Maritime piracy: suppressed, not gone

A glance at the data and it is tempting to conclude that the menace of maritime piracy is all but solved. In the 12 months to July 2022, MariTrace identified 190 incidents of armed attack, theft and hijack - the majority of which targeted cargo vessels (101 attacks) and tankers (43). This compares with 208 similar incidents in the 12 months to July 2021 and 286 in the year 2019-2020.

Annual reports from the past few years are encouraging, but a deeper look beyond the data is warranted. First, under-reporting of attacks both by jurisdiction and flag state of the attacked vessel may be obfuscating the true scale of maritime crime and piracy, particularly in locations where maritime crime is a natural extension of criminal activity on land (for example, as seen in the Gulf of Mexico and in the Gulf of Guinea). Second, even minor incidents exact costs wider than just within the High Risk Area (HRA). Trade declines on risky routes: for example, by about 2.3% in a typical month for exports to Europe from China; while the costs of mitigating for piracy fall hardest on smaller firms. A single incident of hijack on routes between Europe and Asia can increase transport costs for all firms, by about 1.2%. Third - and perhaps most complex - the problem of piracy may be symptomatic of a wider problem of maritime disorder that goes beyond local enabling conditions. In many regions, criminal gangs are just exploiting a market opportunity: for example, pirates off the coast of Nigeria command ransoms at a price point that makes it cheaper for shipping companies to simply write off the ransom as part of the cost of doing business. Off the Horn of Africa, attacks on vessels may be the surface expression of a shadow war among rival states that is more about projection of power than a deliberate attempt to hijack ships. States vary in their capacity and willingness to enact and enforce laws: the long-term effectiveness of counter piracy operations relies on the stability of coastal economies and states’ willingness to collaborate with international partners in combatting shared threats. Military escorts are effective but expensive to maintain: even the world’s most well resourced navies cannot be everywhere, all the time.

Beyond the headlines, analysts focus less on overall numbers (different groups report different figures based on varying interpretations of ‘piracy’), more on root cause analysis: what conditions allow criminal gangs to launch attacks on vessels, both within territorial waters and beyond? Linking piracy to poverty is much too simplistic: rather, relative deprivation - groups who are marginalised and out of other options – is among the many contributing factors to creating an enabling environment for crime. Critically, piracy relies on the opportunity to exploit grey market economies and build networks among the many technical experts needed to successfully sustain a ‘business model’. The circumstances that allow piracy and armed robbery differ from region to region. Partly as a product of state collapse, piracy off the coast of Somalia began with actions by Somali fishermen who formed their own coast guard to counter illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing by foreigners in their territorial waters - but it has evolved into a form of organised crime that has deep roots on land. In the Gulf of Mexico, piracy is fuelled by well-established cartels on land specialising in oil theft. In southeast Asia, opportunistic groups rely on highly favourable geography (proximity to choke points and safe havens) and draw from a complex network of actors on land to carry out regular thefts from small, slow-moving vessels. In Somalia, the phenomenon of piracy may have stabilised around 2010-11 as crime syndicates moved to a sustainable business model under conditions of improved economic stability. In the Gulf of Mexico, already stretched law enforcement agencies, preoccupied with counter-narcotics operations, are unlikely to accord significant time and resources to dealing with oil theft, while removing ‘kingpins’ rarely works: networks simply adapt and re-form. And going after pirates at their bases on land can be fraught with legal challenges.

For now, the global problem of maritime piracy may only have been suppressed. Crime syndicates have grown adept at navigating opportunities on land, exploiting differences in jurisdictions’ approach to combatting illicit activities in territorial waters. Their increasingly sophisticated tactics have demanded a commensurate joint response from governments, law enforcement and industry - but as in other forms of shared effort, this is not without challenges in reconciling overlapping mandates, differences in reporting and limited security budgets. Information-sharing centres are helpful but are only part of a solution. Informal sharing of threat intelligence among stable networks of trusted parties who are on the ‘front line’, coupled with accurate reporting of incidents within and beyond territorial waters, is vital in building a real-time picture of maritime crime. Joint, rather than just cooperative, activities to patrol high risk areas and share data can help overcome differences among coastal states in interpreting territories and defining boundaries of practical action. Ultimately the cost of piracy still falls not on shipowners and supply chains, but at the frontline, on seafarers. Trade routes are getting crowded and container shipping is enjoying a boom, owing in part to the mismatch between supply and demand as global supply chains recover from the pandemic. As nations in HRA and beyond plot a slow course toward a unified response, a compromise between threat containment (actions by local coastguards, PMSCs and consortia of law enforcement actors) and risk tolerance (the level of risk that ship owners and ports are likely to accept) is likely to continue to shape the maritime security environment.

Check back for more articles in the coming month as we explore these issues in depth. To know more about our work on information-sharing, please get in touch.