In the first quarter of 2023, maritime piracy and armed robbery (PAR) levels fell to their lowest level since 1993, according to the ICC’s International Maritime Bureau. Q1 2023’s 27 incidents during this period declined from 37 in the equivalent period last year. Moreover, 2022 was itself a year which also represented a decades-long low in annual piracy incidents. Yet amidst this positive global outlook, two areas stand out as continued hotspots for PAR: the Gulf of Guinea (GoG) and the Strait of Singapore (SoS). Between them, the pair account for 49% of incidents since the beginning of 2022.
Despite their shared status as current epicentres of an age-old maritime security problem, the two cases are markedly different. This is most obvious in their activity trends: where incidents in the GoG have plummeted from 82 in 2018 to 19 in 2022, the SoS has risen seen a steep rise from 3 to 38 over the same period. But the disparity also extends to other areas: the nature of each threat and associated models of piracy; geographic, socio-economic and political drivers; and security force responses. A contrast of such factors demonstrates that PAR in the GoG remains just as salient an issue as in the SoS, notwithstanding their inverse trajectories. It also shows that modern PAR is a multidimensional problem. Accordingly, this analysis compares the cases on these points, before offering recommendations on strengthening anti-piracy operations in each instance.
In a nutshell, the key distinction between the prevalent PAR models of the GoG and the SoS is between organised, violent crime and low-level, generally non-violent crime. Piracy in the GoG is centred around kidnapping for ransom, which involves storming and hijacking vessels before abducting crew members. This involves sophisticated, well-planned attacks by large groups of pirates, mostly Nigerian gangs originating from the Niger Delta. They often follow target ships on motherships before using high-speed skiffs and long ladders to reach and board them. Pirates in the GoG are typically well-armed, often using firearms, and readily deploy violence to breach ships and subdue crew members before kidnapping them and returning to land.
The complexity, scale and violence of attacks in the GoG has increased in recent years. For example, one attack on the boxship Mozart in 2021 featured a six hour assault and the killing of a crew member, before the pirates breached the ship’s citadel and kidnapped 15 of the crew’s 18 remaining crew. The kidnapping of the Mozart’s mostly Turkish crew also reflects the increasing targeting of non-Africans and, by extension, international ships, due to a rapid appreciation in their ransoms over the last decade.
By contrast, piracy in the SoS is mostly opportunistic theft of unsecured items of value, such as engine spares, ship stores or scrap metal. Most incidents occur in the east of the Strait, near Indonesia’s Riau islands. SoS pirates typically attempt to covertly board ships before stealing and escaping without being noticed. Their vessels of choice are fishing craft or small wooden boats, thanks to their ability to blend in with legitimate maritime traffic; motherships are not used. Rather than the conspicuous long ladders used in the GoG, SoS pirates most often use poles, hooks and lines to board ships, typically under cover of darkness.
Firearms are rare and perpetrators are more likely to carry knives or makeshift weapons such as shovels; they are frequently unarmed entirely. Although violence and intimidation are far from unheard of, pirates are most likely to abort and escape when discovered by crew. While routine in GoG incidents, a hijacking has not been reported in Asia since 2016.
Part of the explanation for these contrasting piracy models originates from the commercial and geographic nature of the maritime routes themselves. The SoS is one of the busiest waterways in the world, with over 100,000 ships travelling through it annually. This incentivises a covert approach to capitalise on the natural cover provided by traffic, hence the use of fishing vessels. Additionally, the Strait is just 10 nautical miles (nm) wide, reaching 2nm at its narrowest point between St John Island and Pulau Senang. This proximity to land precludes the need for motherships but also permits a faster response time by security forces, which likely motivates pirates’ tendency to flee on discovery by crew. By contrast, ships traversing the GoG are often well out to sea – attacks have been known to happen over 260nm from the coastline – which facilitates more violent, large-scale attacks provided pirates have the means, such as motherships, to reach their targets.
But understanding the roots and catalysts of PAR in both regions requires a broad perspective. As Florentina Adenike Ukonga, Executive Secretary of the Gulf of Guinea Commission, put it: “criminality at sea begins on land”. In both cases, a confluence of political and economic factors explains the form and persistence of PAR; poverty plays a central role in both cases. But, underlining their distinct natures, the most direct causal links shaping each region’s perpetrators and their PAR models are different.
In the GoG, the central influence on PAR is political. The poverty of coastal communities is an important root cause. Yet the specific nature of GoG piracy is a direct function of instability in the south-eastern coastal regions and the accompanying insurgency threat. PAR in the GoG boomed when the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), a coalition of militants, began using it in the mid-2000s as an extension of their campaign to undermine Nigerian oil security.
After a peace deal between the Nigerian government and MEND, some dissatisfied splinter groups resumed operations and eventually evolved from an “insurgency into a ravaging piracy network”. Maritime oil theft, previously the dominant practice of PAR in the Gulf, emerged from its rampant practice by Delta-based insurgent groups on land. Similarly, the rise of maritime kidnapping for ransom has been concurrent with the emergence of the practice on land by insurgents on a far larger scale. Total ransoms for Nigerian victims of kidnapping on land is estimated at fifty times that extorted for locals kidnapped in PAR incidents. Moreover, pirates often gain experience fighting for such insurgencies before shifting to PAR.
Conversely, economic deprivation in the Riau Islands more directly influences the nature and intensity of PAR in the SoS, rather than being a root cause. Perpetrators of PAR in the SoS are often former fishermen, shipyard workers and boat operators, which helps explain their lesser appetite for violence and the lower sophistication of their attacks. For example, Indonesian fishing is generally undertaken in small boats, leaving it vulnerable to inhospitable weather conditions, which incentivises fishermen to turn to PAR. One study found a 40% drop in piracy attacks in Indonesian coastal waters when weather conditions are consistently conducive to fishing. Similarly, Batam, the most populous of the Riau Islands and a known hotbed of piracy, has suffered from years of dire economic conditions that has left those with maritime skills out of work.
The contrast is encapsulated by the influence of COVID-19. In the case of the GoG, the pandemic is credited with aiding the decline in PAR, thanks to reduced shipping flows providing less PAR targets. In the SoS, however, COVID-19 is thought to have contributed to the rise of piracy due to the collapse of tourism and associated unemployment. As a last resort of the chronically unemployed, PAR in the latter case ebbs and flows with economic hardship. But the more violent, lucrative PAR in the former case is perpetrated by dedicated, quasi-militarised criminal organisations that are more cut off from legitimate employment and thus less reactive to economic shocks such as the pandemic.
While both are international problems, security responses to PAR in the GoG and SoS differ considerably. Much of this is to do with their differing geographies and arrays of stakeholders – the GoG covers 6000km of coastline, spanning nine countries. Although PAR gangs mostly originate from Nigeria, they operate up and down the coastline. This has prompted multilateral cooperation in the form of the Yaounde Architecture for Maritime Security and Safety (YAMS), a framework for information sharing and operational coordination between the affected countries, agreed 10 years ago last week. It has taken several years for the structures and practices agreed in 2013 to come into operation. But, along with sustained investments in national-level capacity and the assistance of external naval powers, the concerted efforts of GoG states to tackle PAR are bearing fruit, as the decline in incidents over the past two years demonstrates.
One important consequence of strengthened enforcement is that pirates, no longer able to attack with impunity near coastlines, increasingly operate further out to sea. This brings both challenges and opportunities. PAR incidents now often occur out of reach of many local navies. However, there may now be more scope for naval assistance from extra-regional powers, as discussed below.
By contrast, the SoS is just 100km long and, due to its narrow geography, is contained within the territorial waters of Singapore and Indonesia. The strategic and commercial importance of the Strait means external powers and other stakeholders, such as the shipping industry, have a keen interest in the waterway’s maritime security. However, international law over territorial waters dictates that PAR response falls under the littoral states’ purview. Singapore has proved willing to draw on external resources to shore up maritime security in the SoS and neighbouring Strait of Malacca, but Indonesia has been less open to diluting its maritime sovereignty. It is not, for example, a member of the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) a regional body roughly equivalent to the Yaounde architecture, set up in 2006 by Japan, that aims to foster information sharing and operational coordination between littoral states and other stakeholders. Although there is bilateral coordination in the form of the Indonesia-Singapore Coordinated Patrols, sovereignty concerns limit their effectiveness. Patrols are coordinated rather than joint, meaning each country’s forces stays within its own territorial waters, and security forces are reluctant to extend the pursuit and prosecution of criminals over maritime borders.
One issue common to both cases is resource constraints. Indonesia’s maritime capacity is stretched thin, making it difficult to stem the flow of PAR perpetrators from its territory or tackle all the incidents that occur within its waters. Similar challenges can be found in the GoG. Investment in national maritime capacity has increased considerably, reaching an estimated $250m annually across the region. But such capacity-building is not evenly distributed; pirates have been able to exploit this unevenness by shifting activities into the waters of countries with less capacity. Moreover, despite the great progress made in multilateral cooperation since YAMS’ inauguration, the coordinating operations centres it envisages are not all up and running, due to a funding shortfall.
The GoG has a useful precedent to draw from when seeking to improve its PAR enforcement model. This is the Gulf of Aden (GoA), the prior global hotspot of maritime kidnapping for ransom. Under UN authority, sustained collaborative international enforcement effort at the start of the previous decade successfully suppressed the problem. Two important lessons can be drawn from here.
First is the utility of extra-regional capacity in tackling well-organised, violent PAR gangs who can operate far from shore. GoG states have been understandably reluctant to let external naval powers operate in their territorial waters. But they need not effectively sign over maritime sovereignty to a UN coalition, as Somalia’s embattled government did in the GoA. Instead, GoG states could look to leverage the maritime capacity of other states to augment an already vigorous regional response – in particular, opportunities for greater Commonwealth partner involvement, in particular UK and Canada are abundant. The enduring partnerships of Commonwealth member states lends well to addressing enduring challenges such as piracy. The increasing shift of the PAR environment out of GoG territorial waters and into international waters both incentivises and facilitates this: it increases the regional need for external naval assistance in operations far offshore and makes this prospect more amenable, by impinging less on the sovereignty of GoG states. Although, of course, maximum enforcement effectiveness would be boosted if GoG states were willing to allow partners to operate within their territorial waters, if only on a limited basis. YAMS could be amended to create a legal framework for this collaboration. But expanding the scope and participants of coordinated enforcement activities would make addressing its funding deficit imperative.
Second, fostering the rule of law is key. Over 300 cases of piracy were prosecuted in Somalia, which was vital to dismantling the criminal networks sustaining PAR in the GoA. Many countries in the GoG do not even have laws that criminalise piracy; Nigeria and Togo have led the way in recent years with first-of-their-kind piracy trials. To build on this progress, the YAMS agreement should be amended to include an agreement harmonising national laws on piracy, establishing a basis for consistent, coordinated enforcement by national judicial systems. Here, GoG states can also draw on the experience of Commonwealth peers: Kenya emerged as a regional leader in investigating and prosecuting GoA piracy cases in the mid to late 2000s, amending its criminal code to expand its reach and setting important regional precedents in the process.
In the case of the SoS, the main issue for anti-piracy operations is the dilemma created by Indonesia’s lack of capacity on one hand and reticence to dilute its maritime sovereignty on the other. One option is emulating the Malacca Straits Patrol (MSP), a multilateral framework coordinating anti-PAR operations between littoral states (including Indonesia and Singapore) that has generally succeeded in suppressing PAR in the Strait of Malacca since 2005. However, the MSP suffers from similar constraints on sovereignty to operations in the SoS. Its success is more attributable to the intensity of coordinated operations by littoral states, including daily naval and aerial patrols. Indonesia’s existing resource constraints make this a difficult precedent to follow.
Therefore, loosening the constraints on the Indonesia-Singapore Coordinated Patrols to allow for closer cooperation is the most viable route to curbing PAR in the Strait. This could be done through joint (rather than coordinated) patrols and relaxing constraints on ‘hot pursuit’ by giving Singapore permission to pursue and prosecute criminals into Indonesia’s maritime territory.
While it is comforting to note the reduction in PAR in recent years, complacency mustn’t be allowed to set in. The global economic and indeed geopolitical outlook points to a period of sustained uncertainty – conditions that, as highlighted, provide the underlying cause to much of this activity. Confidence should abound, however, that international frameworks are reaching a maturity level that is having demonstrable impact. The next step is to enhance these frameworks, plug their gaps, and explore how external actors can continue to support their implementation. This is where the Commonwealth provides such an opportunity. PAR, and maritime security concerns are significant to all Commonwealth member states – 54 of the 56 of whom have substantial oceanic, sea or Great Lake borders. With the expertise of dealing with PAR from across the association, as well as the diversity in capacity and capability to implement and act on PAR enforcement, the Commonwealth provides an excellent conduit through which regional efforts can be augmented and supported. And why not explore a pan-Commonwealth capacity building programme to explore and deal with the scourge of PAR and the need to rehabilitate its practitioners into the legitimate economy. PAR, wherever it occurs, is an enduring challenge. It is right that the enduring associations, such as the Commonwealth, are best place to help address such enduring challenges.
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