until better crewmen's documents can be brought into play. There is unembarrassed talk in Washington of a future under control, in which sailors will undergo meaningful background checks, and will be supplied with unforgeable, biometrically verifiable IDs by honest, appropriately equipped, and cooperative governments. Panama, for instance, will vouch for the integrity of, say, an Indonesian deckhand working on a ship operated by a Cayman Island company on behalf of an anonymous Greek. This is a vision so disconnected from reality that it might raise questions about the sanity of the United States. Back in the real world, the new guard services in ports are provided by private security companies, and are paid for by the ships at the cost of thousands of dollars for a typical stay. The additional expense seems to be accelerating a global shift, already under way, from brown-skinned sailors toward the even cheaper Chinese. Domestically the new procedures have brought a presumed reduction in ship-jumping incidents, which, if it has not measurably headed off terrorist attack, has at least forced would-be immigrants to jump ship elsewhere—say, in Mexico—before joining the crowds of unauthorized visitors coming overland into the United States.
Meanwhile, the Customs Service, now also a part of the Department of Homeland Security, has imposed new reporting requirements on inbound freight, and has embarked with much fanfare on a container-security initiative, by which it is placing inspectors in twenty large ports overseas (soon it will extend the initiative to ports in several Muslim nations). Because the physical inspection of a container can take hours, only about two percent of the six million units headed to the United States each year are opened; but some can be scanned by x-ray machines or radiation detectors, and more can be looked over by experienced inspectors checking for paperwork anomalies. Still, the opportunities for something to slip in are innumerable. There is talk of equipping the containers with tamper-proof seals and intrusion-detection devices, neither of which would stop the loading of a bomb at the outset, or more than inconvenience a determined terrorist who wanted to insert such a weapon during a container's long voyage to port. I spoke to a Dutch maritime official very familiar with the U.S. effort in Rotterdam, who was sympathetic to the American plight but privately scoffed at the idea that the new inspections had any meaning at all. Speaking just of that one port, he said, "Look, if you want to send a bomb through, it's so simple! The chances of it being filtered out are almost nil!" He was not being critical so much as flatly descriptive. As a believer in good government, but long exposed to the chaos of the ocean, he seemed to have learned the hard lesson that government tools might simply not apply.
The Coast Guard struggles on with the tools that it has, as it must. Though its members tend to be alert, and very aware of the complexities that they face, as a collective they are confined by governmental frames of reference. One sign of their confinement is the effort that they expended in 2002 to create a new body of ship and port security regulations overseen by the very same institution that has proved to be incapable of controlling the situation at sea—the International Maritime Organization. As of July of 2004, every ship above 500 tons will have to designate a Ship Security Officer (SSO), who will work under a designated Company Security Officer (CSO) and be familiar with the new documents required to be carried aboard, including a Ship Security Plan (SSP), which is based on a Ship Security Assessment (SSA). The paperwork will be subject to the approval of each ship's flag state, which in most cases will rely as usual on the expert oversight (paid for by the shipowners) of the classification societies, which for these purposes are to be known as Recognized Security Organizations (RSOs). Another complicated set of rules and acronyms will apply to ports. The effect has been the instantaneous creation of a whole new industry, as tens of thousands of ships and mobile offshore drilling platforms struggle to get the paperwork done.
Close observers have been incredulous. Reflecting a widespread view, one of them said to me, "We're doing nothing but creating this pile of regulations. It's a small pile compared to other piles, but look what the flags of convenience have already done with those. Oh, on paper everything will be all right, but in reality it will not make any difference. And what is a flag of convenience, after all? It's an absolute nothing. In the worst cases it's just a commercial company running a registry. Money flows in and certificates flow out. I don't want to use words like 'cowardice' or 'overreaction' to describe what the United States has done—just 'ineffective.' Because you can get all the paperwork you want, no problem. And it will not help."
He was probably right. The only sure effect of the new regulations is that legitimate operators, who do not pose a threat, will comply. But it is likely that terrorists will comply as well, and that, like many shipowners today, they will evade detection not by ducking procedures and regulations but by using them to hide. This would be very easy to do. Paradoxically, when a ship approaching U.S. shores does not comply, it will be because it is a bumbler, and therefore almost by definition innocent. People in the Coast Guard know this: they are not protecting the shores from a random, hundred-year storm but confronting a calculating and adaptable form of chaos—an intelligent thing. In private conversation most continue to talk about "channeling the attack," or reducing the odds, but others admit that they may not have affected the odds at all.
V. Law of the Sea
Politically—and ethically—it is of course impossible to sit back and do nothing: the United States is a nation, and it has no choice but to act like one. And although minor successes tend to be portrayed as significant victories, there is no denying that determined policing does sometimes pay off—both here and abroad. It turned out to be helpful, for instance, that after the naval search for the hijacked Alondra Rainbow failed, in early November of 1999, the hunt for the pirates did not end. With the description of the Alondra Rainbow widely disseminated, and $200,000 in reward money on the table, the piracy-reporting center in Kuala Lumpur received a plausible report of a sighting toward evening on November 13, a few weeks after the ship had disappeared. The report came via satellite phone from the captain of a Kuwaiti freighter named the al-Shuhadaa, which was sailing in international waters off India's southwest coast. The captain said that the suspect ship's name was illegible in the fading light, but that it appeared to have been freshly painted; he gave the location, and he provided intelligence, apparently gleaned from his radar display, that the ship was moving to the north-northwest, on a compass course of 330 degrees, at 8 knots. The piracy center sent the news to the Indian coast guard, and requested an intercept.
The Indians could have sat back and done nothing. The Alondra Rainbow was a Panamanian ship owned by Japanese, crewed by Filipinos, and attacked off the shores of Indonesia by pirates of uncertain nationalities. Its disappearance had no connection to India at all—and there was certainly no domestic constituency expressing outrage and demanding action. India, however, is a party to the Law of the Sea, a sweeping 1994 United Nations treaty (as yet unratified by the United States) that includes a paragraph encouraging nations to stop pirates on the high seas no matter where their crime took place—and old Indian laws to the same effect are left over from British colonial rule. More important, the news of the sighting seems at first to have been contained entirely within the Indian military, which like other militaries is eager to use the equipment that it has, and to take action. The suspect ship had popped into view like a rabbit running across a field, and, without the need for legal or policy thinking, the coast guard just naturally went after it.
A patrol boat named the Tarabai, with twenty-four men aboard, headed out from the southern port of Cochin, and early on the night of November 14 spotted the suspect ship on radar at a range of thirteen miles, ahead to the left. The Tarabai closed the distance until the ship's lights came dimly into view, and it hailed the ship repeatedly by VHF radio, demanding that it identify itself and reduce its speed. There was no response. On the possibility that the ship's radio had failed (which no one believed), the Tarabai flashed its lights and fired two yellow flares, again to no avail. The ship responded by turning 20 degrees left and increasing its speed. The Tarabai then fired six warning shots across the bow from the deck-mounted 40/60 millimeter Bofors gun, a modified anti-aircraft cannon. The Tarabai settled into a safe position one to two miles away, and shadowed the ship for the rest of the night.
When daylight spread over the ocean, the Tarabai's crew saw the ship clearly for the first time. It was a good-looking vessel, a giant compared with their own. Through binoculars they could see the name Mega Rama and the flag state Belize painted on the stern. In the early morning, a turboprop patrol plane, a German-built Dornier, flew onto the scene, and joined the Tarabai on the VHF channel, calling for the ship to stop. This time a man answered, identifying the ship as the Mega Rama, with a cargo of aluminum and a crew of fifteen Indonesians aboard. He said that they were bound from Manila for Fujairah, an Arabian port. When ordered to submit to a boarding, he refused, informing the Indians that the Mega Rama had a schedule to keep, that it was in international waters, and that it could do whatever it pleased. This was hardly the sort of response one would expect from an ordinary merchant crew faced with a hostile naval force. Headquarters easily confirmed the lack of international records for a Mega Rama, and from the ship's description concluded correctly that the Alondra Rainbow and its pirates had been found.
The patrol plane was lightly armed with a fixed self-loading rifle. On instructions from shore it fired a few rounds across the Alondra Rainbow's bow, and when that had no effect came around and hit the ship with five full strafing runs. For the pilots this was fine sport, and the high point of their careers, but for all the good it did they might as well have been throwing stones. Low on fuel, they broke off and headed for home. The tenacious Tarabai, however, did not go away, and with permission from base, it began plastering the Alondra Rainbow with round after round from its Bofors gun. The shoot-up continued intermittently throughout the day, smashing the ship's windows and punching holes into its superstructure and hull. Still the pirates refused to slow.
Later it was discovered that they had abandoned the bridge and taken refuge in the engine room, safely below the waterline, leaving the ship to proceed on autopilot alone. They appeared to be trying to reach the territorial waters of India's archenemy, Pakistan, where their pursuers would dare not follow. When it seemed that they might actually succeed, India dispatched several warships, including a navy missile corvette named the Prahar, which arrived during the second night and added the threat of its heavier cannons to the argument. This did the trick. Around sunrise on November 16, having run from the Tarabai for thirty-five hours and nearly 575 miles, the Alondra Rainbow drifted to a stop.
Soon afterward a larger coast-guard ship, the Veera, came onto the scene, and found the Alondra Rainbow lying dead on a flat sea, with the Tarabai and the Prahar standing close by. Smoke was billowing from the fugitive ship's bridge and superstructure, and a group of pirates—all fifteen—stood at the bow waving white shirts and holding their arms high in surrender. Teams from the Veera and the Tarabai soon climbed aboard and handcuffed the pirates, who included Christianus Mintodo and his companion from the Batam coffee shop, the chief engineer Burhan Nanda. They were transferred to captivity on the Veera.
The fires aboard the Alondra Rainbow turned out to be paperwork conflagrations that had been set by the pirates to destroy incriminating records, and they were eventually extinguished. More seriously, the pirates had opened sea valves in the engine's cooling pipes in an attempt to scuttle the ship. They were nearly successful. By the time Mintodo and his men were safely under guard, the engine room had flooded, and was starting to pull the ship down by the stern; had the engine room's bulkhead collapsed under pressure, the end would have come very quickly. The navy however sent in divers who managed to find and close the valves. Emergency pumps were set up on deck, the engine room was emptied, and the Alondra Rainbow was saved. The Veera was given the job of towing it 345 miles to the port of Mumbai, otherwise known as Bombay. The trip took four days, during which the pirates were interrogated. It is widely believed but officially denied that they were roughed up; one of them was somehow shot in the leg. A few of them are said to have made confessions, which were excluded from the subsequent trial.
When the pirates got to Mumbai, they were displayed to the press before being turned over to the police—forced to kneel on the Veera's deck, with their hands bound behind their backs, while a proud and possessive coast-guard commander in naval whites described their arrest as "the catch of the millennium." But the Mumbai police operate in a chaotic city of 18 million people, with plenty of homegrown criminality, and they had a different view. One of their high officials later told me that the Alondra Rainbow was like an orphan dropped off on the doorstep. He said, "The common practice if such a ship comes, you shoo her away. Otherwise you don't know what to do with her. The question of jurisdiction comes up everywhere." The same was true for the pirates, criminals whom he called "the scum of the earth." What would happen, he asked, if India convicted and imprisoned them, but after their release Indonesia refused to recognize or accept them? There was little chance of that happening in this case, he admitted, but when the orphans were first delivered, the possibility had to be considered, if only in the abstract.
"What did you conclude?" I asked.
"That they would become stateless people." The problem for India would be where to send them. I suggested they could be repatriated to their natural environment at sea. He smiled wanly.
In any case, the Mumbai police had no choice politically but to proceed with a prosecution. They held the pirates for two weeks at a harbor police station known as Yellow Gate, a dismal complex built in 1921, which contains five cells with wooden bars along a dim hallway, and looks like a movie set meant to depict a Third World hell. Later the pirates were moved to the city's overcrowded central jail, where they were kept together in a high-security cell. As a group they decided to grow their hair long. Meanwhile, in China, after a six-day trial, thirteen of the pirates who had attacked the Cheung Son and murdered its crew were sentenced to death; on the way to the execution ground a group of them, who were drunk on rice wine, defiantly sang, "Go, go, go! Alé, alé, alé!," the chorus from a Ricky Martin song called "Cup of Life." This got some press. The Alondra Rainbow remained in Mumbai. The ship's Japanese owners had petitioned to have the ship released from Indian custody, and a short legal tussle ensued. In January the owners were finally allowed to tow the Alondra Rainbow away. (The ship would eventually be sold, and returned to service under a new name by a company in Singapore.) The year 2000 passed.
Justice moved slowly in Mumbai, owing to an overload in the criminal courts. One of Mintodo's men grew sick, went to the hospital, and died. But early in 2001 the first depositions were taken, and the legal proceedings finally got under way. There was a strange twist to the logic of the case: though the act of piracy had given India legal jurisdiction, piracy itself is assigned no penalties under the Indian code of law, and the government therefore had to charge the men with other crimes. This it did with abandon, accusing them of multiple acts of armed robbery, attempted murder, assault, theft, and forgery—and even of entering India without valid passports, though they had done so involuntarily, in shackles and under guard.
India gave up the jury system in 1961, after it was believed to have failed. Most cases now are argued before single judges, who regulate the proceedings and ultimately hand down the decisions. The judge in the Alondra Rainbow case was a typically overworked officer of the mid-level Sessions court of Mumbai. He was a kindly, mostly toothless man in oversized glasses, a Parsi named R. R. Vachha, who had a salt-and-pepper moustache and an upper gum that showed when he smiled. He had a reputation for patience, fairness, and competently written decisions. The courtroom over which he presided stood on the fourth floor of the old stone-built Secretariat building, from which the British once ruled Mumbai. The room was large, dim, and when crowded, as it usually was, stiflingly hot.
The pirates were brought to their hearings under heavy guard. Before entering the courtroom they had to remove their shoes in the hallway, as all the accused did in Mumbai, because prisoners in the past had hurled their shoes at judges. The pirates, though, were well behaved, and some of them were almost gracious, as if they enjoyed these little excursions from jail. If so, they had plenty to enjoy. Had it run straight through, their trial might have lasted three weeks; instead it was squeezed among other cases a few hours at a time, and dragged on for almost two years. It was an unequal contest from the start. Serving pro bono as the special prosecutor was an obviously brilliant attorney named S. Venkiteswaran, a master of law and argument, who at sixty-two is the pre-eminent maritime attorney in India, and undoubtedly among the best in the world. He was assisted backstage by a protégé, a rising young attorney named K. R. Shriram, who though not yet as wise and Churchillian as Venkiteswaran is every bit as smart. Against this duo stood several ordinary public defenders, and principally only one—a small-time criminal lawyer named Santosh Deshpande, who never stood a chance.
The star witness was Captain Ikeno. Having been promised full-time police protection while in India, he came twice from Japan to verify the real identity of the Mega Rama, and to describe his ordeal in emotional detail. Venkiteswaran later said to me, "Deshpande was flamboyant and played to the gallery. But once the master [Captain Ikeno] gave evidence, I was very sure no one could touch the case. Look—you can ignore all the evidence that you have read, and consider just the basics. Here is a ship with fifteen of the accused in it. They're caught. They've got a property which is hot. It's proved beyond doubt that the vessel is the Alondra Rainbow. The master's evidence establishes that he was deprived of possession and control. Once that has happened, it is for the accused to show how they came into possession of that ship. And if they don't show it, then the presumption of the law is that they are the ones who hijacked it. And no attempt was made to look into this aspect at all."
Deshpande occupied a difficult position. The pirates would have made poor witnesses, so he didn't even put them on the stand. He was required nonetheless to support their claim that they were an innocent crew who had been offered jobs by manning agents in Jakarta, and had flown to Manila and sailed without any idea of the ship's ownership or any curiosity about the evidence, abundant aboard, that the vessel's name had been changed twice in a few weeks. He also had to suggest that the crew ran from the Indian forces for fear they were pirates, and that the crew had no passports or seamen's cards because the coast guard had thrown them overboard. Still, Deshpande's performance was weak. During his cross-examination of a shipping expert from London, for instance, he should have asked, but did not, "Sir, can you tell us how crews are recruited for ships? Is it normal for sailors to ask questions of the manning agents who offer them jobs? To know the ownership of the vessels they serve on? To know the vessels' histories? Is it unheard of for a ship to change its name? To change its flag? To do this at sea? Have there never been cases of pirates in uniform? Or of patrol boats' being used?" The answers to those questions would not have turned the case, but they might at least have helped to educate the judge about some of the realities at sea.
The pirates were convicted, of course. On February 25, 2003, Judge Vachha handed down a 245-page verdict, finding them guilty on every count except the passport violation, and sentencing them to seven years of "rigorous imprisonment," of which three had already been served. Venkiteswaran was traveling at the time, but was represented in the courtroom by his protégé Shriram. Some of the pirates broke down, lamenting the fate of their families and the effect the separation would have on their children. Others remained calm. One of them came up and congratulated Shriram. From the back bench Christianus Mintodo looked on impassively.
Soon afterward I went to meet Mintodo at the maximum-security prison to which he and the others had been transferred—a nineteenth-century compound with fortresslike walls, in the hot and dusty city of Poona, about a hundred miles inland from Mumbai. The prison turned out to be a surprisingly peaceful place. Though filled to twice its designed capacity, it was noticeably less crowded than the city outside. I waited for Mintodo in a file room that opened onto the central courtyard, and watched inmates languidly sweeping the walks with straw-bundle brooms, or strolling by in small straight-backed groups, dressed in coarse cotton clothes and caps, talking quietly. The air in the shade was pleasantly warm. In the distance a prison phone kept ringing with a double ring, and went unanswered.
Mintodo was wary when he arrived, and at first pretended to speak little English. He was slim, barefoot, and copper-skinned—a man who at the age of fifty-six still moved with feline precision and grace. He had brought with him one of the younger pirates, Ari Kurniwan, age twenty-six, whose job was to translate, and do most of the talking. We spoke for a while about the food and routines of the prison, the Indian guards, and the prospects for an appeal. I discouraged them from expecting results. We talked about the Tarabai's attack, and the way that the Mega Rama, as they insisted on calling their ship, had trembled as it was being hit.
Kurniwan said, "We didn't know who was firing on us."
I said nothing.
Mintodo said, "At sea anything can happen."
About that I could agree.
I asked Mintodo why he thought Deshpande had not put him on the witness stand. He did not answer but gazed at me appraisingly. Kurniwan intervened. He said, "This idea is coming now in my mind for the first time!"
Later I asked about the manning agents in Jakarta, the key to their story. Kurniwan responded with a flood of words. "I come in Jakarta port. I meet a broker who says, 'Pay me two hundred dollars, and you'll have a job at three hundred dollars a month.' He gives me an airline ticket to Manila. It's my first flight, and I'm afraid of heights. I close my eyes the whole time. I go to the ship. This is my first job, my first flight, my first time going abroad. Everything is the first."
I said, "What was the name of the agent in Jakarta? I'll go there and find him."
Mintodo was looking into space, somewhere above my head.
Kurniwan said, "When you come into a port you find so many brokers. You don't have to ask their names. You trust them. They give you a job. They give an alias also, those people."
When I asked Mintodo for his contact there, he brought his gaze back down to me. He said, "It was the same agent in Jakarta. A broker. I forget his name."
It was all just a game anyway. Their agent was the one who went by Yan, or Yance, Makatengkeng, who had been at the coffee shop in Batam, and had safely disappeared. He worked for "the Boss," who remains unseen and unknown, and is presumably still active. Mintodo and his men were insignificant players on a very large sea—sailors who got stuck holding the loot, long after the smarter players had covered their tracks. Piracy meanwhile shifts around, and responds to pressures, but either grows or remains essentially unchanged. It was clear in the Poona prison that the pirates understood this too. Their arrest and conviction had been proclaimed around the world as an important message that disorder would not be tolerated on the high seas. But they knew the ocean better than most, and were just biding their time, unrepentant and undeterred.