Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum! Contemporary maritime piracy

05. Nov 2008 | von Jan Künzl | Kategorie: Sicherheitspolitik
Heavy-armed Somali pirate.
Heavy-armed Somali pirate.
Since the end of the Cold War, piracy has had a considerable comeback, not only in popular culture. The raids of the real counterparts of Captain Jack Sparrow, star of the movie ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’, have reached a dimension that poses a serious problem to security policy. By Jan Künzl

Piracy occurred ever since humans have been using waterways for transportation. It reached its heyday between the 16th and the 19th century, concentrating in the Caribbean, Mediterranean and East Asian regions. However, in the course of the increasing importance of modern statehood and international maritime trade the phenomenon was nearly superseded. In the 20th century, until the end of the Cold War, piracy had almost vanished. But since then a resurrection of piracy, which has reached an enormous extent by now, has taken place.

In 2007 the Piracy Reporting Centre in Kuala Lumpur reported some 263 attacks on a whole variety of vessels. The number of unreported cases is estimated to be more than twice this amount, because ship-owners are often reluctant to reporting piracy incidents due to the fear of raising insurance rates. The economic damages are enormous. The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) calculates that maritime piracy costs transport vessels between $13 billion and $15 billion a year in the waters between the Pacific and Indian Ocean alone.

Piracy – a never ending story

A regional hotspot of piracy is the Malacca Strait, a maritime bottleneck in Southeast Asia, where more than 50.000 vessels pass each year. Another centre proves to be the Horn of Africa, especially the Gulf of Aden, where Somali and Yemenite pirates are threatening the shipping traffic from and to the Suez Canal. Recent spectacular incidents in this area were the capture of the French luxury Yacht “Le Ponant” in April, the hijacking of a German yacht and the subsequent abduction of its two sailors in June and the capture of the Ukrainian carrier “Faina”, loaded with 30 heavy tanks in September.

The tactics of looting

The pirates use different strategies, depending on their degree of organisation and the region in which they are operating. In approximately 80 per cent of the cases small vessels moving slowly in coastal waters or even anchoring in harbours are attacked. The assaults are usually carried out at night. The loot are the content of safes and any portable valuables.

However, there are even cases in which huge bulk carriers are captured, their cargo is sold and the ship is equipped with new documents. One of the most famous cases in this regard is the “Petro Ranger” a Singapoore owned tankship, which was captured in 1998, subsequently painted up and renamed as “MV Wilby”.

The pirates are often well equipped. Besides their small speedboats, they handle automatic weapons. Even the use of grenade launchers and rocket propelled grenades was reported. Civilian vessels have some options for counteractive measures, like the employment of the fire hoses or electrifyable railings to hinder the attackers to board the ships. A hidden ship tracker could impede the capture of a vessel. Unfortunately, those measures are by far not sufficient.

The carrier “Faina” was captured in September.
The carrier “Faina” was captured in September.
A problem of security policy

Piracy has become a serious problem of security policy. Three aspects are of particular importance: In general, the security of maritime shipping is in danger. A huge proportion of world trade is transported by ship. Piracy occurs in regions of outstanding importance for maritime transportation and is becoming a considerable expense factor due to raising insurance rates.

The share of ocean shipping in the international resource flow is also extremely high. The crude oil coming from the trans-shipment centres in the Persian Gulf is being delivered to Asia through the Malacca Strait and to Europe and America through the Suez Canal. A brief cutback or even a disruption of the resource flows would have serious consequences on the world economy. The blast of a supertanker could block those passages for days or even weeks. The resulting congestions in sea-lanes would lead to supply shortages on the world market. In conjunction with the raise of insurance rates, and thereby shipping costs, skyrocketing oil prices would be the outcome. On top of that, the environmental implications would be devastating.

Recently, an increasing ideologization of piracy is observed. Especially in the waters between East Africa and Yemen piracy is assumed to be financing international terror organisations like Al-Qaida.
The tightening of laws against the funding of terrorism and their strict implementation seem to force those organizations to search for new income possibilities. For such organisations piracy probably turned out to be an appropriate instrument. Therefore the issue of piracy becomes an aspect of the War on Terror as well.

Piracy as an outcome of state failure

The reasons for the increase in piracy become clear, if one takes a glance at the regions in which piracy occurs and at how those are organized politically. The problem of piracy is directly linked with the phenomenon of state failure. State failure means the erosion of statehood and the inability of the affected states to distribute public goods to their citizens. Such a development can lead to the total collapse of state order and its substitution by alternative patterns of political organization, like tribalism. In failing states the authorities and security forces can not put into effect the monopoly of force vis à vis the pirates, or they even benefit from piracy through corrupt practices.

On the current Failed States Index, a ranking which is published annually by Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace, Somalia is the number one and Yemen number 21. This reveals that the insecurity of the Gulf of Aden is caused by insufficient state cohesion of its riparian states. It is particularly interesting that in the period between June and December 2006, when an islamist movement ceased power over the major part of Somalia and established a monopoly of force, a significant drop of pirate activities was noticeable. After the expulsion of this movement through US-backed Ethiopian forces in December 2006, and the successive breakdown of state power, piracy rates raised again immediately.

ICC Live Piracy Map 2008A similar correlation is eye-catching in the Malacca Strait, which used to be the region with the highest rates of piracy worldwide in the nineties. At that time the Indonesian state was weakened by the territorial conflicts over East Timor and Aceh. Since the beginning of the new century, both conflicts have been settled and Indonesia is about to consolidate its statehood. Simultaneously piracy is declining.

Fighting piracy – securing waterways

It becomes obvious that security problems like piracy and state failure are strongly interdependent. Therefore only an approach which deals with the problem of state failure could prove successful against piracy. Intensified naval patrols and military deterrence will not solve the problem in the long term. To fight the causes of piracy it is necessary that such measures go hand in hand with great efforts to stabilize failing states and help them to rebuild their state structures. This includes a broad spectrum of development cooperation measures like training and equipage of the security forces, economic assistance and anti-corruption programs. Such an approach is certainly very costly but will prove to be the more successful way in the long run.


Die Bilder unterliegen der Creative Commons Lizenz. Bild 2 ist von Fehmi Ulgener. Die Nutzung von Bild 3 und dem dazugehörigen Link ist vom IMB gestattet worden.


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  1. Hello:

    I am a photo researcher working on a college sociology textbook. I am trying to track down the photographer of the image of the “heavily armed Somali pirate” to get permission to use it in our publication. Any suggestions you may have would be most appreciated!

    Thank you,
    Debbie Needleman
    NeedDeb@aol.com

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