Thursday, March 28, 2013

Piracy: Scope and Scale

Scope and Scale: Piracy as a Global Phenomenon

Maritime piracy is a multimillion-dollar criminal enterprise of vital concern to international maritime commerce and security of the communities it affects. Incidents of maritime piracy have been on the rise in recent decades. While contemporary news reporting may focus solely on the problem in Somalia and the Gulf of Aden, piracy has transnational repercussions and operates along all major maritime trade routes. It faces no restrictions to where it can operate, and has plagued the waters of Asia, Africa, and South America. Piracy is a problem of human and national security that necessitates regional cooperation since it threatens international commercial interests and people.

This map is a live-action project conducted by the International Maritime Bureau that monitors international instances of piracy. Note the scale of the phenomenon in both 2013 and 2012.

Piracy has never been restricted to a single geographical location. Historically, pirates in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries functioned in and around the Americas where and when large-scale navies were not yet established and colonies were too weak to repel them (1). Even further into antiquity, Phoenicians and Vikings conducted piratical enterprises in the Mediterranean and the North Sea/ Baltic Sea areas, respectively. Piracy in the Indian Ocean was characterized during colonial times by the intense maritime warring of both local pirates and Western European privateers. Further east, piracy in Southeast Asia was “guerrilla warfare at sea” between localities of Indonesia or Malaysia and Dutch naval power (1). As large navies became the norm in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, piracy became largely obsolete. However, the late 20th and 21st centuries have witnessed a proliferation of piratical acts around the world.

Pirates differ from those in history because they are now more sophisticated and organized. Their actions to overtake ships are systematic and carefully planned. Pirates who flood the seas with “sophisticated equipment, including speed boats, modern machine guns, communication devices, trawlers, barges, and oil industry backup ships” are extremely difficult to combat and they are therefore a serious security problem (7).

Southeast Asian and Indian Subcontinent Piracy
This region encompasses the waters of Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Singapore, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, and Cambodia

The Strait of Malacca is 520 miles long and only 11 miles wide at its opening. Ships passing from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea and Pacific have to travel through this narrow strait. Annually, about 40% of the world’s maritime trade on more than 50,000 vessels passes through this strait (2).
            Pirates can easily function in this area because
1.     Reduced speed through the narrow sea passages makes ships very vulnerable to attack.
2.     There are numerous negligible and remote islets in the area that function as sanctuaries for pirates.
3.     The area offers secret coves and places to hide away.
4.     The region accounts for 15.8% of the world’s total coastline, making it difficult for authorities to patrol (12).

In 2004 and the preceding decade, piracy was rampant in Southeast Asia. Insecurity in the maritime region was exacerbated by the lack of navel capacities of governments to police their national waters and the impoverished state of local fishermen who needed another means of income (6). The region was responsible for the majority of the world’s pirate activity. The countries most affected- Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia- joined to promote regional security through the joint actions of sea patrols, coast watches, and shared intelligence (2). Operation MALSINDO consisted of maritime patrols and Operation EIS provided air surveillance for the Strait of Malacca (6). Government cooperation and organization was largely the reason for solving the pirate problem. Until 2009, levels of piracy in Southeast Asia were nearly negligible. Since 2010, piracy has increased in Southeast Asia because of pirates’ growing capabilities, higher concentration of shipping, the ability of piracy to alleviate poverty and the absence of coordination among littoral states to combat the problem (12).

West African Piracy
This encompasses Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Kenya, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Republic of the Congo, and other neighboring nations as piracy spreads.

            The Gulf of Guinea, stretching 5300 miles along the West Coast of Africa, is the piracy hotspot of the region. The Gulf’s states produce five billion barrels of oil per day (9). Nigeria’s immense oil wealth spurred its piracy problem because trade of this natural resource brought immense wealth disparity to the state. Poverty-stricken people began participating in criminal cartels to propel them from their poor economic conditions. Their aim is obtaining wealth, so oil tankers are usually the target of these attacks. Crews are taken hostage in extreme cases, but usually oil is looted and sold on the black market. Since ransoms are not the goal of these pirates, violence is escalated. Guns were used in 63% of attacks in 2012, the numbers having increased since 2011 (11).

This is a first hand account of a man taken by Nigerian pirates in late February 2013:

Cases are focused close to Lagos or within the Niger River Delta, where oil activities are focused. Nigeria’s rebel Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND) has been responsible foe a number of attacks of oil tankers in conjunction with pirate groups (8). Nigeria’s oil piracy poses a dangerous threat to the environment. Each day, the Gulf of Guinea ships 1.5 billion barrels of oil to the United States alone (13). In 2009 a Japanese oil tanker, the Takayama, was shot at off the coast of Somalia. The bullets pierced the tanks of oil onboard, causing a minor spill into the sea. While this instance was controlled, other occurrences of oil tankers being attacked by pirates could result in severe environmental damages if they were left for days or week without proper care.

There was a 33% increase in the number of reported acts of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea in the first six months of 2012 as compared to the first half of 2011; pirates here cost on average two billion dollars annually (9). The Gulf of Guinea lacks any regulation by a multilateral regional cooperation of states, meaning that piracy will continue to expand.

This is an interesting Foreign Policy article that suggests that the Gulf of Guinea may overtake Somalia as the pirate hotspot in coming years:,1

Pirate Tactics
While pirates in Africa use AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades, and mortars, pirates operating in Southeast Asia use more rudimentary weapons and are usually less violent towards crews (7).  Southeast Asian pirates are generally armed with machetes and knives. Attacks are directed at all types of ships; pirates typically flag down a target vessel, board it, order the crew overboard, and then steal boat parts, cargos, and valuables before fleeing (10). Piratical acts occurring more recently in South America and the Caribbean are similar to those in Asia. Attacks in Columbia, Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Brazil have been characterized by the theft of ship’s stores without violence (11). Like Southeast Asian pirates, hostages are usually not taken and weapons are rudimentary. Antithetically, Gulf of Guinea pirates are violent and have killed and more often injured crewmembers with AK-47s, RPGs, and other automatic weapons (11). Unlike Somalian pirates who need their hostages to alive to receive a ransom, Nigerian pirates have less care for human life. 

Several conditions are conducive to piracy:
1.     The proximity of advantageous geographical features, islets, or remote costal areas that escape the authority of government
2.     The geo-economic conditions of the host country of the pirates (i.e. if the country is near major trade routes of has maritime capabilities)
3.     Weak, ineffective, or failed states do not operate properly and therefore do not enforce laws against piracy (3)
4.     Poverty forces people to obtain subsistence by lucrative means (7)
5.     Flaws or holes in maritime-transport treaties (7)
6.     Overlapping maritime boundaries (12)
7.     Knowledge that crews of most maritime ships were unarmed and vulnerable (7)
8.     Local authorities turning a blind eye to piratical activities because of the knowledge they will benefit
9.     Sophisticated weaponry, boats, and communications equipment (10)
10. Local knowledge of the waters
11. The view that piracy is an acceptable and integral part of the culture (12)

Piracy incurs global costs: It increases maritime transport costs because it forces ship owners to take less direct routes that avoid dangerous zones (3), there are higher fuel and labor costs, ships are limited to making fewer voyages (4), the insecurity of goods deliveries decreases trade opportunities and lead to declining investment (6), cargos are stolen (9), insurance is higher to transit through dangerous areas (9), and higher wages have to be paid because of the high risk (9). The trade loss due to piracy between Europe and Asia was 24.5 billion dollars in 2008 alone (6).  

These statistics and interactive maps show us that piracy is a serious matter, one of international scope. Pirates operate in waters around the world and are usually beyond the control of local governments. Maritime pirates are products of insecurity, and yet they produce insecurity.

The ICC International Maritime Bureau gives extensive quantitative and qualitative data on all attacks of piracy in 2012:

Works Cited:
(1) Abbot, Jason and Neil Renwick. “Pirates? Maritime Piracy and Societal Security in Southeast Asia.” In Pacifica Review: Peace, Security & Global Change 11, No. 1 (1999): 7-24.
(2) Schuman, Michael. “How to Defeat Pirates: Success in the Strait.” Times. April 22, 2009.
(3) Martinez-Zarzoso, Immaculada and Sami Benassi. “The Price of Modern Maritime Piracy.” In Deference and Peace Economics. (2013).
(4) Kraska, James. “Freakomics of Maritime Piracy.” Brown Jounral of World Affairs 16, No. 2 (Spring/Summer 2010).
(5) Middleton, Roger. “Trends in Piracy: A Global Problem with Somalia at the Core.” Africa Programme, Chatham House. (2010).
(6) Bensassi, Sami and Inmaculada Martinez-Zarzoso. “How Costly is Modern Maritime Piracy to the International Community?” In Review of International Economics 20, No. 5 (2012): 869-883.
(7) Anyu, J. Ndumbe and Samuel Moki. “Africa: The Piracy Hot Spot and Its Implications for Global Security.” From Mediterranean Quarterly 20, No. 3 (Summer 2009).
(8) Alessi, Christopher. “Combating Maritime Piracy.” Council on Foreign Relations. (March 23, 2012).
(9) Sullivan, Jimmie E. “Maritime Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea: Regional Challenges and Solutions.” Naval War College. (November 2012).
(10) Rabasa, Angel and Peter Chalk. “Non-Traditional Threats and Maritime Domain Awareness in the Tri-Border Area of Southeast Asia: The Coast Watch System of the Philippines.” National Defense Research Institute. (2012).
(11) “Piracy and Armed Robert Against Ships.” ICC International Maritime Bureau. London, United Kingdom. (2012).
(12) Banlaoi, Rommel C. “Maritime Piracy in Southeast Asia: Current Situation, Countermeasures, Achievements and Recurring Challenges.” Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence, and Terrorism Research. (2012).


  1. As mentioned in class, the UN intervened in the case of Somalia by passing resolutions that allowed foreign countries to pursue pirates into its sovereign waters. Is this same course of action being discussed about as a solution to the problems in the Straight of Malacca or Western Africa? If not, why do you think it isn't?

  2. You mentioned Piracy in the Nigeria mainly targeting oil tankers, and that their intentions are less for ransom purposes and instead seeks to sell oil on the black market. As time goes on resource scarcity increases, as many have pointed out oil is a finite resource it is only a matter of time before it disappears. In the future as oil scarcity increases do you think there will be a shift in the types of piracy, perhaps moving away from ransom requests and more toward people seeking to intercept oil for profit? Do you think that this will trigger a cohesive policy on piracy?

  3. @ j.manning--
    As of January 2013, the EU has initiated a project to combat piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. It aims to boost security and the safety of maritime routes across seven African countries in the Gulf of Guinea. "The Critical Maritime Routes in the Gulf of Guinea Programme (CRIMGO) will help governments across West and Central Africa to improve safety of the main shipping routes by providing training for coastguards and establishing a network to share information between countries and agencies across the region." The project has begun in 7 African coastal states: Benin, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Nigeria, Sâo Tomé and Principe and Togo.
    The UN is also confronting the problem of piracy in this region: In September 2012, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon met with Nigerian President Jonathan to discuss fighting piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. In October 2011, the UN Security Council held an open debate on the piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, a region rich in energy and mineral resources, turning the world's attention once again on the regional problem.

    Since 2004 in the Strait of Malacca, states have confronted their piracy problem with regional programs like: "The Malacca Straits Patrols (MSP) is comprised of the Malacca Straits Sea Patrol (MSSP), the “Eyes-in-the-Sky” (EiS) air patrols, and the Intelligence Exchange Group (IEG), which are a set of practical cooperative security measures undertaken by the four littoral States, namely Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand." All actions and patrols are coordinated, information shared, and goals similar. It caused piracy attacks in the Malacca Strait to drop from 38 reported incidents in 2004 to none in 2011, as per the International Maritime Bureau data.

    As you can see, international groups like the UN are not intervening so much in the direct way you mentioned as they are urging local or regional states to confront the problem. In Southeast Asia, piracy was eradicated without the UN. Other regions, such as the Gulf of Guinea states, are looking to their example at the urging of the EU.

  4. @ slashley---
    Yes, pirates off the coast of Nigeria in the Gulf of Guinea do target oil rather than humans, through they have been known to hold humans during the actual transfer of oil on the black market to act as leverage in assuring the trade.

    As time goes on, oil will become more scarce. However, I don't think that the High Seas will see the most fighting over oil. I believe any violence or warring over nonrenewable resources would occur on land. However, in the limited, and therefore highly important, transfer of oil on the seas, pirates will try to attack ships to obtain the ship's stores of oil.

    We must realize that if oil in the future is extremely scarce, the ships transporting it will be equipped with security weapons for defense of their valuable commodity. They will most likely employ a force of PSCs to protect their store onboard. The pirates, if trying to intercept this trade, would have to be prepared for the sophisticated weaponry and highly alert crew.

    Patterns show that pirates in the Gulf of Guinea really desire oil, and they will adapt to get it. Already they have integrated the use of mother ships to reach further out into the ocean to intercept oil tankers with more dexterity. Their weapons have become more sophisticated, but only as a response to measures taken by crews of oil tankers. James Bridger of Delex Systems, Inc. notes: “Heightened security in the Nigerian littoral appears to have had a Darwinian effect on maritime criminals, as more sophisticated and politically connected syndicates have thrived at the relative expense of opportunistic ‘smash and grab’ pirates.”

    Therefore, as oil becomes more scarce, pirates will continue to seek it out, no matter the higher costs. The phenomenon will most likely become more violent as a result of the higher stakes and more advanced weaponry; therefore, I do think that cohesive pirate policy could be a potential result.

    Please refer to this article for more information:

  5. You mentioned throughout your post that one reason piracy thrives in areas such as the Strait of Malacca is because of the poverty in those regions. Or that people revert to piracy when there are no other means for them to support themselves. You also point to weak or failed states as major hot spots for pirate activity.

    Countries around the Strait of Malacca have been experiencing robust growth rates over the past decade or more and are able to provide suitable livelihoods for more of their population. My question for you is if these growth rates continue in states such as Indonesia and Malaysia do you think piracy will decrease in the Strait of Malacca? Would it have to be accompanied by an improvement in the effectiveness of the state as well? Or are there more prevailing factors at play? Thanks.

  6. You mentioned in the section regarding tactics used by pirates that they have access to various kinds of weaponry, including complex automatic weapons like AK47s. My question is about where the funding or even the weapons themselves come from and what parties can be seen as those assisting or directly funding piracy? If we look at Somali piracy in particular, since we focused on that in great detail, which actors can be seen as the suppliers or those that fund the piracy attacks? I read somewhere that Yemen has assisted Somali pirates and have even funded their attacks in several instances. How true is that information?

  7. @seejay182---
    You are right: the Asian nations surrounding the Straits of Malacca have grown in the past decade, due to their cooperative promotion of reducing poverty, promoting tourism, stability, and accelerating economic growth. This includes Indonesia and Malaysia. To answer your question, I do think that this economic growth, if sustained, will result in less pirate traffic in the region. I do maintain my assertion that weak or failed states are a major reason that piracy thrives. As these states do grow, so will the effectiveness of their governments to enforce maritime rules. Therefore, growth rates will lead to less piracy in my understanding. Acts of piracy will still be inevitable, but people will find economic sanctuary in other, more reliable industries, and I foresee a broad trend away from piracy in the Asian region. Their economic growth provides more financial opportunity than does piracy.

  8. @Meryam Kiyani---
    First, I think that it should be noted that there is the possibility that pirates take weapons from ships that they attack. Somali pirates infamously intercepted an enormous supply of weapons and arms in a Ukrainian vessel heading for Sudan in 2008.

    Secondly, as you mentioned, is the possibility that they buy the weapons. This occurs very often. Pirates have access to large amounts of money from their ransom payments and stolen stores of ships, and operating in the region of weak states in the Gulf of Aden provides them with many suppliers to buy from. According to the African Centre for the Study and Research on Terrorism, Somali pirates buy sophisticated weapons from Libya, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and others.

    Lastly, I want to note that the weapons could have already been in Somalia. During the Cold War, Somalia was a dumping ground for arms. Additionally, the nation itself has experienced civil war since 1986, making weapons like AK47s commonplace.

    As for your point about Yemen supplying the Somalian pirates with arms, I couldn't find this particular instance. However, I did find that Yemen often tries and sentences captured Somali pirates. Yemen has arrested 120 pirates since 2005. From my understanding, Yemen's security is very threatened by piracy in the Gulf of Aden, and they would not find it in their interest to fuel the problem by supplying arms.
    See this page for more information:

  9. Going off our previous module. To what extent have pirates served as proxies for other actors in modern times?

  10. @seejay182---
    I have not found much evidence to suggest that pirates are behaving as proxies. If there are PMCs onboard offering assistance to pirates, then pirates could be said to be using proxies. However, even then, PMCs are usually used by the ships operating within pirate waters, not by pirates themselves.

    Other actors, as I mentioned in a previous answer, do supply pirates with weapons. This is not an action of a principal supplying a proxy with aid because the relationship is purely economic (the actors do not have a coordination of activities or a common interest). The supplementation of arms to pirates by states like Libya is only for financial benefits. Therefore, I do not consider pirates proxies for other regional actors.

    This phenomenon is still possible however, especially if the relationship is extremely covert and unrevealed to the public.

  11. You mentioned how the news mostly focuses on piracy in Somalia and the Gulf of Arden. Do you think there is any correlation between media coverage and policy? Are there more policies regarding pirates in place in Somalia than other countries? Does the U.N. pay more attention to countries afflicted by piracy who have greater media coverage?

  12. In the definition post about pirates, pirates were broken down into different groups: standard pirates, opportunistic pirates, and terrorist pirates. Have you noticed any significant variations in the tactics from group to group? Does one group generally have greater access to certain weapons than another?

  13. You briefly mention that local police turn a blind eye to piracy because they might profit. How?

  14. @ julia gallivan----

    I did not find anything in my research to suggest that piracy is influenced by media coverage. As we discussed in class, piracy upsets/poses a threat to only a nearly minuscule portion of international maritime trade. Therefore, I would not say that there is a correlation between media coverage and piracy because the phenomenon is in some senses so small. Piracy coverage has focused more on Somali actors, but this doesn't mean that there are more policies in the region. There are actually less restrictions by the Somali and regional governments on piracy than in the Straits of Malacca or the Americas. The U.N. I would say pays more attention to the Somalian acts of piracy because they are in the media more. They pay more attention to the problem in Somalia because the problem is more serious there. I suppose you could say that there is a correlation in media coverage and piracy, but not policy. The phenomenon is not so large yet to show this trend.

  15. @ julia gallivan----

    According to Micayla's research and my findings:

    Standard pirates, like those in Somalia or Nigeria, "are typically relatively well organized" and "heavily armed... They are generally economically motivated." Since this group of pirates has plentiful financial means from their ransom payments, they can purchase weapons like AK47s.

    Opportunistic pirates, like Southeast Asian or American pirates, are economically motivated, yet less organized and lack sufficient means to acquiring sophisticated weapons. Because of their lower success rate, being fishermen or dockworkers, these pirates cannot afford guns and will use knives or any other rudimentary weapons.

    Terrorist pirates like the "Sri Lankan Sea Tigers, a branch of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) terrorist organization," are pursuing political rather than economic means. They care less for human life and ransom payments so sophisticated weapons are used. To be a terrorist, one must cause functioning terror; this could not be done anywhere with rudimentary weapons, so terrorist pirates use the likes of AK47s and RPGs.

  16. @ julia gallivan----

    Local police turn a blind eye to piracy in some instances because they reap a profit due to connections with pirates in close-knit coastal communities. They do this by ignoring the problem completely due to inefficiency, perhaps due to ignorance of the problem, by receiving a payment later, or by benefitting as part of the pirate's communities. In many instances of maritime piracy, pirates distribute the economic gains throughout their communities and kinship groups. For this reason police would be motivated to not enforcing piracy restrictions. Pirates operate in failed states where police are often incompetent. In addition, being in a failed or weak state means that poverty is widespread and people in coastal areas have to revert to other means of income, oftentimes piracy. This situation is often conducive to piracy because the police can ignore it and poverty can somewhat be alleviated.


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