As a young crewman, Ariffin says he was once on a ship attacked by pirates. They waved parangs (machete-like knives), threatened to kill everyone, and took cash and food. He smiles wryly at the irony. “It is very hard for Indonesian seamen. We all need money.” He told Lukman he was in. “All we had to do was board the tanker, tie up the crew, and sail to open sea,” Ariffin says. They would meet a tanker coming from Thailand, transfer the fuel, and abandon the Nepline Delima. Lukman promised Ariffin $10,000 for manning the tanker’s engines.
The plan began smoothly. Posing as tourists, Ariffin, Lukman, and two other seamen from Batam pretended to snap photos as they rode a ferry up the strait to the Malaysian port of Pinang. There they met six other men Lukman had recruited from Aceh, Sumatra’s northernmost province. “They weren’t seamen,” said Ariffin. “We needed their muscles.”
At a nearby beach, they stole a fiberglass speedboat, painted it blue, and loaded it with gasoline, water and food, two cell phones, a GPS, and five freshly sharpened parangs. In addition, each man brought a ski mask, a change of clothes, some cash, and a passport. After midnight, they slipped into the strait. Meanwhile, the turncoat crew member was sending text messages from the tanker, updating the ship’s position, course, and speed. Most important, Ariffin said, “he told us when he would man the watch.”
A few hours later, the pirates, wearing ski masks and wielding parangs, commanded the Nepline Delima’s bridge. The tanker’s distress signal had been disabled, and 16 of its 17 crew lay bound and blindfolded in a locked cabin, some of them bleeding. The pirates set a new course for the Thai tanker on the open sea. By the next evening the gang would be on their way back to what Batam pirates call “happy happy,” a blur of hedonism, ranging from extravagant amounts of crystal meth and ecstasy to marathon sessions with prostitutes. Or, if Ariffin is to be believed, home to his family.
The problem was the 17th crewman. Soon after the pirates had boarded the tanker, Ariffin, guarding the speedboat, heard one of the sailors yell: “Lanun!” Bedlam erupted on the ship’s decks as the pirates tried to round up the frightened crew. Lukman and two others were on the bridge. They switched on the public address system and started beating the captain until his shouts for the crew to surrender blared over the ship’s loudspeakers. “Please, they are killing me,” he cried. Sixteen crewmen eventually gave up. Each was asked his name, then bound and blindfolded. “We had a copy of the ship’s manifest,” said Ariffin, “we knew one was missing.”