Piracy today

Paris graffiti

Today’s Strategic Studies Group meeting was unusually interesting. Lieutenant Commander Nigel JF Dawson was speaking about contemporary piracy and gave me specific permission to discuss it here a little. Basically, there are two hotspots of piracy in the world today: off the coast of Somalia and in the Malacca Strait. The latter waterway carries about 60% of world trade, including all the oil used by Japan and China.

Apparently, there are two major types of piracy happening in Southeast Asia. The first is simple enough: unsophisticated robbery of ships by individuals with few weapons and little organization. The second is much more dramatic: the wholesale capture of ships. Organized gangs steal whole oil tankers, repaint them, produce fake documentation for them, sell the cargo, and then sell or scrap the ships themselves. In the Malacca region, the unsophisticated kind of piracy is the norm south of the third parallel, while the region to the north involves mostly the larger scale sort. The character of piracy off the African coast was less thoroughly discussed. I have heard of an incident where the Tamil Tigers stole a ship containing a consignment of munitions for the Sri Lankan government.

A Piracy Reporting Centre in Malaysia apparently keeps track of all this, though only about one in four incidents are actually reported. I suppose it would make the clients of shipping companies nervous to learn that their cargo faces such perils.

It seems like the easiest way to target the problem would be to deal with the on-shore networks that support the trade. In particular, there must be ways to combat the wholesale expropriation and re-titling of ships. A global registry seems as though it would have a decent chance of being useful, at least when it comes to trade in huge oil and gas tankers.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

26 thoughts on “Piracy today”

  1. Just think how many people out there are watching illegally pirated copies of the forthcoming Pirates of the Caribbean movie, on DVD players stolen by actual pirates and re-sold through criminal networks.

  2. It seems to me that the problem with piracy is corruption, certainly there is no way to produce all these false documents, and have the ships repainted, without considerable corruption. Thus, it would seem that the solution should be to set up this kind of worldwide registry, but strategically run by people who have little or no incentive in becoming caught up in the corruption themselves.

    The simplest solution to this, and all problems of corruption, is over 2000 years old – the elimination of private property for the ruling class.

  3. Tristan,

    I asked about on-shore support for the ship stealing operations. I was told that they get repainted at sea and that they make false documents in the name of a similar ship in a very different part of the world. Then, they sell the cargo to a port in what seems like a legitimate transaction.

    the elimination of private property for the ruling class

    Socialist societies have been among the most corrupt ones ever.

  4. On Canadian ports and organized crime

    “An analyst from the Organized Crime Agency of British Columbia noted that all the elements of traditional organized crime pervade the Port of Vancouver, in addition to more modern threats, such as Asian Triads, Russian Gangsters, and Columbian Narco-Terrorists. The range of criminal activity is assessed as much the same as at the Port of Montreal. Motorcycle gangs are active here, linking criminal activities in the eastern and western ports.

    The various elements of organized crime tend to have specialities, but they all participate in the import and export of illegal drugs – the most common and most lucrative activity. Asian and Russian gangs export stolen luxury cars. Russian gangs are active among chandlers. Mexican and Columbian gangs are involved in narco-terrorism. [In other words, the sale of narcotics is a secondary activity used to finance military and political goals in their respective homelands.]

    The implications of this uncontrolled criminal activity at Canadian ports are clear. The Committee concluded that where organized crime flourishes, it does so because activities at any given port are beyond the control of the authorities in charge of the port. This lack of control creates fertile ground for terrorist activities, including illegal immigration, covert shipment of weapons, and, potentially, the importation of agents of mass destruction.”


    I also recall at least one Canadian Senate report that said very similar things.

  5. On corruption generally

    Transparency International’s most recent ranking:

    1. Finland / Iceland / New Zealand
    4. Denmark
    5. Singapore
    6. Sweden
    7. Switzerland
    8. Norway
    9. Australia / Netherlands

    151. Belarus / Cambodia / Cote d’Ivoire / Equatorial Guinea / Uzbekistan
    156. Bangladesh / Chad / Congo, Democratic Republic / Sudan
    160. Guinea / Iraq / Myanmar
    163. Haiti

  6. Real pirate hangouts

    High-seas piracy still flourishes, and it doesn’t have beads braided into its beard, either. Real life pirates use grenade-launchers and speed boats to hijack cruise ships and cargo freighters. Here’s a piece on the piracy hotspots of the world.

    Even though the global numbers for piracy is declining, there’s one area that incidents are growing: Bangladesh. In 2006 they recorded a staggering 33 incidents (22 successful, 11 attempted) making Chittagong the “world’s most dangerous port.” There have been 47 reports since January of 2006 alone. In 2003, pirates killed 14 fishermen in the Bay of Bengal waters outside of Chittagong, stealing $50,000 USD worth of fish and further making this dangerous port a pivotal area for piracy.

  7. Peril on the high seas

    Apr 23rd 2008
    From Economist.com

    SOMALIA’S coastal waters are proving increasingly perilous for mariners. Some 31 attacks on ships were reported in 2007 compared with just two in 2004, according to the International Maritime Bureau. Pirates operating around the lawless African country are more likely to use weapons than in the past; a Spanish fishing vessel was attacked at the weekend using grenade launchers. It is now considered so risky that this week France and America announced a draft UN Security Council resolution allowing foreign governments to pursue and arrest pirates in territorial waters. Nigeria’s oil wealth is also attracting more brigands to its seas. Ships navigating through traditional piracy hotspots such as the Malacca Strait and the vast coastal waters of Indonesia have suffered fewer attacks since 2004.

  8. MIDDLE EAST & AFRICA: Somalia
    The world’s most utterly failed state

    The spread of piracy just draws attention to the growing chaos on Somalia’s land

    “TIPPED off by friends in ports from Odessa to Mombasa, Somali pirates captured a Ukrainian freighter, the MV Faina, in the Gulf of Aden and steered it to Somalia’s coast. At first they demanded $20m for the release of ship and crew. The captain died, apparently of “hypertension”, and several pirates may have then killed each other after a quarrel. This recent incident was only the latest in a long list of similar outrages and highlights the growing menace caused by the total failure of the state of Somalia, the ultimate cause of the virus of piracy in the region.

    The ship was carrying 33 T-72 Russian tanks, anti-aircraft guns and grenade launchers. Lighter weapons may have been offloaded on the Somali shore before an American warship arrived on the scene. Kenya claimed ownership of the cargo but the manifest suggests its destination was south Sudan, with Kenya’s co- operation in its delivery to be rewarded in the future with cheap south Sudanese oil. At midweek, a Russian warship was steaming to the scene to take responsibility for its citizens on the ship.”

  9. Somali pirates seize supertanker loaded with crude

    By BARBARA SURK – 49 minutes ago

    DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Somali pirates hijacked a supertanker hundreds of miles off the Horn of Africa, seizing the Saudi-owned ship loaded with crude and its 25-member crew, the U.S. Navy said Monday.

    Pirates hijack oil supertanker off east Africa
    By Raissa Kaslowsky and Simon Webb

    DUBAI, Nov 17 (Reuters) – Pirates have seized a Saudi-owned supertanker fully laden with oil off east Africa, capturing the biggest vessel yet in a shipping zone where Somali pirates strike almost daily, the U.S. navy said.

    Saudi-owned television station Al Arabiya said the Sirius Star had been freed, citing an unnamed official Saudi source, but the U.S. navy and Saudi Aramco, which owns the supertanker, both said they had no knowledge of any release.

  10. Ocean Piracy and Its Impact on Insurance, December 3, 2008

    Wikileaks release: February 2, 2009

    Publisher: United States Congressional Research Service

    Title: Ocean Piracy and Its Impact on Insurance

    CRS report number: R40081

    Author(s): Rawle O. King, Analyst in Financial Economics and Risk Assessment

    Date: December 3, 2008


    Many Members of Congress are concerned about the sharp rise in pirate attacks in the strategic waterways in the Gulf of Aden off the East coast of Africa. The hijacking of a Saudi Arabiaowned oil tanker, Sirius Star, off the coast of Kenya on November 17, 2008, by pirates was another in a series of seizures that have focused worldwide attention on economic and humanitarian threats posed by pirates to the global seafaring community and the smooth flow of international trade. Given the sharp increase in the number of pirate attacks, the cost of transporting cargo in international waters could rise dramatically because of the sharp increase in ocean marine insurance rates for ships transiting the Gulf of Aden. Commercial insurers, for example, could require a special “war risk” insurance premium costing an additional ten of thousands of dollars a day. These additional costs could adversely impact international trade during the current global economic slowdown.

  11. The Seven Ways to Stop Piracy
    By Ken Menkhaus

    And why none of them will work as well as we might hope.

    Now that the rush of excitement has subsided from the made-for-TV drama of the rescue of Captain Phillips, we are left with the more sobering long-term question of what to do about Somali piracy. Whether piracy constitutes a serious national security threat is a subject of debate. But there is no question that piracy off the Somali coast is now an important symbolic political issue for both the Obama administration and its critics. The Obama administration does not want conservative opponents to portray it as weak on defense or unwilling to use force to protect American interests, and so cannot afford to embrace passive policies on piracy. Yet the piracy issue is replete with traps, a seemingly simple problem with seemingly simple solutions, all of which could easily backfire and make things worse.

  12. Piracy and private enterprise
    Splashing, and clashing, in murky waters

    Aug 20th 2009
    From The Economist print edition
    Private security firms are increasingly involved in the fight against pirates. The allocation of tasks between them and navies needs some thought

    OF THE dozens of ships recently captured by pirates off east Africa, few stirred so much interest in their home country as a German freighter, the Hansa Stavanger, seized by Somalis in April. As its captivity wore on, the crew of 24 was reported in Germany’s media to be ailing and in need of medicine and water.

    At one point, German police commandos were training on board an American navy ship, hoping to storm the vessel, until America’s national security adviser, James Jones, said it was too dangerous. At last, on August 3rd, the saga ended after negotiations between the ship’s Hamburg-based owners and the pirates, who boasted that they had netted $2.75m in ransom.

    Parleying with pirates, and then paying the ransom (often by airdrops), are jobs that shipowners regularly contract out to private firms or “risk consultancies”. Other maritime security services are less controversial: fitting ships with kit, such as barbed or electric wires, to make it hard for pirates to clamber aboard. Increasingly, security firms also put armed guards on ships, or offer their own craft as escorts.

  13. Somalia’s pirates
    A long war of the waters
    Thanks to greater vigilance and naval patrols, the seas off Somalia may be a bit less dangerous than they were. But they are still the riskiest in the world

    Jan 7th 2010 | NAIROBI
    From The Economist print edition

    TWO years ago Somalia’s weak transitional government agreed to let foreign navies chase pirates into its territorial waters. Since then, the sea off Somalia’s coast has seen an increasing number of warships mainly from rich countries trying—with partial success—to fend off pirates from the poorest. Ships steaming along maritime corridors in convoys are safer than they were. So the pirates are being forced to venture ever farther out into the Indian Ocean to seize their booty. This means that the remoter reaches are still very dangerous.

    Many of the world’s most powerful navies are involved. The French and American ones have killed Somali pirates while freeing their own citizens. For the past year the European Union has deployed its first-ever joint naval force, named Operation Atalanta, to protect ships passing in and out of the Red Sea on their way from or to the Suez canal. Russia has an active anti-piracy mission, helping, among other things, to revive its rusting navy. China has asked if it could set up a naval base in Kenya or elsewhere in the region to support its anti-piracy patrols. The Japanese and South Koreans have sent warships to protect ships carrying their cars. India, Malaysia, Indonesia and South Africa have also joined the anti-piracy fray.

    Yet the pirates are still hijacking ships and receiving ransoms with apparent impunity. In the past fortnight they have captured four more big ships. Two of them, the Singaporean-flagged Pramoni and the British-flagged St James Park, both tankers carrying chemicals, were nabbed under the nose of the foreign navies patrolling the Gulf of Aden.

  14. At sea
    Piracy off the coast of Somalia is getting worse. Time to act

    LAST year, pirates took 1,181 people hostage off the Somali coast. About half were released after the payment of ransoms, a few have died of abuse or neglect and around 760 are currently in captivity. They are usually held prisoner on their own hijacked vessels, some of which are employed as mother-ships from which the pirates stage further raids. So far this year, there have been 35 attacks, seven of them successful. In March, when the monsoon abates and the Arabian Sea grows calmer, the pace of the attacks will quicken.

    The problem has worsened sharply in recent years. There were 219 attacks last year compared with 35 in 2005. Ransoms paid last year climbed to $238m, an average of $5.4m per ship, compared with $150,000 in 2005. At the end of last month Jack Lang, a former French minister who advises the UN on piracy, warned the Security Council that Somali pirates were becoming the “masters” of the Indian Ocean. He puts the economic cost of piracy at $5 billion-7 billion a year (see article). The price in human misery is unquantifiable.

  15. The authors interviewed current and former pirates, their financial backers, government officials, middlemen and others. They estimate that between $339m and $413m was paid in ransoms off the Somali coast between 2005 and 2012. The average haul was $2.7m. Ordinary pirates usually get $30,000-75,000 each, with a bonus of up to $10,000 for the first man to board a ship and for those bringing their own weapon or ladder.

    Qat, a narcotic plant that is chewed by many, is often provided to pirates on credit during an operation. Their consumption is recorded and, when the ransom is paid, each pirate gets his share, minus what he consumed.

    Other deductions include food and fines for bad behaviour, such as mistreating the crew, which often carries a $5,000 fine and dismissal. This is in keeping with centuries-old pirate codes: John Phillips (no relation), an 18th-century pirate, was said to have stated that anyone who “meddled” with a woman without her consent “shall suffer present death”. Some pirates find it difficult to retire because they end up in debt at the end of a hijack. Part of the ransom money flows to local communities that provide services to pirates.

  16. The case offers a glimpse into a world not often seen by landlubbers. The Seaman Guard Ohio was a “floating armoury”, a ship that loiters semi-permanently in international waters, acting as a hotel and base for private security guards hired to protect ships from Somali pirates. They are typically stationed in waters off Sudan, Sri Lanka or the United Arab Emirates, waiting for their customers—merchant ships in need of protection—to pass by.

    Guards hop aboard a client’s ship with their guns, then ride it through the piracy “high risk area” (HRA). Since armed guards first started protecting ships against Somali pirates about a decade ago, no ship with them aboard has been successfully hijacked. Now about 40% of ships rounding the Horn of Africa carry armed guards, according to IHS Jane’s, a research company.

    Armouries have done brisk business since governments and marine insurers first demarked an official HRA in 2010. At the peak of Somali piracy in 2012, shipowners would pay about $45,000 per trip for armed guards. Insurers often insisted they have them, reckoning that this would reduce the risks of them having to pay out millions in ransoms if a ship were hijacked. Yet competition has driven down rates charged by security firms and standards are falling as less highly-regulated companies enter the market. A boss of one British-owned armoury worries that the use of such firms could lead to weapons entering the black market.


  17. Some seamen, however, have languished in captivity for months or even years because their companies balked at coughing up—often because their ship was uninsured, or had run aground, or had been disabled by fire, or had sunk. Crew taken from them were sometimes tortured. “Hard as it may sound, these guys, they don’t have any value,” says John Steed, a former UN man in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital.

    Pirates are still loth to cut their losses by freeing such hostages without payment. Of the few Somali pirates who have given up in this way, most were soon killed, Mr Steed notes, since they could not repay the financiers who underwrote the attacks and the hostages’ upkeep. The resulting trap for such failing pirates and their “forgotten” hostages seemed inescapable.

    Yet 54 hostages, held on land by various groups of Somali pirates, have been freed in the last several years. This was because of a new approach, say those who negotiated the deals. Rather than try to convince unscrupulous vessel owners to fork up big ransoms, the negotiators, mostly working for nothing, first estimated the pirates’ costs—often $100,000-$200,000 for renting a boat and getting weapons and kit; expenses for fuel and food; and payoffs to stop government officials, warlords and village elders from interfering. If that amount or a bit more could be raised from charities and sympathisers, pirates would often accept the deal, once convinced that it was their only hope of satisfying their creditors.

  18. Crime waves
    The Gulf of Guinea is now the world’s worst piracy hotspot
    The tricks that baffled buccaneers off Somalia and South-East Asia may not help in west Africa

    The scale of the problem forced shippers and foreign governments to take drastic action. Somalia’s government barely controlled its capital and was unable to help, so international navies began patrolling its waters. Western navies began doing so in 2009. Other countries, including India, China, Russia and Iran, soon joined in. Some countries began prosecuting Somali pirates arrested by their navies. Firms, often run by ex-soldiers, sprang up to meet the demand for armed guards. Floating arsenals deliver weapons to ships by speedboat in international waters, to get around gun controls on the land. On the Somali coast itself, aid pays local power-brokers to run sketchy coastguards, such as Puntland’s Maritime Police Force.

    Shipping firms complain that the Nigerian government is failing to keep its waters safe. Its navy often performs admirably when it intercepts pirate attacks. But it is ill-equipped and spread too thin to prevent them. Some speculate that the pirates are in cahoots with military officials, citing incidents in which pirates flee before the navy arrives or know exactly how many crew members are aboard a ship they attack. Nigeria has yet to make piracy a specific criminal offence. Pirates captured by the navy are often quietly released. Around 300 people have been prosecuted in Somalia for piracy. By contrast, the un Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says it does not know of a single prosecution in Nigeria.

  19. Maritime piracy in the Strait of Hormuz and implications of energy export security

    Persian Gulf Countries (PGC) are collectively the world’s largest exporter of fuels. The vast majority of these fuels are shipped via maritime routes and require transit through the Strait of Hormuz. As such, the Strait of Hormuz is considered the most important chokepoint for the global energy economy. This study examines the effect of maritime piracy through this chokepoint on exports of specific fuels from each PGC. We classify piracy as a soft restriction in the Strait; the effect of a such a restriction depends on the risk sensitivities of the trading countries and the type of fuel being traded. We use a two-stage least squares regression to first estimate the impact of piracy attacks on tanker traffic through the Strait, and then estimate the risk that the restriction would pose to energy exports. The first stage of the analysis reveals that tanker transit declines two years after piracy attacks. The second stage of the analysis, however, indicates that only refined petroleum exports from Bahrain and Kuwait are significantly impacted. We discuss drivers of this heterogeneity, including underlying market structures that allow crude oil to remain relatively resilient to soft restrictions. We then discuss policy implications of this risk to global energy security.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *