The Current State of Global Maritime Piracy

Pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden up until 2010. CC Global Panorama, altered.

The western romantic imagination disinclines people to take pirates seriously (they have been portrayed in over 260 films since 1904). But the modern piracy, which made a comeback at the end of the 1990s, has become a scourge of maritime transport, with a significant human and economic cost.

UNOSAT Global Report on Maritime Piracy (1995-2013).


Maritime piracy is an age-old act that for centuries has inflicted grave economic damage on the global trade of goods and commodities. Over the centuries, the nature of piracy has evolved and the pirates of today conduct operations very differently from those of their primarily European predecessors. This article will report on the current state of global piracy and examine the current threat environment. It will also delve into piracy hotspots in Africa, new and emerging threats, their root causes, and anti-piracy countermeasures.

According to UNOSAT, between 1995 and August 2013 there were a total of 6,249 reported instances of piracy or maritime armed robbery globally. The vast majority of these incidents occurred in Southeast Asia, the western Indian Ocean (Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somalia), West Africa, and in Latin America and the Caribbean. Contemporary maritime piracy intensified in the late 1990s and reached its peak in the western Indian Ocean in 2011. According to the World Bank, the hijacking of ships between April 2005 and December 2012 earned perpetrators between USD 315 and USD 385 million. Since 2012, piracy-related incidents have dropped drastically due to increased anti-piracy measures being taken by global logistics and shipping companies, and the deployment of multi-national naval vessels in the western Indian Ocean.


Western Indian Ocean, Somali Basin, and Somalia

Africa is the region most affected by maritime piracy and this is due primarily to the continent’s geographic location, widespread poverty, and the prevalence of political instability in certain African states. Piracy often affects areas where maritime traffic passes by failed and destabilized states, like Somalia. According to the UNOSAT report, 1,758 incidents of piracy were reported in the western Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden between 1995-2013, most of which were perpetrated by gangs based out of Somalia. Oceans Beyond Piracy reported in 2012 that Somali Piracy cost the global economy between USD 5.7 and USD 6.1 billion in 2012. The Indian Ocean is a major global shipping route and approximately 42,450 vessels per year transit though this area. Approximately 8% of the world freight traffic and 40-50% of the world’s oil tankers use this route. Somalia has served as an ideal base for pirates as the country has been an ungoverned state since 1991. This coupled with the country’s location along a major global shipping route has allowed criminal gangs to exploit the situation for their own financial ends.

So why Somalia? According to H.E. Yusuf Mohamed Ismail, Somalia’s ambassador to the United Nations, the root causes primarily relate to poverty. Somalia is one of the world’s poorest nations, with 40% of Somalis living in extreme poverty. This coupled with extremely high unemployment (2/3 of young men are unemployed) and a fishing industry that has been devastated by foreign illegal fishing trawlers has meant that many young men see piracy as a way out of poverty. According to the ambassador, pirates come from three distinct groups in Somali society: the first being tribal clans, the second unemployed youth, and the third being subsistence fishermen who are forced to use their boats to commit acts of piracy. In addition to these groups there are the financiers or kingpins who often provide the weapons and vessels needed for attacks on large vessels and tankers. These individuals profit the most from piracy while front-line pirates only make a few hundred or thousand dollars. According to UNOSAT, piracy ransoms paid in 2011 were estimated to be worth approximately USD 150 million, despite Somali government warnings that the paying of ransoms would only lead to greater instances of piracy.

Since 2005 the modus operandi of Somali pirates has changed. Somali pirates originally (2005-2007) only targeted vessels in Somali territorial waters or just outside. However, as commercial vessels altered their routes further off the coast of Africa, the pirates adapted their tactics. In 2008, Somali pirates were operating just under 100 km off the Somali coast. Between 2009 and 2011 pirates were attacking vessels near the Seychelles, almost 400 km off the Somali coast. Pirates were able to operate further into international waters as they improved their supply lines and secured new sources of funding. This allowed them to stay at sea longer than they had previously been able to. Another disturbing trend is that Somali pirates began to use larger “motherships” from which to launch their attacks. The weaponry used by pirates also changed. The UNOSAT report found that in 2011, more than 40 piracy incidents involved the use of rocket propelled grenades (RPGs). This poses an even greater risk to the crews of tanker vessels due to their highly flammable cargo.


New Threats: West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea

Since 2011, rates of Somali piracy have dropped dramatically due to the presence of international naval vessels in the western Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden, and due to the proliferation of new anti-piracy methods (for example armed guards and traveling at greater speed) used by many shipping companies. However, the same cannot be said for West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea. Between 1995 and 2013, 1,129 incidents of piracy were reported in the Gulf of Guinea. This represents a shift from east to West Africa. According to UNOSAT, in 2012 “more seafarers were subject to attacks and boardings by West African piracy than by Somalia-based piracy.” In West Africa in 2012, 73 incidents occurred (a dozen that included hostage-taking (in total, 207 crew members were taken). This east-west shift prompted UK insurance group Lloyd’s to rate the risk of piracy in the region at the same rate as they do for Somalia. West African pirates have often targeted vessels carrying oil exports from Nigeria. This has prompted many piracy experts to refer to these groups as “petro-pirates.” These so-called “petro-pirates,” unlike their Somali counterparts, are more interested in stealing the target’s cargo (oil) rather than kidnapping the crew. In the first six months of 2013, 30 such attacks took place. Once these pirates take control of tanker ships, they often crudely transfer the oil onto smaller vessels and bring their bounty to shore and sell the oil on the black market. These “petro pirates” have known links to terrorist organizations including Nigeria-based Boko Haram and Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and piracy provides an ideal revenue stream for these groups to generate funds.

So why West Africa and the Gulf of Guinea? There are three major reasons why piracy has proliferated in this region. The first is that many of the region’s nations – including Nigeria, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra-Leone, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, and the Ivory Coast – have experienced grave political volatility and have been confronted by a rise of jihadist organizations. The second reason is that West Africa is one of the world’s poorest regions, and high youth unemployment has driven many young men to embrace piracy as a way to support their families. And the third reason is that the Gulf of Guinea is a major oil transit hub. According to UNOSAT, 13% of the European Union’s (EU) oil and 6% of its gas passes through the gulf. If not addressed, “petro-piracy” could lead to further global energy insecurity. This issue will only become more acute as the crises in Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine further jeopardize global oil and gas supplies.

The challenge of piracy in the region is having a severe economic impact, and according to the World Bank the region in losing USD 2 billion a year as a result of piracy and armed robbery. For example, in the case of Benin revenue collected by the state’s ports dropped by 70% following 15 attacks in 2011. This was due to a decision by major insurance companies to classify the nation as ‘high-risk’ for piracy. This has devastated the nation’s economy, as revenue generated by Benin’s ports accounts for half of the national government’s total revenue. Despite, the devastating impact of piracy, little has been done to address this rapidly-growing problem. What is needed is a multilateral approach to address the issue. This must include all regional stakeholders, the United States, and the EU.


Naval Response and Private Military Contractors

The economic impact of piracy – the stolen cargo and kidnapped crews – has cost shipping companies and governments billions of dollars. In order to keep shipping lanes safe and ensure goods reach their ports of destination, both companies and governments have resorted to unprecedented action in the Indian Ocean.

After piracy rates skyrocketed in the western Indian Ocean in 2008, many western nations realized the need for action. This prompted the launch of Operation Atlanta by an EU force consisting of 12 nations (including: the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Greece, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Italy) and the launch of the NATO operation Ocean Shield in 2009 (consisting of 13 NATO members including Canada, the UK, and the US) Each operation consisted of a force of 3-6 warships that were on 2-3 month rotations. In addition to these western naval deployments India, Pakistan, Russia, Iran, China, and South Korea carried out specific anti-piracy operations around the Horn of Africa. According to UNOSAT, “this is the first time in history that such a maritime coalition has existed, and with such extensive (if informal) means of information exchange and communication.” To date these forces have been very successful in reducing incidences of piracy in the Indian Ocean and the drop in attacks since 2012 serves as evidence that this is an effective means in reducing piracy. However, these missions come at a financial cost in the billions and as budgets tighten in the West, governments will have to come up with new ways to address the piracy issue.

In addition to these naval operations, many private-sector companies have taken actions to prevent their vessels from falling victim to pirates. Many global shipping companies have enlisted the services of private contacted armed security personnel (PCASPs) to protect their ships, cargo, and crew. The Lowy Institute for International Policy estimates that in the Indian Ocean alone, some 2,700 armed guards, 18 floating armories, 40 private armed patrol boats, and 160 private maritime security companies operate out of seven major ports. These companies are mainly comprised of ex-US, UK, and Israeli special operations offices and these armed guards used a variety of lethal and non-lethal (for example water cannons and sonic weapons) methods to protect their client’s ships. Despite existing in an international legal grey-zone, these private contractors have been very successful in reducing losses.

In conclusion, despite some recent victories and the reduction of instances of piracy in the western Indian Ocean, the problem still persists worldwide. The human and financial costs are still extreme, and there are no quick-fix solutions to this centuries-old problem. Piracy seems to be a land-based problem and most pirates come from poor disadvantaged communities. In order to solve the issue once and for all, the West must invest in development and education.


For references and further reading please see the full UNOSAT Global Report on Maritime Piracy.

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