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Home Archive Feb. 2009 Issue Issue Content Maritime Piracy: Implications for Maritime Energy Security

Maritime Piracy: Implications for Maritime Energy Security

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Maritime piracy has a history as long as ships have gone to sea.  From Captains Blackbeard and Morgan in the Caribbean, to the pirates of Barbary Coast in Africa and the famous “Pirate Queen” Cheng I Sao in Asia, the history of the sea is replete with the often-romanticized accounts of the exploits of these iconic figures and their crews.  However, what has been – until very recently – largely neglected, is that piracy did not end in the days of the Spanish Main, but continues to exist and thrive in the modern period, with an estimated 5.9 merchant ships attacked for every 1,000 voyages (Brown, 2006).  In 2007, there was, on average, one reported pirate attack roughly every thirty-one hours.

By the early 1980s the international community had reacted by codifying its position on maritime piracy in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (United Nations, 1982), agreeing on a formal definition of piracy and detailing the conditions under which states and vessels could and should respond.  By the early 1990s, the number of attacks was becoming so problematic that in 1996 the International Maritime Organization of the United Nations (IMO) was charged with maintaining details of reported attacks and issuing official reports on a monthly, quarterly and annual basis.  The IMO began producing annual reports in 1998, and monthly reports in mid-2000.  Since then it has documented over 3,500 attacks through September 2008 (see Figure 1).  Note: September is the latest month for which detailed attack data is available from the IMO; this is about the time of the dramatic increases in attacks in Somalia, with some 111 attacks being reported in the media since then).

The International Maritime Bureau estimates that maritime piracy costs transport vessels between $13 and $15 billion a year in losses in the waters between the Pacific and Indian Ocean alone (Ryan 2006).  Earlier economic estimates had placed the annual global figure at approximately $16 billion (Burnett, 2002; Dillon, 2000).  Costs stem not only from stolen cargo and goods (and, in some cases, from the theft of the ship itself) but also from delays in port while the attack is reported and investigated, and from increased insurance rates as well.

The human costs of maritime piracy are significant: In 2006, fifteen sailors were killed in pirate attacks, 188 were taken hostage, and 77 were kidnapped and held for ransom.  Since 1995, over 350 sailors are reported to have lost their lives in pirate attacks worldwide (IMO); this has translated to roughly thirty sailors each year.  While the 240 attacks reported in 2006 are the lowest number of attacks reported since 1998, and the fifteen deaths in 2006 represent the lowest level of casualties since 2002, seventeen sailors lost their lives in pirate attacks in the first two months of 2007 alone (IMO).

Maritime Piracy and Energy Security

Attacks on energy vessels represent a significant percentage of overall maritime piracy attacks, ranging from a low of 12% of total attacks in 2006 to a high of just over 24% in 2007 (Figure 2).  Most pirate attacks – including those on energy vessels – are cases of simple robbery at sea, with pirates boarding and robbing the ship while in port, or from small speedboats or rubber zodiacs while the vessel is underway.  Increasingly we have seen a disturbing trend in hijacking and kidnapping for ransom.  While there has been little evidence until very recently that energy vessels are targeted per se for hijacking, there have been a few notable cases where tankers have been hijacked and the crews held for ransom.  For example, in August 2003, pirates boarded the Malaysian-registered fuel tanker Penrider near the Aceh province of Indonesia, and demanded $100,000 in ransom for the release of the ship and the crew.


There have also been cases where the cargo was clearly the main objective of the piracy.  For example, in April 1998 pirates seized the Petro Ranger outside Singapore’s territorial waters.  The Malaysian-registered vessel was carrying 9,600 tons of diesel petroleum and 1,200 tons of A-1 jet fuel.  The pirates repainted the stern with a new name, Wilby, and raised the Honduran flag, turning the Petro Ranger into a “phantom vessel” – a stolen ship “hidden” under a false name, flag and papers. Two other pirate ships rendezvoused with the ship at sea and siphoned-off half of the estimated $2.3 million dollar cargo. (Nincic, 2009).

As can be seen in Figure 3, the vast majority of pirate attacks against energy vessels occur against oil tankers, with attacks on LPG vessels a distant second. This is disproportionate to the size of the global tanker fleet: Of the approximately 120,000 ocean-going vessels in the world, only about 4,000 (just over three percent) are oil tankers.  A disturbing trend occurs in 2007 with pirates demonstrating the ability to attack mobile drilling units (MDU) and LNG carriers successfully.  Two LNG carriers were attacked in 2007; one in Indonesia and the other in the Singapore Strait.  Additionally, three offshore drilling platforms were attacked; two in Nigeria (one where a worker was kidnapped for ransom), and one off India. This suggests that pirates may be acquiring more sophisticated maritime skills. Significant numbers of attacks on ships in Nigeria (some of which occurred over 31 miles from shore) represent not only a geographical expansion of threats to maritime energy assets, but also perhaps an increasing oceangoing ability on the part of pirates in the area. (Nincic, 2009).

Figure 3


While most of the world’s maritime piracy (including attacks on energy vessels) has occurred in Indonesia and the Strait of Malacca (see Figure 4), by 2007 Nigeria had emerged as an important locale for pirate attacks on maritime energy assets, accounting for over 29% of attacks (Indonesia still remained the largest, with just over 35%; Nincic, 2009).  However, by 2008, pirates in Somalia had acquired a very sophisticated ability to operate routinely over 200 nautical miles from shore, and began to represent – with Nigeria – an important shift in maritime piracy from Asia to Africa.  For the first time, more attacks occurred in Nigeria and Somalia than in Indonesia and the Strait of Malacca and, for the first time, more attacks occurred in Somalia than in any other part of the world.  By the end of September 2008 (the last month for which the IMO has posted 2008 data), over sixty attacks had been reported.  Other organizations such as the International Maritime Bureau have reported over 100 successful and attempted attacks in Somali waters and the Gulf of Aden in 2008, with forty-two of these vessels taken hostage, making this part of the world the clear and unambiguous maritime piracy “hot spot”.

Figure 4

Maritime Piracy in Somalia and Nigeria: Recent Developments

By 2007 two disturbing trends had emerged in Somalia: the targeting of humanitarian relief vessels by the pirate groups, and the increasing violence and incidence of the overall attacks.  International response to the deteriorating piracy situation came in two stages.  First, foreign military vessels began to escort World Food Program (WFP) relief vessels in 2007. Naval vessels from France, Denmark and the Netherlands provided direct escort from late 2007 through June 2008; Canada took over in August 2008.  During this time, and despite an upsurge of piracy in the region, no WFP vessels were attacked.  Second, on June 2, 2008 the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1816 authorizing foreign military vessels to enter Somalia’s territorial waters, with the consent of the Somali government, to use “all necessary means” to combat maritime piracy “in a manner consistent with international law” (“Security Council,” 2008).

Since that time, fourteen countries have committed naval vessels to a joint maritime task force to patrol Somali and adjacent waters and deter maritime pirate attacks.  Working with the International Maritime Organization, the United States and other coalition forces established a security corridor where merchant vessels would have safer transit.  Once established, the security corridor remained virtually free from attack, although pirate attacks increased outside the corridor boundaries.

The Sirius Star Hijacking

An audacious hijacking by Somali pirates on November 15, 2008 raised new concerns about the security of the world’s maritime energy trade, and the effectiveness of the joint naval response in the Gulf of Aden.   The Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC) Sirius Star was en route from Saudi Arabia to the United States when it was attacked some 450 nautical miles southeast of the Kenyan coast.  The vessel carried two million barrels of oil worth approximately $100 million (more than one-quarter of Saudi Arabia’s daily oil output); the ship itself was worth an additional $150 million.  Fully laden, it was riding low in the water, making it easy for the pirates to board and overcome the twenty-five crewmembers on board (by some accounts it took less than twenty minutes for them to seize the vessel). On November 20, the pirates demanded a $25 million ransom, which was reduced a few days later to $15 million.  The ship was released with the crew unharmed on January 9, 2009 after a reported $3 million payment by the ship’s Saudi owners.

The attack was of particular concern for a number of reasons.  First, it was not only the largest energy vessel ever hijacked, it was the largest vessel of any kind ever taken hostage.  Additionally, it was considerably farther offshore than the Somali pirates had ever operated; it is estimated that the pirates must have traveled three to four days out to sea to intercept the vessel.  The attack showed that the pirates were able to operate in an area of over one million square miles, well beyond the reach of the international patrols in the Gulf of Aden.

Second, because of the nature of the cargo, there was concern the hijacking might represent an escalation in the goals and ambitions of the pirates.  An oil tanker of this size could cause significant environmental damage if run aground, sunk or set on fire.   Beyond the first few hours of uncertainty after the attack, at no time was this considered a realistic concern with the Sirius Star; in fact the vessel’s crew periodically reported they were treated well by the pirates.  The US Navy rejected any intervention in the situation beyond “monitoring” because it did not believe the crew or the vessel was in any imminent danger.

Nigeria: Renewed Concern for Energy Vessels

As world attention focused on the striking increase in piracy in the Gulf of Aden, and dramatic hijackings such as the Sirius Star, the piracy situation in Nigeria was relatively neglected.  However, while nowhere near the over one hundred attacks in Somalia, there were over thirty-five attacks in Nigeria in 2008 (International Maritime Bureau).  2009 began with the capture of an oil supply vessel and a subsequent attack on a Royal Dutch Shell tanker.  And on January 21, in one of the most worrisome attacks to date, militants from the Niger Delta region attacked the MT Meredith, a tanker carrying 4,000 tons of diesel fuel, and kidnapped a Romanian crew-member (released a day later).  The militants, believed to be associated with the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) succeeded in dynamiting the ship’s engine and severely disabling the vessel. While the MEND and other related “copycat” groups have been known to attack and blow up oil pipelines, this is the first time such an attack has occurred at sea and may portend an increasing concern for the future.

What Ships Can Do To Protect Themselves

Military authorities are quite clear it is impossible for them to protect all merchant vessels – even high risk energy vessels – against all attacks even if, as is the case in the Gulf of Aden, there is a demonstrated will to do so.  This has led to the IMO recommendation that ships take necessary precautions to protect themselves.  This said, it is interesting to note that the IMO does not recommend arming merchant vessels against pirate attacks; while there are many reasons for this, one is that the pirates themselves are often armed and, in the case of Somalia, generally with larger weapons.  Furthermore, with millions in ransom dollars to fund their activities, the danger of “weapon escalation” is very real.  Simply put, the pirates can probably afford larger weapons than many merchant vessels. Additionally, there have been remarkably few casualties among mariners in the recent attacks – this is one advantage of hostage-taking; the pirates have a strong incentive to treat their hostages well in anticipation of the continued payment of ransom monies.  Lastly, in one case the use of weapons actually succeeded in escalating the conflict; the pirates only fired when they were fired upon first.

Merchant vessels have basically two courses of action to limit or reduce their vulnerability to piracy: Avoid the pirate areas, or enhance vessel security.  In the case of Somalia and the Gulf of Aden, since Somalia and adjacent countries are not the cargo destinations (some 80% of the trade in the area is in transit for Europe), this means rerouting vessels around the Cape of Good Hope.  In places like Nigeria, where Nigerian ports are the destination for the oil trade, avoiding the area is not an option unless the shipper is willing to give up this trade altogether. 

In cases where rerouting is an option and the additional transit time is acceptable, there is still the issue of the added costs.  For example, routing a tanker from Saudi Arabia to the United States via the Cape of Good Hope adds approximately 2,700 miles to the voyage.  Not only will the ship be able to make fewer voyages annually (a reduction of about 26% in the example above) the fuel costs will be higher of up to an additional $3.5 million annually (“Economic Impact of Piracy”). 

Onboard Security Guards

Despite IMO recommendations against arming vessels, some shippers have chosen to employ security teams, many of which use non-lethal force in attempts to repel pirate attacks.  In November 2008, one such team managed to hold off pirates armed with AK-47s and RPG launchers in the Gulf of Aden for forty minutes using a long-range sound device and water cannon.  They were ultimately unsuccessful and jumped overboard (subsequently rescued) when the pirates stormed the ship.  While there may be cases of successful efforts by security teams to prevent pirate attacks, the reality is that they are likely to be prohibitively expensive for all but the most affluent shippers.

Evasive Action

To date, this has proven to be the most successful form of evading pirate attacks.  The IMO has made a number of recommendations of actions ships can take to protect themselves against pirate attacks.  These include (but are not limited to):
• Maintaining vigilance;
• The need for enhanced surveillance, and the use of lighting, surveillance and detection equipment;
• Sounding alarms, alerting other ships and coastal authorities, illuminating the suspect vessel; undertaking evasive maneuvering, initiating response procedures;
• Following radio alarm procedures.

While these and the other more comprehensive recommendations make sense, there has been little beyond anecdotal evidence of their effectiveness.  A very brief study of thwarted attacks in Somali waters is illuminating. Looking at the IMO data from January through September 2008, we note 31 successful, and 36 attempted but unsuccessful, pirate attacks in Somali and adjacent waters.  A pattern of effective action occurs from an analysis of the successful and unsuccessful attacks:

Figure 5

Action taken by vessels in preventing pirate attacks: January-September 2008
Total number of attempted pirate attacks in or near Somalia: 67

 Action Taken By VesselNumber of Vessels Taking Action 
 Raised Alarm                21
 Took Evaside Maneuvers                28
 Increased Speed                16
 Crew Mustered                  8
 SASS Activated                  2
 Coalition Warships Advised/Responded                 12
 Fire Hoses Activated                  6
 Sent Distress Signal                  1
 Fired Flares                  1
 SASS Activated                  1
 Sounded Ship's Whistle                  1

From even just the few cases presented above, a pattern of effective action emerges.  In 28 of the 36 attempted attacks, the ship took some form of evasive maneuver (altering course, “fishtailing” in an attempt to swamp the pirate vessel, etc); in just under half of the cases, increasing the speed of the vessel was effective in helping thwart the pirates. It is also interesting to note that, while the IMO International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS) requires all vessels over 500 gross tons to be equipped with a ship security alert system (SSAS) to alert relevant authorities in the event of a security threat, on only one occasion was the SSAS mentioned as being used. In only a third of the cases did coalition forces respond, and it was usually just to monitor the situation; rarely was the intervention key in thwarting the attack. 

Threats to energy security from maritime piracy are a concern, not so much because their numbers represent a large percentage of overall pirate attacks (especially when noting how many vessels worldwide transit free from any criminal activity whatsoever); rather, the main threat to the world’s maritime energy trade stems from two concerns.  First, that their numbers may increase, particularly if piracy in Nigeria becomes more aggressive.   Second, a continued concern is that terrorist groups may begin to hijack energy vessels.  As was seen in the case of the Sirius Star, it took the pirates less than twenty minutes to achieve command of the VLCC; had the pirates wished to run the ship aground, blow it up or cause some other form of harm, it would have been relatively easy for them to do so.  While there is little strong evidence to date that pirates will cooperate with terrorist groups (their goals and objectives are too divergent – pirates need the ship safe and the crew alive so the ransom will be paid), there are concerns about some pirates cooperating with militant or terrorist groups, or “turning terrorist” themselves in the future.

Dr. Donna J. Nincic is an Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Maritime Policy and Management California Maritime Academy, California State University

Brown, N. (2006, May 1).  Taking the Fight to the Pirates. Jane’s Navy International. Jane’s Information Group.

Burnett, J. S. (2002). Dangerous Waters: Modern Piracy and Terror on the High Seas. New York: Dutton.

Dillon, D. R. (2000).  Piracy in Asia: A Growing Barrier to Maritime Trade. Heritage Foundation Backgrounder #1379.

Economic Impact of Piracy in the Gulf of Aden on Global Trade. US Maritime Administration (MARAD). Retrieved January 10, 2009.

International Maritime Bureau. (2007). Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships: Annual Report 2007.

International Maritime Bureau. (2008). Weekly Piracy Report.

International Maritime Organization (2001-2008).  Reports on Acts of Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships.

Nincic, D. J. (2009, forthcoming).   Maritime Security as Energy Security: Current Threats and Challenges.  In Luft, G., and Konin, A., eds. Energy Security: Challenges for the 21-Century.  Washington DC: Greenwood Publishing in collaboration with the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS).

Ryan, M. (2006, February 2).  Captain counts the cost of piracy.  BBC News.

Security Council speaks out against piracy, armed robbery off Somali coast. (2008, 2 June).  UN News Centre.

United Nations. (1982). United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.




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