Ioannis Michaletos
(RIEAS Junior Analyst and Coordinator for the World Security Network Foundation at Southeastern Europe Office)


Nowadays 90% of world’s transportation is being served by the maritime industry that has grown considerably since the early 90’s due to the expansion of the international trade and the ever-increasing volume of the Asian economy. In parallel the expansion of international organized crime coupled with the emergence of terrorist networks has reminded once again the all-timely issue of piracy and its negative side effects for the maritime sector.

The perils concerning sea navigation, rarely surface in the mainstream media, despite the fact that piracy is a major concern for the world trade and the highly important sea trade.  Modern age pirates have in their disposal hi-tech electronic equipment like GPS, satellite phones and night vision goggles. Moreover they tend to use high-speed vessels armed with automatic machine guns, RPG rocket launchers and in general they could be described as “Open seas guerillas", albeit searching for profit rather than ideological meaning in their actions.

The definition of piracy, according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea is (1)

“Piracy consists of any of the following acts:

(a) Any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft, and directed:

(i) On the high seas, against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board such ship or air-craft;

(ii) Against a ship, aircraft, persons or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any State;

(b) Any act of voluntary participation in the operation of a ship or of an aircraft with knowledge of facts making it a pirate ship or aircraft;

(c) Any act of inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act described in subparagraph (a) or (b)."

It has to be noted that in order to legally define "Piracy" as a crime, it has to be conducted in the International Waters, otherwise it is classified as an "Armed Robbery" and falls into the jurisdiction of each individual state, who's territory is inflicted by such a crime incident (2).

The current era of globalization and increased traffic on the international trade and travel, constitutes a challenge in relation to piracy as an issue of worldwide security concern. On   March 8th 2005, 30 miles off the coast of Yemen the cruise vessel with the American flag, called M/Y MAHDI was attacked by pirates causing casualties amongst the attackers and presenting a case for the dangers of leisure travelers in our age (3).

Another incident in the same region was the attack against the Italian SIRENE yacht that was taken over by Somali pirates and a special operation by the Italian frigate LIBECCIO along with a French Navy Seals; was necessary to free the 6 Italian hostages (4).

The total number of piracy incidents that has been officially reported to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) from July 2004 to October 2006; is 3,993. From this number, in just 15% of the cases the local authorities were able to withhold the pirates, in another 10% the crew members were able to withstand in their own means and in just 12 cases the culprits were apprehended by the security forces. In the vast majority of piracy incidents the organized crime groups are successful despite IMO continuous efforts to address the issue (5).

Furthermore, according to reports compiled by IMO, between 1984 and the end of November 1999, there had been 1,587 attacks by pirates on ships around the world. In some areas these attacks involved a disturbing increase in violence. IMO estimates that incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships are under-reported by a factor of two. Several reasons have been suggested, including fear that a successful act of piracy will reflect on the master's competence; concern that such a report would embarrass the State in whose territorial waters the act occurred (the coastal State); the belief that an investigation would disrupt the vessel's schedule; and the possibility that ship-owners' insurance would increase (6).

The Federation of American Scientists attests to the aforementioned by stating that " It is widely accepted among the government and non-government organizations that track piracy worldwide (including the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), U.K. Defense Intelligence Service (DIS), Australian Defense Intelligence Organization (DIO) and the International Maritime Bureau (IMB)), that the annual number of piracy cases is seriously undercounted". The actual figures can be as 2,000 higher according to DIS, whilst DIO estimates the underreporting to be 20 to 70 percent (7).

Since 2002, IMO has drafted guidelines aiming to curb the piracy incidents and has made those mandatory for the global shipping community.

First of all, light arming of the crew of merchant marine vessels is allowed and the Master Mariner is designated as the responsible head for their use in coordination with the shipping company he is employed with.

Also "Ship to Shore Alert Systems", are to be installed in all vessels.

Every type of ships (Tankers, Bulk Carriers, Containers, etc), should draft their own security management systems

Piracy inflicted regions should fall under the  "War Risk Insurance Areas" scheme, meaning that the insurance corporations should characterize victims as war casualties in case of fatalities or serious injuries during a pirate attack (8).

In this point, it should be noted that international piracy, organized crime and terrorist organizations create nowadays the so-called "Hybrid criminal networks"(9), as a RAND report acknowledged. Therefore the monitoring of this type of criminal activity provides vital information on the transnational terrorism threats and their offshoots across the world.

Global piracy "Hot Spots"

There are several “Hot spots” across the oceans and high-Seas that are considered to be of highly problematic areas as far as incidents of piracy are concerned, and it is important to pin point them in order to create a clear image of the perils involved for the maritime professionals and travelers as well. Most of these danger-areas are to be found in the developing world and in the Southern Hemisphere, addressing thus the inexorable synthesis between poverty and criminality.

Firstly the state of Nigeria-especially the Delta area and Bonny river- is highly dangerous. According to guidelines provided by the Australian ministry of foreign affairs to its citizens (10) the maritime area in Lagos port are extremely dangerous for foreign maritime visitors and piracy is a regular phenomena. Moreover it is advised to notify all authorities and the foreign missions in order for the vessel to be always monitored. Mr. Knut H. Lykke of the Contingency Planning Section -Norwegian Ship-owners' Association - states that, “There has been a spate of piracy attacks off Nigeria recently, in particular south of Bonny River. Onne is regarded as an unsafe port" (11).

The social unrest in Nigeria is the major factor for piracies that frequently are to be conducted in broad daylight and with occasional victims from the foreign crews. Moreover the state of Nigeria is one that has a continuing climate of social and ethnic unrest, and the piracy incidents are one of the sources by which capital is accumulated by criminal networks that in their turn provide contribution to warlords and local rivaling chieftains.

A Second geographical area that is of high piracy list is Somalia and the neighboring waters. According to the independent analysis institute “Protocol” in Denmark (12) there is a considerable increase in piracy reports in Somalia. In 2004 there were two, whereas 35 incidents were recorded in 2005.

Furthermore the recent political upheaval in the country that is suffering from a civil war between Islamists and secular forces(13) will most certainly create further a favorable climate for piracies and it is strictly advised for all passing or incoming vessels to take all precautionary measures to avoid sea attacks. It is also worthwhile to note that in the Somalian waters, piracy has occurred even 400 miles offshore with the use of speed boats that operate as “Blue Water” attack forces. This represents a highly sophisticated capability of those pirates that surely highlights the importance of this particular issue for the regional security of the Indian Ocean. Lastly Somalia is the only state in the world which is not a member of the IMO despite its interest as a coastal country and a major hub for illegal pirate activities.

Continuing Bangladesh is another state that has its share in piracy incidents (14) even though there is no trend in that activity that indicates the creation of a problematic constituency for the whole of the country. The most common reason for the attacks in Bangladesh is the stealing of the vessels fuel as well as itinerary that are being resold in Dhaka’s market in relation to the large black market that operates in the capital. In the Indian subcontinent another hot spot is the Chennai port of India.

There are reports (15) of sporadic attacks in this port despite the efforts of the Indian coast guard to subdue the pirates. It is not an issue that has drawn worldwide attention one has to be prudent though to take all necessary measures when visiting this focal Indian port that is one of the largest in the Indian Ocean.

The most well-known piracy prone country is Indonesia that continues to create obstacles in the sea trade due to the variety of attacks against the merchant navy. BBC has recently confirmed that there was a 63% increase of piracy incidents in Indonesian waters (16) despite a temporary decrease in the aftermath of the catastrophic Tsunami in early 2005. Prior to 1989, the Malacca Strait was considered to be relatively safe with about seven cases of piracy and armed robbery, were reported annually from the area. However, the figure rose to 28 in 1989 and by 1991, it had gone up to about 50 incidents.

The “Pirate culture’ in the Indonesian archipelagos has become deeply rooted and it is extremely difficult for the feeble Indonesian navy to deal decisively and in all aspects with the aforementioned. Therefore it is reasonable to assume that piracy will continue as an endemic Indonesian affair and high security will be required by all mariners circumnavigating those waters for the years to come.

Another area to watch is the Aden Gulf and the Yemen offshore area. This an area characterized of high trade volume upstream to Suez Channel and downstream towards East Asia. The political complications of Yemen and Eritrea and the existence of terrorist networks have culminated in the increase of piracy over the last decade. News briefings (17) indicate the attention that must be paid and also urge for increase international navy protection of passing vessels. The government of Yemen with the help of donors established a coast guard unit in 2002 to police its 2,500 km-long coastline. But to be effective against piracy, observers say the unit needs more than US $60 million for operational costs, a figure yet to be met, and some 150 patrol boats. It currently only has 20 (18).

In relation to the neighboring Somalia this particular area could create major problems in the international sea transportation in the next few years and the culmination of Islamist extremism as it was pointed out in the attack against a French ship in 2002; will most certainly draw more the attention of the naval powers in the near future.

Lastly a new addition would be the state of Peru and especially the Callao area. Piracy reports (19) have already showed an increase in low scale attacks that inflict mostly small sized vessels for the time being. A reassuring factor in this case, is the existence of a well-equipped Peruvian Navy that can deal with the piracy, but that of course remains to be seen.

In some parts of the world, pirates are on the defensive; annual pirate-attack totals peaked in 2003 at 445 and have fallen in each of the three years since. The sharpest drop is in Southeast Asia. Improving technology, revived naval budgets in Indonesia after recovery from the Asian financial crisis, and international agreements on protection of shipping in the Strait of Malacca have combined to cut attacks in the Strait and Indonesian territorial waters by nearly two-thirds -- from high points of 119 in 2002 and 149 in 2003 to last year's 61. Experts Jane Chan and Joshua Ho at Singapore's Rajaratnam School of International Studies find the downward trend continuing late in 2006 (20).

Southeast Asia's success, though, is not universal. The Red Sea and Somali coast remain extremely prone to piracy -- five of the fourteen hijackings took place off Somalia, and another one, a UN food-aid ship, was hijacked last month -- and all ships are warned to stay at least 75 miles away from Somali waters to avoid attack. The director of the International Maritime Bureau (the Kuala Lumpur-based center for tracking pirate-attack data) also cites the ports of Santos in Brazil and Chittagong in Bangladesh as especially dangerous for pirate attack (21).

In Lieu of a conclusion

Piracy is an old aged practice that is equivalent to the mountaineering bandits as some may draw the comparison. In our age of increased globalization and need for safe transportations; piracy is an obstacle that has to be dealt with. Moreover since piracy is in most cases connected to peripheral organized crime syndicates that are lured by the richness of every vessels bounty, it is reasonable to expect an enlargement of shipping security as well as intelligence in order to predict and protect this important sector. Last but not least the involvement of terrorist networks with organized crime as far as transgression in the sea is concerned; is a new phenomenon that must be addressed by the international community in the same respect as air travel and railway infrastructure, the other two life-lines of world’s commerce.


(1) United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, UNCLOS 1982, Article 101

(2) Code of Practice for the Investigation of the Crimes of Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships (Resolution A.922 (22). Annex A. Paragraph 2.2

(3) Article by the Free Republic News Provider

(4) Vasillios Politis, “International Piracy”,  Journal of the Hellenic Confederation of yachting Professionals, January 2007, P. 52-53

(5) IMO Report, “Counter-Piracy policy”, P. 10, London, UK, 2006

(6) Report of the United Nations Atlas of the Oceans, “Piracy and Armed Robbery at Sea”, New York, 2005. (Reprint by an IMO Newsletter)

(7) John Pike, “Piracy at sea”, FAS Report, April, 2000

(8) Guidelines by the IMO on international piracy prevention, MSC/Circ.623/Rev.3, London, May, 2002

(9) Phil Williams, “Transnational Criminal Networks”, RAND Institute Publication, Chapter 3, P. 65-81, 2001

(10)Australian Ministry of Foreign Affairs-Travelers notice for Nigeria-

(11) Knut H. Lykke, “Report by the Contingency Planning Section” -Norwegian Shipowners' Association - Oslo, Norway, Jun. 2005,  


(12) Stig Jarle and Atle Melsøy, “The Pirates of the Horn-State Collapse and the Maritime Threat”, Protocol Learning Institute, Copenhagen, 2006


(13) Marc Lacey, “Islamists in Somalia claiming victory”, International Herald Tribune, June 6th, 2006


(14) Commodore M Khurshed Alam ndc, psc BN (Retd), “Challenges to Bangladesh's maritime security”, The Daily Star, Strategic Issues Publication, March 10th, 2007

(15) Raja Simhan T. E, “Wave of piracy hits Asia-Pacific waters”, Hindu Business Line, November 17th, 2003


(16) Sean Coughlan, “Rise of modern-day pirates", BBC News Magazine, July 6th, 2006


(17) Vigilo Risk Service, “Piracy Reports Table”, IMB Piracy Reporting Center, 2007


(18) International News Safety Institute-IRIN-, “Yemen Report” March 12th, 2006

(19) ICC Commercial Crime Services -International Chamber of Commerce-, Piracy Report, September 2007


(20) Ibid.

(21) Progressive Policy Institute, “Trade Fact of the Week”, March 28th, 2007


Further sources:

- Maritime Security and Counter-Piracy Research Site


- Paper on Maritime Order and Piracy by the CIAO Center


- Comprehensive list of resources on maritime piracy


- World Wide Virtual Library -Maritime piracy resources-


- GDAIS - Global Maritime Piracy Database-






















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