It may not be in its Golden Age, but piracy is still alive and kicking. Every year modern pirates attack hundreds of vessels around the world, from private yachts to commercial oil tankers. But not all seas are unsafe, for piracy has its hot spots. These are the 3 main ones:
The Adams, a couple from the U.S., had been traveling the world for seven years in their yacht. On Friday, February 19, 2011, they were crossing the Indian Ocean with two friends from Seattle, when 19 armed pirates attacked their yacht. The pirates held them and their crew hostage for days. And four days after the initial attack, the corsairs killed the Adams and their friends.
Two days later, on February 25, another group of Somali pirates captured the Johansen, a Danish family of five. They too had been traveling the world in their yacht and were in the final stages of their two-year trip. Jan Quist Johansen and his wife Birgit Marie were kidnapped along with their three kids and two crew members. They were luckier. They remained in captivity six months, until their relatives payed a 3 million dollar ransom.
Earlier that same February, buccaneers hijacked the Italian tanker MV SAVINA CAYLYN; and the next day, the MV IRENE SL, an oiler from Greece that carried 200 million dollars in crude.
At their height
That February (2011), these modern-day pirates had 33 hijacked vessels under their control, and they were holding 712 hostages. The average hostage was held for 11 months, but some remained in captivity for two or three years until their ransom was paid.
The area started to get more dangerous in 2008 when 28 pirate attacks were reported. But things escalated fast, and in 2011 there were 237 attacks. In 2011 alone, Somali piracy had a world-wide economic impact of 7 billion dollars. And the horn of Africa became the most dangerous sea passage in the world.
Somalia has the longest coastline of continental Africa and has not had a strong government in decades. Consequently, their territorial waters were poorly patrolled. The pirates hid in Puntland, a semi autonomous territory in Somalia. They walked armed through the coastal towns and terrorized the inhabitants. While their favorite pray were commercial ships whose cargo and crews they could ransom for millions of dollars, they also kidnapped fishermen and smaller vessels, asking the fishermen’s families for thousands of dollars for their release.
They are active in the Gulf of Aden and the Horn of Africa. From a mother ship they intercept a vessel’s communications to know their route, and then track it down with speedboats. Once they reach it, they may fire upon the targeted vessel with rocket-launched grenades or their AK-47s. Or they may approach and climb it, just like the pirates of old, with ropes and hooks.
In its way to extinction
The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) registered more than 778 attacks in the area in the last 10 years. Most of them occurred from 2009 to 2011. Luckily, piracy in the region is almost extinct now. Several international organizations moved in to assist Somalia in patrolling her waters. In 2012 ‘only’ 75 attacks were reported. In 2015 there were zero attacks, although it led to lowering the security, so in 2017 they were back to 8. Piracy attempts in the area plummeted to 1 in the 2018, and 1 so far in 2019.
The waters in this area are among the busiest in the world. More than 300 hundred ships cruise close to Indonesia each day (120,000 a year). Most of them pass through the Straits of Malacca that are 900 km (550 mi) long. The Straits are home to two of the busiest ports in the globe: the ports of Singapore and Malaysia. More than a third of the world’s maritime commerce goes through the Straits, including 80% of the oil that lands in industrial giants China and Japan.
Due to the amount of trade, Indonesia has had piracy for centuries. Plus the country is made up of 17,000 islands that serve as a perfect hideout for pirates.
Smaller scale piracy
Today, Indonesian buccaneers fall into three groups. The first are fishermen and taxi-boat drivers that know the area really well and that, at night, attack vessels anchored close to the shore. Three or four people with machetes board the victim ship and steal what they can: equipment, cash, watches, phones.
The second group uses guns. They focus on kidnapping crew members and holding them hostage until a ransom is payed. (You may also want to read about the Barbary pirates in From noble to slave.)
Escalating: hunting oil tankers
The third group, the most organized of the three, started operations in 2011. By 2014 they had successfully hijacked 14 oil tankers. These modern -and armed- pirates boarded the ships at night, locked the crew somewhere, and cut the ships’ communications. Meanwhile, they transferred the oil to their own tankers. And then left with millions of dollars worth of oil. They probably sold it to unaware ships refueling offshore, for Singapore is in the area, and her waters are the top refueling spot in the world.
It is estimated that in a tanker attack every pirate pocketed around $32,000, the leader more than $130,000, and the middle man that sold the oil, about half a million dollars.
Peak and downfall
Between 1995 and 2013 Indonesian pirates murdered 136 seafarers, double the amount of people killed by Somali pirates in the same period. And by 2015 they were attacking 108 ships a year.
The area is patrolled by the countries that make up the Straits -Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia-, but that was one of the problems. A patrol in pursuit of a pirate boat could not invade the territorial waters of its neighbors, so the pirates crossed the boundary and fled. And then hid in of the thousands of uninhabited Indonesian islands.
In spite of the hideouts, authorities are successfully fighting piracy now. Security in ports and harbors has been reinforced, cooperation between countries has improved, and plenty of arrests have been made. In 2016 pirate attacks dropped from a 108 to 49, and in 2018 they were only 36, which is not that bad out of 120,000 possible ships. Plus, none of the recent attacks involved hijacks of oil cargo ships.
Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea is a recent phenomenon, it started around 2003. First, these modern-day pirates targeted small vessels like fishing boats that were in Nigerian waters, but then they started going after oil tankers. Nigeria produces 3 million barrels of crude per day. Europe buys 40% of the crude, the United States 30%, and 10% is stolen. Officials have estimated that piracy and oil theft costs Nigeria about 1.5 billion dollars… a month.
These heavily armed pirates share some tactics with the Somalis: they sail to international waters in a mother ship, from which they board a speedboat and hunt down their prey. Unlike the Somalis that go after moving ships, the Nigerians prefer anchored ones. Another difference is that they used to go after the cargo, not the crew. They would hijack the ship with everyone on board, take it to the shore for a week or so until they sold the oil, and then set both ship and crew free. Because they were not interested in the crew, they were a lot more violent with them – and deadlier. For example, in April of 2004 they boarded a Chevron Texaco ship and killed seven people.
But in 2013 the Nigerian pirates started kidnapping the crew for ransom. And the trend has been steadily growing. In 2016 they kidnapped 53 people, the next year, 75; and in 2018, 78. All the while they had stopped hijacking tankers, until 2018 that is, because they came back with a vengeance and captured six tankers that year. Although instead of selling the oil, it seems they now ask for a ransom for both ship and crew.
According to a former pirate interviewed by the Deutsche Welle, the buccaneers make from 500,000 to 2 million dollars with each oil tanker attack.
Piracy has spread to the whole Golf of Guinea, from the Cote d’Ivoire to the Democratic Republic of Congo, and it is in the raise: from 39 attacks in 2003 and 2014, to 50 attacks in 2016, and 79 in 2018.