Piracy On The Seas: The Great Security Challenge Of The 21st Century – Analysis


Piracy at sea is an activity that is as old as maritime traffic for thousands of years. This activity is so present that it has become accepted as part of the tradition of many nations. Although it was expected that in modern times pirates would disappear, due to poverty and hopelessness around the world, pirate activities at the turn of the 20th to the 21st century were not eradicated but intensified.

Pirates are most active in the zones of the highest intensity of maritime traffic, which are often the zones of greatest misery and poverty near the coasts of Africa and Asia. Given that more than 80% of international trade is carried out by sea, pirates who threaten maritime traffic are not only a traffic but also an economic problem. Ships, cargo, crew, passengers, trade and national economies are at risk.

The concept of maritime piracy

Maritime piracy represents one of the clearest forms of violation of international law. International law distinguishes between absolute and relative piracy. Absolute piracy is illegal robbery or violence on the high seas or at sea that does not belong to any state. Relative piracy is illegal robbery or violence that occurs in the territorial sea or internal sea waters of a state. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) of 1982 in its articles 101 and 103 defined piracy: “unlawful violence, plunder or detention not authorized by any State, and committed for personal purposes or private gain. Violence, detention or robbery must be committed by a private ship or aircraft, against another ship or aircraft, persons or goods on board, and committed on the high seas or in another place that does not fall under the jurisdiction of any state.”

Although the public does not have a clear distinction between the terms pirate and pirate, it clearly exists in international law. Piracy is an activity of violence and attack at sea at the behest of a state. Pirate actions are planned and carried out in accordance with the decisions of the political leadership of a country. Historically, pirates would attack other ships with weapons and the captured booty would be shared between them and their employer, the state. Pirates work in their own interest, while pirates work mostly at the behest of the state. The Paris Maritime Declaration of 1856 abolished piracy until piracy was abolished, moreover in recent years and decades it has become more and more lively

Legal framework for combating maritime piracy

Maritime piracy needs to be decisively opposed, but the most common problem is of a legal nature: the reaction to piracy activities largely depends on who has jurisdiction. When piracy attacks take place in international waters, it is easier to respond to them, however, the problem is that often the attacks take place in the territorial waters of a country such as Somalia or Malaysia. Then foreign warships are limited in their activities because they violate the territorial sovereignty of a country.

Due to the particularly strong piracy activity in the sea waters of Somalia, the UN Security Council has adopted a whole series of resolutions from 2008 to the present day (e.g. resolutions number 1816, 1838, 1846, 1851) in which they openly call on those states that can do, support the fight against pirates. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) has contributed greatly to the fight against Somali pirates, with the task of arresting and imprisoning pirates as well as ensuring fair trials. Also, the UN Political Office for Somalia (UNPOS) and the Contact Group for the Coast of Somalia (CPGS) gave a big boost to the fight against Somali pirates. During the last few decades, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has stood out the most in the fight against pirates. In order to finally begin to resolutely suppress piracy operations around the Horn of Africa, the IMO declared 2011 the year of the joint fight against maritime piracy.

Zones of activity of pirates

Piracy experienced a sudden rise at the turn of the 21st century, precisely at the time of the greatest technological progress. Although it would seem at first glance that technological and scientific advances would reduce the power of pirates, they have become rampant. The problem of maritime piracy exists on almost all the world’s seas, but it is not equally present everywhere. Attacks are most frequent in areas of intensive maritime trade. International trade is hindered by pirate actions in some places more and in others less. The motives of a pirate attack can be multiple and different, and the most prevalent are the interests of robbers, although political and black market motives should not be ignored. In modern times, maritime experts call the strongest zones of pirate activity hot spots: 1) Northwest Africa, the Gulf of Guinea and the Niger River delta; 2) Red Sea, Somalia, Horn of Africa, Gulf of Aden, Indian Ocean; 3) Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia (Indonesia, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Malay Strait, South China Sea, Singapore Strait); 4) South and Central America, the Caribbean; 5) The coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

Pirate groups are particularly aggressive in the seas west and east of Africa. In all campaigns, they often do not choose the means and location, so ships are attacked in ports as well as on the open sea. Merchant ships such as ships carrying containers, oil and gas are specially insured against hijacking. Insurance fees are high, especially if it is a very dangerous zone and a higher value of the cargo. The more valuable the load, the higher the insurance policy. Although it is thought that pirates have the support of their countries (especially African ones), this is not the case in the vast majority of cases. States do not tolerate the existence of pirate bases on their coasts, but due to the insufficient number of security forces and the enormous length of the coast, as is the case in, for example, Somalia, Malaysia and Nigeria, pirates can hide ships in isolated areas such as bays and harbors.

Due to their cruelty and media exposure, Somali pirates are certainly the most famous pirate group. Their activity is special in that they sail over an extremely large area that reaches the coasts of Kenya, Tanzania, Seychelles, Mozambique, Madagascar, the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea and even the west coast of India and the Maldives. Piracy in the Indian Ocean takes place at a distance of about 2,700 km from the coast and in a sea area of 2.6 million square kilometers west and south of the coast of India. Pirate tactics are based on efforts to be as far from the coast as possible in order to avoid the engagement of naval forces.

The zone from the coast of the Horn of Africa to the coast of India is a high risk zone. Naval forces from 25 countries are present there. However, even this is not a sufficient guarantee of safe navigation, as the coalition forces do not have enough vessels to cover all risk areas. The growth of pirate attacks was recorded between 2000 and 2004. There were between 300 and 350 incidents per year. In 2005 and 2006, there was a small decrease, but from 2007 to 2011, a significant increase was recorded. From 2012 to 2017, a steady slight decline was recorded, and the numbers have remained at that level in recent years.

Violent piracy has increased in two locations: 1) in the Celebes and Sulu Seas (western Pacific Ocean) between the Philippines and Malaysia; 2. in the Gulf of Guinea in the Atlantic Ocean west of the coast of Africa. In both locations, the number of attacks more than doubled, which is directly related to political instability, i.e. insurgencies on the mainland. There has been a significant decline in piracy activity in Somalia, which was in the spotlight a few years ago. Today, the most dangerous areas with the most piracy activity are the Gulf of Aden, the Malay and Singapore Straits through which the world’s most important maritime routes pass. This is not surprising since a third of the world’s maritime trade flows through these waters. About 20,000 commercial ships pass through the Gulf of Aden annually. Most of the trade flows between Europe and China and almost all crude oil and natural gas between the Persian Gulf and China, Japan and South Korea pass through the Gulf of Aden, the Singapore and Malay Straits.

Characteristics of pirate attacks

The characteristics of pirate attacks usually differ according to location. The characteristic of Somali pirates is that they attack further away from the coasts of Somalia, which are under the special supervision of international security forces. The aim of their attack is to rob the ship, take passengers and/or crew hostage or hijack the ship. In cases of hijacking of people or ships, high ransoms are demanded. Attacks are most frequent at the hubs of navigation routes from the Suez Canal, the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. Sea routes are known and ships are easy targets for attackers. Somali fishermen have logistics bases on the coast of Somalia. Somewhere the local population is forced to support the pirates, and somewhere else they voluntarily help them and share the booty.

Pirates use small fast boats made of wood or fiberglass called “skiffs” in English. During the day, such fast boats attack ships with lower speeds of up to 18 knots and a low freeboard of less than 8 m. These are tankers, tugboats, yachts, etc. Attacks take place from two or three directions, and larger ships, so-called . “whalers”. The areas where pirates operate in the Indian Ocean are full of fishing boats and the pirate crew can pretend to be a fishing boat until the target is encountered. In the attack, the pirates use light infantry weapons, including Kalashnikovs and hand grenade launchers, to force the ship’s captain to stop, making it easier for them to board the ship. The main target of the pirates is the command bridge.

The attacks take place during the day, mostly in the early morning. Night attacks only take place in the moonlight. Weather conditions play an important role and when there are stronger winds and bigger waves pirates will not attack, i.e. they will prefer good weather and good visibility. On the other hand, pirate attacks in the area of the Niger Delta, Northwest Africa and the Gulf of Guinea are convincingly taking place outside territorial waters. Anchored tankers are the targets. The goal is to seize the ship and take the crew hostage while part of the oil is transferred to a smaller tanker owned by pirates that is moored to the side of the captured ship. The oil transshipment process lasts from a couple to ten days (“ship to ship transfer operation”). Then the crew is freed, or they are still held hostage on the captured tanker, which is now fleeing. However, if it is an attack on a supply ship, in that case they try to rob it as thoroughly as possible and the pirates then escape without taking any hostages.

Methods of ship protection

The four main types of ship protection against pirates are: 1) naval operations and corridor escort, 2) structural modifications and physical barriers, 3) navigational and organizational aspects, 4) armed escort on ships – private maritime security companies. In order to provide protection to the ships that were transporting humanitarian aid as part of the UN program, naval operations were launched. A security corridor was established through the area of the Gulf of Aden, where the warships of Canada, Great Britain, Denmark, Germany, and France are present. Similar operations under the auspices of the European Union and the NATO alliance have been established in the waters of Somalia and the Horn of Africa. The main goal is to protect the free movement of numerous merchant ships that pass by 24 hours a day, as well as military patrols.

Structural changes and physical barriers are one of the most frequently used methods. Such obstacles are called passive measures. These include: barbed wire, water cannons, obstacles on the staircase, grills on window panes, devices for long-range sound, etc. Since pirates often attack the bridge, one of the solutions is to close the bridge with bulletproof glass. On the bridge there is prepared equipment in case of an attack, such as protective helmets and vests. Sandbags can also be placed on the wings of the bridge as a means of protection. The navigational-organizational aspects of protection are prescribed by the IMO Best Practice Guidelines for protection against piracy. They recommend standard procedures to avoid and repel pirate attacks. They are intended for seafarers, shipping companies and countries. The ship’s safety plan is important and must be adhered to by the master of the ship. The plan stipulates many details, some of which are: setting up a double watch when passing through high-risk areas, 24-hour surveillance of the ship’s engine room, all lights must be turned off when passing through the risk zone, etc.

Private Maritime Security Companies (PMSC)

In 2011, the International Maritime Organization, in its Best Practice Guidelines for protection against pirates, made public what was known in practice before but refused to be acknowledged: the best way to defend against pirate attacks is armed escort on ships or private maritime security companies PMSC ( “Private Maritime Security Companies”). From that year, their further rise began. It is about the naval version of private military companies PMC (“Private Military Companies”) or as it is popularly said, it is about private armies. Security personnel hired to protect ships are formally called Privately Contracted Armed Security Personnel (PCASP).

PMSC companies are characterized by a well-organized organizational structure and quality service. The management of the company solves complex logistical challenges with the application of the “just in time” principle. Logistics management must ensure that armed security personnel board the ship at the exact time in the correct location, and must also ensure that personnel disembark when necessary. In addition to caring for personnel, it is necessary to ensure the transport and storage of weapons and military equipment between client ships and storage facilities in a hostile environment in remote parts of Africa and Asia. Some of the most famous private companies for the fight against pirates are Hart Maritime, Seagull Maritime Security, MUSC, Hudson Analytix, Solace Global, Securewest International, Neptune Maritime Security and others.

Unlike classic private military companies on land, the successful operation of security organizations at sea depends not only on the tactical expertise, skills, training and readiness of security guards, but above all on the company’s logistical operations, which must be accurate, sustainable and profitable. The core mission of PMSC logistics is to position security teams and weapons at key ports in high-risk areas such as the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean coasts. The purpose of the positioning is to enable armed teams with weapons and equipment to be quickly and easily loaded onto client ships. Armed teams remain on board during navigation through high-risk zones and disembark when ships leave such zones. Then, after they have been unloaded in a port, they wait for a ship sailing in the opposite direction to come by so that they can return to the port from which they arrived. If the distance is longer, the security teams can return by air. In practice, it looks like the armed teams board a ship in the Suez Canal or the Egyptian port of Safaga and, after completing the mission, disembark in the Galle port in Sri Lanka. Then the security teams wait for the return ship in the opposite direction or are sent back by airline, usually by charter flight.

The last few years have seen a new trend in the logistics of private security companies, as some states prohibit incoming and outgoing flights of security personnel with firearms and ammunition, and some states require security teams to leave ammunition in shoreside warehouses while in port. As a result of these obstacles, regional instability and high costs in the coast-open sea relationship, companies are increasingly opting for an alternative option: keeping personnel and equipment in the open sea. Companies are increasingly using “floating armories”, which are their own ships or ships of other companies that have been converted to accommodate personnel, weapons and equipment and that sail in international waters. In this way, companies can provide their clients with a more efficient service because they avoid their personnel and assets being subject to the jurisdiction of coastal states.


Each time brings something of its own, so the transition from the 20th to the 21st century brought gigantic technological changes in the form of the IT revolution. Advanced technology has changed the world, so many jobs and phenomena have disappeared. Many analysts predicted that the new era would result in the extinction of piracy at sea, but they were wrong. Maritime piracy not only did not disappear, but also intensified in the first two decades of the new millennium. Moreover, new technologies have helped pirates adapt to the times and modernize their attacks.

Despite the shortcomings, private companies represent an effective means of combating piracy recommended by the IMO and insurance companies, ship owners, cargo owners and some states. It goes without saying that the fight against pirates is a lucrative business for private maritime security companies, with large sums of money and profits. According to some estimates, the price of engaging a three-member private security team costs between 20 and 25 thousand USD for a month. High prices are affected by the risk and value of the job, the higher the risk and the more valuable the cargo being transported, the better the payment. Shipowners also have their own significant financial benefit because by hiring private security personnel, they shorten the navigation route because they do not have to avoid dangerous areas and arrive at the port of disembarkation earlier, but they also sail earlier, so the ship becomes ready for new tasks earlier. We should not forget what the costs would be for the shipowner if the ship or cargo were hijacked and destroyed. The price of human lives alone is priceless.

Matija Šerić

Matija Šerić is a geopolitical analyst and journalist from Croatia and writes on foreign policy, history, economy, society, etc.

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