But counting pirate attacks is murky business. Noel Choong, head of the IMB’s Piracy Reporting Centre, estimates that half of all pirate attacks go unreported. “In some cases the ship’s owners dissuade the captain from reporting an attack,” he says. “They don’t want bad publicity or the ship to be delayed by an investigation.” As a result, no one knows for sure how many pirates remain active in the Malacca Strait.
Which brings us back to Ariffin, who is serving a seven-year prison sentence. A lawyer hired by the Indonesian consulate has been his only visitor. The closest the guards let me get to him is the other side of a scratched, bulletproof window looking onto an interview cell. When the guards bring him in, he isn’t the imposing figure I’d envisioned. He stands barely five feet (one and a half meters) tall, and his open collar reveals a faded heart tattooed on his sagging chest. He looks more like a weary pickpocket than a pirate, confused that a foreigner has requested to see him.
He and my interpreter pick up telephones on either side of the window. I explain that I have read about his case. That I have traveled from the other side of the world to hear his story; to ask him why he became a lanun; to hear how it is possible for a handful of men to hijack a ship as large as the Nepline Delima.
Ariffin sits silently, the telephone pressed to his ear, his eyes shifting between the interpreter and me, his shirt damp with sweat. “The lawyer took all my money,” he says finally. “I have no soap. I haven’t brushed my teeth since I got here.”
I offer to leave some toiletries for him with the guards. His demeanor brightens, and slowly he begins his story, or at least one version of it.
The plot was hatched in a Batam coffee shop, Ariffin says, when a Malaysian shipping executive approached an Indonesian sailor named Lukman and inquired whether he could organize a crew to hijack the tanker. Ariffin, who went to sea in his teens and rose through the maritime ranks to become a mechanic, had served with Lukman on a few crews. Lately both of them had struggled to find work, and Lukman asked if he wanted in on the heist. It would be an easy job, he promised, because a member of the tanker’s crew was in on the plan.