New Battles on the High Seas: Developing Trends in Global Piracy

The demise of Somali piracy

In 2008, as warships and other naval vessels started to increase their presence in waters around the Horn of Africa and in the Indian Ocean, Somali pirates faced a dramatic change in the rules of their illegal game. Even though they managed to continue with their activities and hijack several ships until almost halfway through 2012, Somali piracy was a disappearing phenomenon and gradually ebbed out from July 2012. Now, although suspicious approaches and sporadic attacks are still being reported, piracy in the waters off the east coast of the African continent does not pose a serious threat to vessels operating in that area. However, piracy on a global scale has resisted a similar demise. Although most Western media outlets have stopped publishing piracy related stories when the issue of Somali piracy subsided, the problem continues to grow in other parts of the world.

Image Courtesy of Magnus Manske ©2012, some rights reserved
Image Courtesy of Magnus Manske ©2012, some rights reserved

Resurgence in Southeast Asia

Piracy has been a major problem in Southeast Asia for many years, and after a brief period of decreased reported incidents in the aftermath of the 2004 earthquake and tsunami, as previously reported in the Review, piracy has surged in recent years and is reaching new levels. According to the International Maritime Bureau’s (IMB), Piracy Reporting Centre, which is affiliated to the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), piracy off the coasts of Malaysia and Singapore almost doubled, from 63 attacks in 2010 to 125 attacks in 2013. Moreover, the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) pointed out in their 2014 half-year report that 73 incidents had been reported between January and June, with updated statistics showing 25 new cases in July and August.

Vessels in the area are exposed to a variety of attacks and attacking techniques, depending on the size of the vessel and the cargo it is carrying. A vast majority of the attacks (55 of the 73 between January and June 2014) were according to ReCAAP armed robberies against easily accessible vessels that were either anchored or moving at a slow pace in busy and narrow straits like the Singapore and Malacca Straits. The pirates take advantage of the darkness and low freeboard, and board the vessels from small speedboats without being noticed. Once aboard, they tend to go after cargo, the crew’s personal belongings, and communications equipment. Further, much of the cargo being traded regionally is transported on floating barges towed by small tugboats, making it easy for the pirates to board the barge, open the containers and steal the cargo without being noticed by the crew.

Although the vast majority of pirate attacks in Southeast Asia are in the form of armed robberies and petty theft, an increasing number of products tanker hijackings have been reported over the last year. However, the purpose of the hijacking is not the same as with Somali piracy, where pirates sailed the ships to shore and demanded a hefty ransom for the ship and its crew. Instead, after taking control of the ship and destroying its communication and tracking systems, the pirates sail the ship to a remote location where they meet up with one or several other waiting ships and transfer the cargo over to them. The pirates then usually leave the hijacked ship with a destroyed navigation system, but with enough fuel to get to the nearest port, and then sail away with the stolen cargo. So far this year, a dozen ships have been victims of siphoning, in stark contrast to the four reported cases from the previous three years, something that has led ReCAAP and IMB to sound the alarm and publish reports on the problem in an attempt to raise awareness amongst ship owners, managers, and crews.

Furthermore, and as pointed out in a recent CNBC special report on piracy in Southeast Asia, the strategy of siphoning diesel, fuel oil or marine gas oil from smaller products tankers has proved very profitable for the pirates that conduct the hijackings, as they can sell the stolen cargo on the black market for several hundred thousand dollars. Consequently, due to the amount of planning and intelligence needed to conduct such an operation, experts believe that this emerging trend is part of a larger criminal network, and that it should be characterised as organised crime. Notably, pirates who use siphoning tactics usually leave the crew unharmed, as they are normally poorly armed and exhibit lower levels of violence than the average Somali pirate.

West Africa and the Gulf of Guinea

Like in Southeast Asia, piracy off the coast of West Africa and in the Gulf of Guinea has only increased over the last few years, in contrast to piracy on Africa’s east coast. In fact, since just last year, attacks have nearly doubled in the Gulf of Guinea. However, the targets are in some cases different here than compared to Southeast Asia, as a greater extent of reported attacks target oil installations in the form of kidnappings and vandalism, rather than armed robberies and petty theft. Moreover, according to Risk Intelligence, a Danish security advisory company, almost three quarters of all piracy-related incidents in the area can be traced back to Nigerian criminal activities. Well-organised Nigerian pirates have significantly increased their reach, and can now, with the use of Somali-style mother ships, attack vessels far away from their comfort-zone in the Niger Delta. Perhaps the best example of this, which also illustrates that the siphoning-phenomenon is not only a Southeast Asian problem, is the July 25th hijacking of the products tanker Hai Soon 6 off the coast of Ghana. Just as with the ships on the other side of the globe, the ship was hijacked in remote waters and sailed to an unknown location where the cargo was transferred to waiting vessels. The most interesting part however, is that the Hai Soon 6, just as with other siphoned ships in the Gulf of Guinea, has been released at almost the exact same spot around 60 nautical miles east of Lagos. Consequently, there is reason to believe these attacks are not just a random heist, but that organised criminal gangs are gaining a substantial foothold, just as in the waters of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

What can be done to stop the pirates?

Estimates on how much piracy cost the shipping industry as a whole get as high as £5 billion a year, and despite international and regional cooperation efforts, as well as increased focus on security amongst ship owners and ship managers, piracy-related incidents continue to rise in these areas. In both Southeast Asia and the Gulf of Guinea, one of the biggest problems is that the different states affected by piracy struggle to cooperate effectively and fail to act collectively to protect regional maritime interests. Because of the vast areas the pirates operate in, it is difficult for individual naval forces to respond to attacked vessels, prompting the need for a concerted effort to give coast guards and other naval vessels a wider reach and a better chance of responding in time. In addition, the hiring private security firms by either state agencies or private corporations tends to be a very expensive solution to the problem, and mistaking fishermen for pirates can increase the chances of inadvertent causalities as a result of trigger-happy, and largely unaccountable, security forces. Consequently, it seems that a ‘Horn-of-Africa-style’ increase in navy and police presence – preferably cross-national efforts, with an emphasis on shared costs and regional integration – as well as training crews for attacks are the most viable solutions to the problem, even though they might not solve the problem immediately.

One Reply to “New Battles on the High Seas: Developing Trends in Global Piracy”

Leave a Reply