Pacific Maritime Magazine - Marine Business for the Operations Sector

Maritime Security: Current Threats and Implications


Pirate attacks follow a remarkably defined cyclical trend with the first high point noted in 2003 and then again in 2010, and a clearly defined trough in 2006.

Maritime piracy and maritime terrorism are known threats to global shipping, with piracy imposing substantial human and economic costs – particularly off the coast of Somalia – in recent years. Drug, weapon, and human trafficking also have an increasingly well-documented maritime dimension. What may be less well understood is the extent to which each of these criminal areas may overlap or demonstrate signs of mutual cooperation. However, given the evidence that is emerging, we are becoming more aware of the impact global maritime crime can have beyond the specific geographical locations in which it occurs. Piracy, terrorism and illicit trafficking are problems that afflict all of us associated with maritime trade, and argue for a more comprehensive solution.

Maritime Piracy

From data collected between 2002 through 2012 global pirate attacks have been found to be cyclical in nature, with the first high point noted in 2003 and then again in 2010, and a drop in 2006. A steep drop in 2012 indicates we are currently entering another low point in the cycle of maritime piracy.

What is not clearly evident from the numbers alone is the geographical pattern of maritime piracy in these years. Pirate attacks from 2002 through 2006 were concentrated in the Strait of Malacca region and the South China Sea. However, from 2006 through 2011 Somali pirates were responsible for the vast majority of attacks, with their geographical range extending initially from the Somali coastline then eventually east into the Indian Ocean, south down the coasts of Kenya and Tanzania, reaching the Seychelles, and finally the entrance of the Persian Gulf.

This tendency to concentrate geographically highlights a critically important point for mariners; pirate hot spots can be identified, and to some extent even predicted.

Maritime piracy has tended to concentrate in just three regions in the last five years; the Horn of Africa (exclusively Somali pirates), the Gulf of Guinea (pirates from Nigeria), and the region in and around the Strait of Malacca (committed largely by Indonesian pirates). Not only did global pirate attacks drop in 2012, Somali pirate attacks dropped substantially. However, at the same time, we see a disturbing rise in attacks in the Gulf of Guinea and a resurgence of attacks in and near the Strait of Malacca, despite the overall global decline.

Where We Stand Now: Important Developments in 2013

This leads us to the current maritime piracy situation in 2013. From January through June 2013, there have been 138 pirate attacks, the lowest recorded for the six-month period since 2008. Attacks committed by Somali pirates during this time have dropped dramatically to eight attacks only, with only two of these resulting in a successful hijacking. This is an even more substantial drop when compared with the previous year; from January through June 2012, Somali pirates attacked 42 vessels.

At the same time global pirate attacks have dropped so significantly, we have seen a corresponding rise in the numbers of attacks in Nigeria and Indonesia/Strait of Malacca. In 2013, seven countries accounted for 70 percent of all pirate attacks: Indonesia, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Colombia, India, Egypt and Togo. Indonesia and Nigeria comprised the vast majority of these attacks, with 49 percent occurring in Indonesia and 22 percent in Nigeria. It is interesting to note that attacks in Bangladesh, India, Egypt and Togo are remarkably unchanged from the previous year – previously little attention has been paid to these areas as particular concerns for mariners; however, with the drop in Somali piracy, attacks in these countries now contribute more meaningfully to overall attack figures. And, with the continued unrest in Egypt and the rise in Colombia, we may expect to see more attacks in these regions in the future.

The Costs of Maritime Piracy

Maritime piracy imposes both human costs and economic costs on maritime shipping. Human costs come in the form not only of seafarers being hijacked and held hostage, but injury during attacks and even death. While the number of seafarers held hostage in recent years has declined, many seafarers are still taken and held hostage and/or remain at risk from significant harm.

Consistent with the rise of Nigeria as an increasingly dangerous hot spot, 28 of the 30 seafarers kidnapped in January-June 2013 were in Nigeria, not in Somalia (the remaining two were in Togo). Additionally, the single death to date in 2013 occurred in Nigeria.

It is also important to note that the type of weapons used varies by location. Guns were used in eight incidents in Somalia, eighteen in Nigeria, and in six in the Malacca region. Knives (typically less lethal) remain the weapon of choice in Indonesia, Malacca and Malaysia, used in twenty-five of the attacks in this part of the world.

The harm to seafarers is not limited to the attack itself. Being hijacked and held hostage, or injured during a pirate attack has, in many cases, led to symptoms closely resembling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among affected seafarers, particularly among those who have been held hostage for any length of time. These symptoms can be of some duration. At the same time, the human costs are not limited to the seafarers alone. If a crewmember becomes so traumatized by an attack or from having been held hostage he or she may not be willing to sail again; absent other job opportunities or sources of financial support, their families may suffer. Additionally, not all ransoms are paid by shipping or insurance companies; sometimes families have had to contribute at a significant financial burden to them.

While US seafarers have not borne the human costs of maritime piracy nearly to the extent of their counterparts from other countries (far fewer US seafarers have been killed or injured; and hijacking attempts have typically resulted in the quick release of the vessel) all nations bear the economic costs of piracy. These costs stem from those associated with the direct protection of the vessel and its crew; to those associated with longer transit when pirate waters are avoided in favor of longer shipping routes.

Examples of economic costs include transiting at increased speeds, the costs of military guards and equipment, insurance and labor costs, ransoms, and the costs of operating and maintaining the international task forces. There was considerable consternation when the cost figures were released in 2011 – up until then, most everyone who had thought at all about piracy believed the problem was restricted to a minor segment of the global shipping industry; few thought about calculating nearly all costs associated with maritime piracy or realized they could amount to more than $6.5 billion globally, with the estimated cost per ship per transit approximately $134,000.

While many of these costs are associated directly with protection against piracy in the Horn of Africa, many of them will need to continue despite the decline in attacks committed by Somali pirates. Specifically, the non-lethal means of deterring and preventing piracy (i.e., not dependent on armed guards or the international task forces) should be adopted in the Gulf of Guinea and the Malacca region. And the case is already being made that if shipping companies no longer use armed guards, or if the international task forces are withdrawn from the Horn of Africa, Somali piracy may again increase.

Why Does Maritime Piracy Matter to the US?

This raises the question why pirate attacks matter to the United States, especially as we have seen such a dramatic drop in overall attack figures, and particularly in the most highly publicized waters of the greater Horn of Africa region.

There are several answers to this question. First, despite recent declines (and as a contributing cause to these declines) piracy continues to impose substantial human and economic costs on the global shipping industry, including American shipping.

Second, the trend in pirate attacks towards a greater concentration in Nigeria and Indonesia/Malacca puts piracy in regions of the world more strategically critical to US merchant shipping. Nigeria is a vitally important energy supplier to the United States; ten percent of US oil needs come from Nigeria. Maritime piracy and criminal instability in this country have periodic impacts on oil supplies; for example, there was a five percent drop in Nigerian output in 2012 due to security concerns, including maritime piracy. The Strait of Malacca and surrounding waters are a critically important trade route for the United States – particularly the US West Coast – and this part of the world is well on the way to becoming the number one maritime piracy hot spot in 2013.

Malacca and the Gulf of Guinea are where, conversely, the global maritime industry and concerned governments have less ability to respond effectively than in the Horn of Africa due to national sovereignty and the domestic laws of the regional littoral nations. International anti-piracy task forces and armed guards simply cannot be used to the extent in the Malacca region and the Gulf of Guinea (if at all) to the extent they have been used in the Horn of Africa, where most attacks occur in international waters and the task forces have the permission of the United Nations to operate in Somali territorial waters.

Maritime Terrorism

The current geographical shift of maritime piracy from the Horn of Africa to Malacca and the Gulf of Guinea is important from the point of view of maritime terrorism as well, as terrorist groups with known maritime capabilities operate in these parts of the world (this is particularly the case in Nigeria and the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta – MEND). While many argue that pirate-terrorist “linkages” are unlikely to occur due to differing motivations (pirates operate for economic gain; terrorists for political gain) it must be noted in reality that there are significant “grey areas.” For example, the now-defunct Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) committed both pirate and terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka; most of the pirate attacks in Nigeria are attributed to MEND, which has been designated as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) by the United States.

This said, activity has been remarkably quiet on the maritime terrorist front. Predictions about a “move to the sea” by groups such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) operating largely in Yemen, al Shabaab in Somalia, or Jemaah Islayiyah in Indonesia have yet to materialize. Abu Sayaaf in the Philippines has been active in the past, but has not been significantly active in the maritime realm – particularly against foreign interests – for some years. There has been no known direct maritime attack by al Qaeda since the 2004 USS Firebolt incident in the Persian Gulf; the most recent known maritime terrorist event by any group was the minor attack on the VLCC M/V M. Star in 2010 attributed to the al Qaeda-affiliated Abdullah Azzam Brigades.

This should not argue for a relaxing of vigilance. Terrorism, by its very nature, always contains an element of unpredictability. A former UK First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff deemed maritime terrorism “a clear and present danger” that may “potentially cripple global trade and have grave knock-on effects on developed economies,” and USN Captain Jim Pelkofski (Ret.) has noted that “indications point to an acceleration of the pace of maritime terrorism, heralding a coming campaign.” Most importantly remains the threat from the “lone wolf”. Individuals or groups operating “off the radar” can be remarkably difficult to apprehend prior to an attack, as we unfortunately noted from the recent Boston Marathon bombing.

While maritime terrorist attacks against a single vessel may not impose substantial economic damage beyond that to the shipping company, attacks against ports could be much more economically crippling. And the attack need not happen in the United States to cause economic harm. Were an attack to happen against a key hub port (for example, Singapore) effects could ripple throughout the global supply chain. At the same time, a 2002 simulation by Booz Allen Hamilton noted that just the credible threat of an attack (in this case a radiological device in a container) shut down most major US ports for 19 days.

The “Web of Criminality”

What may actually be the most significant threat for the maritime industry is the emerging “web of criminality” with pirates, terrorists, and “ordinary” criminals working opportunistically in an ad hoc manner around criminal opportunities. While hard statistical evidence is difficult to obtain, anecdotal evidence does exist. Pirates in Somalia are known to have engaged from time to time in gun running on behalf of al Shabaab. Al Shabaab has been associated with the illegal charcoal and khat trades (most of which is transited by ship). And in Nigeria, MEND and the more radical Boko Haram have been associated not only with piracy and oil theft (MEND) but believed to be involved in the illegal drug trade transiting through the country as well.

Maps of the world’s key shipping routes and known patterns of illicit activity highlight the complicity of the shady elements of the shipping industry, and the vulnerability of the legally operating shipping industry, very well. For example, global trade routes used by drug traffickers overlap not only with known pirate and terrorist areas of activity, but with the world’s major transit routes for the legitimate trade in energy and commodity flows.

Maritime piracy – regardless of where it occurs – imposes economic and human costs on us all. Maritime terrorism can happen anywhere; the probability of an attack may be higher elsewhere in the world, but the United States is certainly not immune from attacks on its interests or on its own soil. Given the extent of maritime criminality, we should not be thinking about, planning for, or protecting against “specific” threats – piracy, terrorism, drugs, human trafficking – but rather a “web” of threats with a number of actual and coincidental overlaps and interdependencies.

Pirate attacks follow a remarkably defined cyclical trend with the first high point noted in 2003 and then again in 2010, and a clearly defined trough in 2006.

The economy of the US West Coast is tied to the maritime industry, and California alone is the world’s eighth largest economy (2013). If there are maritime threats in the world, there is at least a potential pathway to our water’s edge both through legitimate and illegal trade routes. Our challenge will be increasingly to engage these threats as an interwoven whole, rather than as separate, discrete and distinct concerns.

Donna Nincic is Professor and Director of the ABS School of Maritime Policy and Management at the California Maritime Academy, California State University. She received her doctorate in Political Science/International Relations from New York University, and has held previous positions at the University of California, Davis; the Hoover Institution; and the US Department of Defense. Her research focuses on maritime security, particularly piracy and terrorism.


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