Changing Trends in Maritime Piracy: A New & Major Threat

The recent killings of four American hostages on board their captured yacht, S/V Quest, provides a stark indicator to both the commercial maritime sector and the U.S. public at large that maritime piracy is no longer an easily dismissed “cost of doing business,” but a serious impediment to freedom of movement on the seas as well as a deadly crime against humanity. The sheer volume of trade and commerce flowing through high-risk-of-piracy areas such as the Indian Ocean also make maritime piracy a serious U.S. domestic concern. American mariners, imports, exports, and ships all traverse these areas of the world’s oceans regularly, supporting not only international commerce, but also humanitarian efforts such as the World Food Program.

Modern maritime piracy continues to use age-old techniques to serve age-old motivations – grand theft for major economic gain. Piracy as a business model has a long-established and consistently proven track record – seize commercial ships (with or without hostages) and ransom the ships (and/or hostages) for profit.

However, there are some distinctly contemporary concerns and effects that present new and exceedingly complex dangers to U.S. and international communities. Not only does the equipment used today differ considerably from that used in the so-called “Golden Age of Piracy” in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, but the pirate methodologies themselves are “evolving.”

2010: The First Step on an Evolutionary Ladder?

In terms of maritime piracy, 2010 was a particularly important year. First, there were more acts of maritime piracy in 2010 than in any previous year of the modern era. Second, the cost of ransoms soared from an average of $80,500 per incident in 2005 to over $1 million in 2010. In purely financial terms, this escalation places maritime piracy among the highest-growth “industries” on the planet. In practical terms, maritime piracy has become big business with huge profits. For that reason alone, modern pirates – as well as those who benefit not only economically but also politically from their attacks – will go to great lengths to ensure that nothing changes these new operational realities of maritime life.

There are, though, four critical changes in pirates’ methodology that have emerged in recent years, each of them marking the potential genesis of a still evolving adaptation that carries with it the ability to thwart and/or otherwise mitigate counter-piracy efforts. Those changes are: (a) using large commercial vessels both as mother ships and as mobile “attack platforms”; (b) using hostages aboard mother ships, and in some cases aboard skiffs or other small vessels, as human shields; (c) forcing hostages to take part in boarding activities; and (d) brokering deals with terrorist organizations, both for financial reasons and for the guaranteed “freedom to operate” without outside interference – particularly from the United States and/or other nations of the Free World.

Each of these tactics provides a greater degree of security to the pirates, mitigating if not completely eliminating potentially effective counter-piracy operations. In addition, each has the potential, if used on a broad scale, to greatly hamper counter-piracy efforts throughout the region and the world. U.S. and allied policy makers often discuss armed security as the first option needed to effectively address the pirate threat, and the public debates the need for the world’s navies to do more. For these reasons, among others, many of the pirates’ tactics are shifting to a new or greater focus on defeating armed responses.

To fully comprehend the ramifications of the four tactical changes mentioned earlier, it is important to first understand two new truths of the modern maritime world: (a) piracy is a profitable endeavor that its participants are willing to risk their lives (and, more often, the lives of others) to preserve; and (b) pirates are typically not radical ideologues, but profit-motivated criminals. In that context and under those circumstances, it becomes clear that pirates’ responses are likely to be both indirect and asymmetrical, and can be achieved primarily by focusing their strengths on the weaknesses of counter-piracy forces.

Using Captured Merchant Vessels as Attack Platforms

The first way in which pirates apply asymmetric tactics is through “dispersion.” The combined maritime forces operating on counter-piracy missions in the Horn of Africa and Gulf of Aden region number approximately 30 ships at any given time. To cover the greatly expanded areas of the Indian Ocean as well, this force would have to patrol an area exceeding 20 million square miles, which would make the search akin to looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. In short, by extending their range and operating across a much broader expanse of ocean, pirates have significantly reduced the risk of interdiction by the world’s navies.

In the past 18 months alone, at least five large captured merchant vessels were used as mother ships by pirates. In all of those cases, crew members of the merchant vessels were kept aboard as hostages during the pirates’ follow-on operations. Use of these commercial ships extended the operational reach of the pirates to unprecedented distances. Pirate attacks beyond 200 miles offshore were exceedingly rare in 2005, but by 2010 the pirates had extended their effective operational range to nearly 1,500 miles.

The faster and more frequent attacks in recent years – carried out over a vastly expanded operational range – have greatly reduced the risks that pirates face from counter-piracy forces, making the pirates’ use of large commercial vessels a trend that is likely to continue.

The Use of Hostages as Human Shields

In addition to capturing a valuable ship and its cargo, pirates have sought to use the ship’s crew either for ransom or as human shields. The hostages held aboard ships, in addition to others (passengers and/or crew members) who were disembarked and held captive elsewhere, can help the pirates ward off counter-piracy or rescue operations because the pirates can threaten to immediately execute the hostages (ashore as well as afloat) if and when such operations are launched. In those circumstances, even a “successful” hostage rescue may not be viewed as a complete victory because, for every hostage rescued, other hostages held elsewhere may be killed or punished in other ways. Without diminishing in any respect the heroic efforts of those who have previously rescued captive mariners in such operations, it is now recognized by most maritime nations that the use of violence against pirates carries with it the risk of retribution against hostages ashore (or on other pirate ships) who cannot be rescued at the same time.

In 2010, there was a dramatic spike in the use of hostages as human shields during pirate operations. Large ships are not only easier to spot but also harder for relatively small bands of pirates to control in the event of a counter-piracy boarding by military forces. Largely to mitigate that risk, pirates have elected to keep hostages aboard during their own operations, thus reducing the possibility that a military rescue force would risk harming the hostages by launching an attack against the pirates. The holding of hostages also gives pirates the ability to bargain for supplies, fuel, and safe passage, even as ransom negotiations are ongoing.

Another evolution of this tactic was seen in the case of the crew of the South Korea-owned F/V Golden Wave. It was reported in February 2011 that Somali pirates forced some of that ship’s 43-member crew to participate in the hijacking and/or raiding of 17 other vessels – picked off one at a time. One Golden Wave crew member later said that the hostages were given three choices: (a) persuading the ship’s owner(s) to pay a $6 million ransom; (b) having the ship’s captain beheaded; and/or (c) participating in the raids on the other ships.

The pirates’ use of this tactic obviously presents yet another difficulty to counter-piracy operations, because armed security teams might very easily mistake, for pirate raiders, the hostages being forced to raid client vessels. Although the February 2011 incident was the first report of pirates using such a tactic, use of that option clearly reduces the pirates’ own personal and collective risks when attacking commercial ships protected by well-armed security teams.

Piracy’s Links to Terrorism – The Emperor’s New Clothes

Although some analysts downplay the possibility of tangible links between Somali piracy and the spread of radical Islamic terrorism in Somalia, top secret intelligence reports leaked to the press over three years ago clearly indicate that such links of convenience do exist – and are growing in magnitude. Negotiations between various pirate groups and the Somalia-based al Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabaab group are and have been commonplace. In areas such as Harardhere, on the central coast of Somalia – where al-Shabaab has, for most practical purposes, relative control of the countryside – the terrorist negotiators often demand 20 percent or more of the ransoms in exchange for allowing the pirate groups to operate freely in the offshore waters.

The pirates also benefit when al-Shabaab fighters keep government forces occupied or at bay. According to a December 2009 report by Stewart Bell in Canada’s National Post, deals had been made earlier that year whereby al-Shabaab would train pirates in the use of weapons, in return for which pirates would give al-Shabaab a share of their plunder and ransoms. How many similar deals have been made is not certain, but the end result is that, willingly or not, pirate groups now contribute hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars annually to terrorist organizations – and by doing so are not only permitted but frequently assisted by the terrorists, in various ways, in their maritime piracy operations.

Although the piracy/terrorism relationship may not yet be systemic, cooperation occurs at several different levels, and through a host of separate channels. It is known, for example, that pirate fundraisers and sponsors often share links with al-Shabaab backers. Indicators of regular negotiations between these bankrollers and al-Shabaab terrorists can be seen in operations almost anywhere in the world in which pirate operating bases and terrorist offensives overlap – which is exactly what happened in February 2011 when al-Shabaab extremists “arrested” four pirate leaders in order to “negotiate” a richer share of pirate ransoms.

The complexities of the political as well as financial relationships between the two groups suggest, moreover, that the pirate/terrorist relationship is one that neither can terminate easily. That difficult situation makes clear what many experts have long suspected – namely, that there is in fact a close working relationship, for business purposes or otherwise, between various pirate groups and al-Shabaab. That relationship is a clear strategic threat to U.S. and international interests because it represents one of the most important illicit revenue streams to the al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist network. Moreover, as the piracy/terrorism relationship grows, so does the degree of danger posed to those same U.S. and allied interests.

Proactive Measures Needed to Seize Initiative

The growing piracy problem posed by Somali pirates to the world’s maritime commerce begs for a solution. Commercial shippers have searched for years for an effective, long-term, purpose-built, ship-level, self-defense capability. The possession and use of such a capability would significantly augment the protection currently offered by naval forces of several nations, which operate under different rules of engagement and with different means at their disposal, but share a common end goal.

It is generally agreed that the key to meeting and defeating the clear and present danger posed by modern piracy would be to ensure that naval and commercial efforts to thwart pirate attacks mutually support one another. At the tactical level, this would require that ship-based anti-piracy operations be fully integrated through development and use of: (a) a cohesive intelligence capability that can communicate both with military forces and with commercial shippers; (b) ship-based defensive measures built upon a layered or “concentric” model; and (c) the application of new and/or upgraded technology to facilitate much more rapid responses during a piracy incident. The same integrated capabilities also would address the “before, during, and after” phases of counter-piracy operations: predictive analytics, deterrence and defense, ransom negotiations, and the management and use of critical-incident tools and services.

Groups such as the United Nations International Maritime Organization’s Maritime Security Council, headquartered in London, and the U.S.-based internet service Global Incident Tracker, among others, would act as the principal information dissemination centers for the collective knowledge of the shipping industry and open-source government releases, as well as specialized predictive analytical products designed to warn of specific piracy threats.

In the private sector, insurance markets would work in tandem with anti-piracy equipment manufacturers to incentivize the use of their products throughout the shipping industry, thereby not only reducing the risk to the insurers but also decreasing the number and amounts of payouts. The equipment manufacturers themselves would design and build more effective defensive systems to work in tandem with other systems across the spectrum of lethal and non-lethal systems already operational. The newer systems also would incorporate the newest state-of-the-art technologies to help the world’s navies in their responses to critical incidents. Each facet of this cooperative effort would, in short, provide an added degree of protection – and each would complement the others in both form and function.

Like the current and ongoing evolutions in pirate tactics, the new solutions to piracy must constantly evolve to not merely overtake but actually outpace the problems threatening maritime commerce in the 21st century. To begin with, the pirates’ new operational environment must be both directly and adversely affected so that evolutionary adaptations work for, rather than against, the world’s counter-piracy forces and humanitarian as well as commercial interests. Cooperation between and among the world’s military, commercial, and private sectors is needed now more than ever before. Such cooperation has too often been lacking in the past, but its transformation into a positive force for good also can be seen as a necessary evolution.

For additional information on: “Changes in Maritime Piracy Tactics,” click on:

The Maritime Security Council, click on:

The Global Incident Tracker, click on:

MIchael Brewer

Michael S. Brewer is the CEO and Co-Founder of the International Maritime Security Corporation (IMSC), a service-disabled veteran-owned small business built upon the principle of protecting ships, their cargoes, and – most importantly – their crews from both piracy and terrorist threats. A former U.S. Army Special Operations soldier, he also has been, over the past 13 years, a subject matter expert on terrorism and piracy for numerous government agencies and private-sector businesses and organizations.

Scott Brewer

Scott Brewer is the President and Co-Founder of International Maritime Security Corporation as well as a lifelong blue water sailor. With service in the U.S. Army, as well as subject matter expertise on terrorism and piracy, he has been consulted by senior policy makers and industry leaders for solutions to the world’s most pressing maritime security issues.



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