April 7, 2014: Strategy Page
The piracy business has changed a lot since 2010, when it had reached levels of activity not seen in over a century. But over the next three years that all changed. By 2013 attacks on ships by Somali pirates had declined 95 percent from the 2010 peak. It’s been over two years since the Somali pirates captured a large commercial ship, and even smaller fishing ships and dhows (small local cargo ships of traditional construction) are harder for them to grab. The rapid collapse of the Somali pirates since 2010 was no accident. It was all a matter of organization, international cooperation and innovation. It all began back in 2009 when 80 seafaring nations formed (with the help of a UN resolution) the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia. The most visible aspect of the Contact Group was the organization of an anti-piracy patrol off the Somali coast. This came to consist of over two dozen warships and several dozen manned and unmanned aircraft, as well as support from space satellites and major intelligence and police agencies.
Back in 2010 the Somali pirates got most of the publicity but they only carried out 44 percent of the attacks. What was newsworthy was that the Somalis accounted for 90 percent of the hijackings, and some 80 percent of the piracy was in and around the Indian Ocean. Some 44 percent of all attacks involved the pirates boarding the ships, while in 18 percent the pirates just fired on ships, without getting aboard. There are still pirates out there, but there are more into robbery than kidnapping.
Piracy hit a trough from the late nineteenth century into the later twentieth. That was because the Great Powers had pretty much divided up the whole planet, and policed it. The pirates had no place to hide. Piracy began to revive in a modest way beginning in the 1970s, with the collapse of many post-colonial regimes. Note that what constitutes an act of piracy is often not clearly defined. What most people agree on is that piracy is non-state sanctioned use of force at sea or from the sea. This could include intercepting a speedboat to rob the passengers, but that's usually just thought of as armed robbery. And something like the seizure of the Achille Lauro in 1985 is considered terrorism, rather than piracy. In the past, some marginal states have sanctioned piratical operations, like the Barbary States, but that is rare any more.
The trend, however, was definitely up for two decades, with the big increase coming in the last decade.
o 1991: About 120 known cases of real or attempted piracy
o 1994: over 200 cases
o 2000: 471 cases
o 2005: 359 cases
o 2010: over 400 cases
The international effort to suppress Somali piracy has halted and reversed this trend. But while there have been far fewer attacks off Somalia there has been a big jump in attacks in the Straits of Malacca (sevenfold increase since 2009) and off Nigeria (a similar increase). The big difference is that only off Somalia could ships and crews be taken and held for ransom for long periods. Everywhere else the pirates were usually only interested in robbing the crew and stealing anything portable that they could get into their small boats. Off the Nigerian coast pirates sometimes take some ship officers with them to hold for ransom or force the crew to move small tankers to remote locations where most of the cargo (of oil) can be transferred to another ship and sold on the black market.
Pirates usually function on the margins of society, trying to get a cut of the good life in situations where there aren't many options. This is usually in areas where state control is weakest or absent, in failing and "flailed" states. A flailing state is something like Nigeria, Indonesia, or the Philippines, where the government is managing to keep things together but is faced with serious problems with areas that are sometimes out of control. In a failed state like, where there isn't a government at all, pirates can do whatever they want.
The solution to piracy is essentially on land; go into uncontrolled areas and institute governance. This has been the best approach since the Romans eliminated piracy in the Mediterranean over 2,000 years ago. Trying to tackle piracy on the maritime end can reduce the incidence of piracy, but can't eliminate it because the pirates still have a safe base on land. In the modern world the "land" solution often can't be implemented. Who wants to put enough troops into Somalia to eliminate piracy? And flailing states are likely to be very sensitive about their sovereignty if you offer to help them control marginal areas.
Meanwhile there are two areas where pirates still thrive. Piracy in the vital (most of the world's oil exports pass through here) Straits of Malacca was largely an Indonesian phenomenon. It bothered the Singaporeans a lot, the Malaysians a little, and the Indonesians not much. But as Indonesia began stabilizing itself over the past decade (the 2004 Aceh Peace settlement, the institution of a more democratic government, defeating Islamic terrorism), the rate of piracy declined. This decline was facilitated by the combined police effort of Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia itself, which didn't come about until a lot of issues among the three states were resolved. Neither Indonesia nor Malaysia were all that upset about smuggling, which bothered Singapore. Indonesia and Singapore still have some problems, as Singapore more or less encourages sand stealing in enormous volumes from Indonesia. Since 2010 there has been an increase in piracy off Indonesia, largely because the Indonesians reduced their anti-piracy patrols without warning or explanation. There are lots of targets, with over 50,000 large ships moving through the Straits of Malacca each year. That’s 120-150 a day. Lots of targets. The shallow and tricky waters in the strait forces the big ships to go slow enough (under 30 kilometers an hour) for speed boats to catch them.
In contrast to the Strait of Malacca situation, the U.S. approach to piracy has been largely a police mission, without trying to deal with the land-side. Again, that would mean occupying Somalia. But there are some regional constraints on piracy. There seems to be little or no piracy in the Red Sea and Bab al-Mandeb. Apparently this was because the smugglers decided the pirates interfered with their business (by bringing in coalition naval forces), and so shut down any pirate operations themselves.
The Gulf of Guinea has become another hot spot for modern (non shipnapping) piracy. Nigeria is badly run and most of the oil revenue is stolen by corrupt officials, leaving people living in the oil producing areas near the coast very angry. More piracy has been one result of all that anger.