Moving Targets

Fighting piracy these days is like playing Whack-a-Mole. When you contain it in one place it pops up in another.

By MarEx 2014-11-26 11:52:00

(Article originally published in Sept/Oct 2014 edition.)

Pirates have been terrorizing mariners for centuries, but in recent months their frequency and scope have shifted and have many in the maritime industry again concerned. In June the U.N. declared that the epicenter of pirate activity had moved from Somalia to the waters off Southeast Asia (Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia) and West Africa (Nigeria). 

As piracy shifts from place to place, international efforts to contain it are faced with increased challenges. As of mid-August there was a total of 147 reported incidents in 2014 according to the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Center.

Somalia’s Dramatic Decline

From January to June 2011, the waters off Somalia had a total of 125 attempted hijackings. That number dropped to just three this year. Why the dramatic decrease in just three years?

Timo Marcus Lange, a spokesperson for the European Union Naval Force’s Operation Atalanta, attributes some of it to intelligence-led operations. The EU Naval Force operates alongside NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield, the U.S.-led Combined Maritime Forces, and other navies regionally and worldwide. All are committed to counter-piracy efforts but with slightly varying mandates and objectives. Lange observes that “In fact, one of the greatest achievements of the international community’s response to piracy off the coast of Somalia has been the coming together of various navies, which would not normally have the opportunity or political will to work together.”

But it is not just military cooperation that is important, which is why the EU is committed to achieving political stability and security in Somalia as well. The organization has just recently extended the mandate for the capacity-building mission, EUCAP Nestor, and maintains the EU Training Mission to Somalia, providing strategic advisory and mentoring activities in addition to the training of approximately 3,600 Somali soldiers. Somali authorities are implementing measures to stabilize the economy and discourage piracy.

The maritime industry has done its part by implementing self-protection measures and procedures set out in its Best Management Practices (BMP) handbook that is now in its fourth revision. However, Lange warns that “The current situation is entirely reversible as the strategic conditions in Somalia have not changed. The piracy problem has not gone away. It is merely contained, and we must not become complacent.” 

The IMB Piracy Reporting Center backed up that warning in its recent quarterly report where it stated: “Somali pirates still have the capability and capacity to carry out attacks. We believe that one successful hijacking of a merchant vessel will rekindle the Somali pirates’ passion.”

Lessons Learned?

Can this same international cooperation model be applied in the pirate-infested waters off West Africa and Southeast Asia?

In Southeast Asia, at least six known cases of coastal tankers being hijacked for their cargoes of diesel or gas oil have been reported since April, sparking fears of a new trend. Previously, the majority of attacks in the region was against vessels at anchor and boarded for petty theft. In Indonesia, for example, there have been 47 reported incidents this year but mainly low-level thefts. 

“If the goal for many ambitious assailants is to orchestrate vessel hijackings, even these are largely conducted as a means to acquire goods illegally,” notes Cassie Blombaum, Intelligence Analyst at Guardian Global Resources. And like other piracy hotspots, a number of communities bordering the Malacca Strait and in Indonesia and the Philippines rely on piracy for economic survival. Security experts believe the increase in attacks will continue as long as there is poor governance, corruption and poverty. Asian governments have to work more closely together to combat piracy or else seek help from abroad.

Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea has also evolved since its last outbreak a number of years ago. Today’s attacks occur mainly in territorial waters, in terminals and harbors rather than on the high seas. This pattern has hindered intervention by international naval forces. Pirates often operate as part of heavily armed and sophisticated criminal enterprises, whose overall aim is to steal oil cargoes. As such, they no longer seem interested in ransoms. 

There is evidence that Nigeria’s rebel organization, the so-called Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), has been involved in attacks on oil tankers off the coast to pressure the government to more fairly distribute oil revenues. 

Additionally, pirates in the Gulf of Guinea are noted for their violent modus operandi, which frequently involves kidnapping, torture and killing of crewmen. The tactics are believed to be part of a new business model in which violence and intimidation play a major role.

In an April CNN special, Cmdr. Anthony Russell, USCG described Nigerian piracy as “merely a symptom” of the transnational organized criminals feeding off the region’s instability. He concluded that “A true cure must stem from the political will of sovereign states and their commitment to improve governance and service.” 

The Security Solution

Current piracy hotspots – West Africa and the Malacca Straits – are regions where international armed security teams cannot be deployed either because of local law or proximity to shore. Simon Williams, Director at Tactique Ltd., explained: “On the high seas – 200 nautical miles from the coast and beyond – UNCLOS guarantees unconditional freedom of navigation. No state other than the flag state can take action against other vessels except in very severe situations like piracy and trafficking. Beyond this, the coastal states in West Africa do not have any jurisdiction.”

This is all relevant because the location of attacks is expanding farther and farther from the coast. “Just like in 2008, when we witnessed attacks in the Gulf of Aden spreading from within Somali territorial waters to the Exclusive Economic Zone and then eventually to Indian Ocean high seas spaces, we are again seeing this trend in West Africa with reported attacks and attempted attacks taking place on the high seas over 200 nautical miles from shore,” he added.

The Malacca Strait has a slightly more complicated legal regime. There is no true binding restriction on private armed security aboard ships. When these teams head to port, however, a host of regulations come into force. Being in port can be compared to being on land, and the vessel must comply with port state regulations in order to ensure it will not be detained, fined or arrested.

As a possible solution, James Gasson-Hargreaves, Deputy Managing Director at Ambrey Risk in the UK, proposes bridge advisory roles in transit and extended watches alongside: “In certain cases, such as in Southeast Asia, these services effectively mitigate the principal risks to transits. Given we are talking here of operating very close to, or in, sovereign territorial waters, some very carefully considered Rules for the Use of Force (RUF) are required, and we are exploring these with P&I Clubs and others.” 

Non-Lethal Responses

While there are emerging technologies and vessel protection systems on the market that automate responses and can avoid the various legal challenges, the best defense against piracy are skilled, prepared mariners.

Daren Knight of Knight Associates believes that armed security as a single layer of defense is not as justified as it once was during the height of Somali-based attacks. The knowledge gained since then can effectively be put toward empowering the commercial shipping industry to improve its own non-lethal response to piracy. 

“We recognize that commercial shipping managers and seafarers are civilians who joined the industry for their love of the sea and shipping and certainly didn’t intend to put their lives at risk from pirates and criminals,” says Knight. “That is why we have developed our cost-effective systems that are standardized throughout companies and fleets to keep their personnel out of harm’s way, and they’ve been proven effective. No one questions the standardization of fire drills and lifeboat drills. The same should be true of piracy drills.” 

Michael Edey, Dryad Maritime’s Head of Operations, acknowledges that the majority of maritime crime is low-level theft. Being prepared and taking basic security precautions will prevent the vast majority of these incidents. 

“However, there are areas of greater risk and these must be tackled with a more comprehensive approach,” he adds. “This should start with a risk assessment to provide a comprehensive understanding of the situation. With this as a foundation, a bespoke solution can be determined ranging from the anti-piracy precautions of Best Management Practices 4 to deploying armed guards where appropriate.”

The Bottom Line

While piracy will never be completely eradicated, it can be contained. Joint naval efforts and governments working together to police and protect international trade lanes are effective deterrents. 

Adding private security teams and well-trained crewmen to the equation helps ensure that ships can continue to safely transport ninety percent of everything. 


Kayla Turner is the MarEx News Editor. This is her first appearance in the magazine.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.