Stable states vital to decreasing piracy risk
Several reports in recent months have highlighted the ongoing risk posed by modern pirates — from Nigeria, where higher global oil prices have reportedly led to an increase in attacks on oil tankers, to Venezuela, where a collapsing economy has offered new incentives for pirates in the Caribbean.
Piracy is an opportunistic business. It occurs in places where there is both an opportunity to make money from robbing ships or kidnapping mariners and where counter-piracy security is too minimal to provide a sufficient deterrent. When these factors combine with economic desperation and state collapse, there is a high risk of piracy.
Pirates find opportunities in places where there are ships with potentially valuable cargo or goods onboard. Another major source of revenue comes from kidnapping for ransom. Pirates operate in many places, but they are more common in areas with a higher concentration of ships and where ships must travel more slowly. Pirates attack a wide range of vessels, including yachts, tankers, cargo ships and fishing boats.
One option to deter pirates is to demonstrate a strong military presence, which played a major role in ending an outbreak of piracy around the Horn of Africa and has helped to reduce piracy in Asia. Pirates seldom flourish in territorial waters where states have the capacity to sufficiently patrol their waters. Individual ships also can take measures to make it harder for pirates to target them, including onboard security and traveling in more secure sea lanes. However, establishing long-term naval coalitions can be difficult, and pirates can re-emerge after a mission is declared successful and the naval presence declines. Commercial ships seeking to cut costs might not invest in security measures and might try to take shortcuts through more dangerous waters.
Economic desperation and state collapse serve as boosters for piracy, exacerbating the risk when opportunity and insufficient deterrents already exist. A major driver of the piracy crisis off the Horn of Africa from around 2008 to 2012 was the prolonged collapse of Somalia’s economy and security environment. Somalia had no government with the capacity to police its waters or deal with pirates’ onshore bases, and economic collapse drove some people to piracy to earn a living. Another significant factor was the depletion of fishing stocks due to extensive illegal fishing by foreign vessels, leading some Somali fishermen to turn to piracy. Similar factors are contributing to an increase in piracy off the coast of Venezuela today.
While it might be impossible to completely stamp out piracy, there are clear solutions for significantly decreasing its risks.
Kerry Boyd Anderson
Modern piracy occurs in many places, but is strongly concentrated in four hotspots: The Gulf of Guinea off West Africa, especially around the Niger Delta; the Strait of Malacca between Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore; around the Horn of Africa, especially in the southern Red Sea, Bab Al-Mandab Strait and the Gulf of Aden; and the Caribbean.
The Gulf of Guinea is often considered the riskiest area for pirate incidents in the world. “Generally, all waters in/off Nigeria remain risky,” according to the International Maritime Bureau, which also reported that Nigeria was the country with the most pirate incidents in the first half of 2018. Pirates in this region tend to focus on kidnapping for ransom and stealing oil from tankers. Instability in the Niger Delta and a lack of local economic development are contributing factors.
Southeast and East Asia have long experienced piracy, and the region is the second riskiest place. For centuries, the Strait of Malacca has been a hotbed for pirates. It remains so today, but increased efforts since 2005 by Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia have decreased the number of attacks.
Another concern in Asia is the kidnapping of mariners by the extremist group Abu Sayyaf, which has increased the risk of violent incidents in the Sulu and Celebes Sea. The organization Oceans Beyond Piracy has reported that incidents in the area decreased in 2017, partly due to increased anti-piracy cooperation by the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. However, extremist groups continue to operate in the area and still pose a risk.
The piracy crisis around the Horn of Africa raised the international profile of modern pirates and led to a multinational naval effort to combat the threat. The increased military presence significantly cut back on attacks, and, in 2016, NATO ended its Operation Ocean Shield. The EU’s Naval Force Operation Atalanta will remain in operation until at least the end of 2020. The Horn of Africa offers a clear lesson in the importance of an effective naval presence and security precautions by ships. However, when naval missions end and ships become less cautious, piracy can return, and there was an increase in Somali pirate activity in 2017.
Despite the Caribbean’s famous history of piracy, it has not been a major hotspot in recent years, though incidents do occur. However, several media reports in recent months have revealed an increase in piracy around Venezuela, where pirates have started attacking the emerging smuggling business. As Venezuela’s economy has collapsed, smugglers have started bringing in goods, and pirates based in Venezuela have increasingly attacked them, as well as fishing boats. Sadly, the Caribbean may be an emerging example of how opportunity combines with a lack of deterrence and desperation to create fertile territory for pirates.
While it might be impossible to completely stamp out piracy, there are clear solutions for significantly decreasing its risks. Ships should adhere to best management practices. Examples in Asia and around the Horn of Africa demonstrate the effectiveness of a strong, multinational naval response. Many states lack legal frameworks for addressing piracy, which could be improved. Fundamentally, efforts to address state and economic collapse in coastal areas are essential to preventing piracy.
- Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 14 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Twitter: @KBAresearch