Global Maritime Piracy, 1993-2020

Global Maritime Piracy 1993 2020

Source: ICC International Maritime Bureau.

As long as there has been trade, there has been an incentive to plunder the valuable commodities transiting along long-distance maritime trade routes. The conventional response was for ships to travel in convoys, escorted by military ships if the trade was of sizable value, with merchant ships commonly armed. As most navigation was taking place along the coasts, this presented ample opportunities for merchant ships to be boarded by pirates. The evolution of maritime piracy and its hot spots marks the ebbs and flows of global trade. Prior to the 15th century, most piracy was taking place along the routes leading to East and Southeast Asia from the Middle East. The colonial era, with the Spanish conquest of Latin America and the repatriation of the wealth of the colonies, incited piracy in the Caribbean from the 16th to the 19th centuries. The emergence of Great Britain as a global maritime power led to a substantial decline in piracy as the global interests of the British Empire were being actively protected by its navy. By the 20th century, piracy became a marginal activity as ships became bigger and faster (more difficult to board), most of the commercial navigation took place on the high seas (more difficult to spot and intercept), and as the cargo being carried shifted to bulk or break bulk, which could no longer be easily hauled away.

The surge in global trade in the second half of the 20th century created an environment where piracy saw a resurgence. Shipping lines are forced to pass through constrained areas, chokepoints, namely straits such as Malacca and Bab el Mandab, along the heavily used Asia-Europe maritime routes, which makes the interception of ships more feasible within a delimited area. Poverty and political instability are also linked with piracy as, on one side, piracy becomes a source of revenue. On the other, there are limited national institutions and means available to deter piracy. In such a vacuum, loose but well-organized piracy activities have emerged. Both Somalia and Yemen can be considered dysfunctional states that are unfortunately located on both sides of the Gulf of Aden, where the world’s most important shipping routes converge on their way to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. As the above map underlines, they represent the largest concentration of piracy activities in the world, along with the Strait of Malacca, the South China Sea, and the Gulf of Guinea (mostly Nigeria). A troubling pattern that has emerged is the growing distance from the coast. This is particularly the case of the Eastern African coast and implies the usage of larger re-supply ships serving as logistical platforms for high-seas piracy operations.

Piracy tends to occur in international waters, creating a problem of jurisdiction. The most common piracy strategies involve boarding the ship to steal from the crew or the passengers, abducting the crew or the ship and asking for a ransom from the shipping company (which is more than often paid), and stealing the cargo (or sometimes even the whole ship) and selling it on the black market. Piracy can also serve political purposes as the purpose is to assault and damage ships not for commercial gains but to interdict access. For instance, in the Fall of 2023, Yemeni rebels initiated a series of drone and missile strikes at ships around the strait of Bab el-Mandheb. This underlines that ship AIS (Automated Identification Systems) can be used as a tool to identify and track the location of potential targets.

Piracy is well known to take place on the high seas, but a significant share of the acts considered piracy take place while a ship is docked at a port, where there is an easier opportunity to board. This occurs at terminals in developing countries where security is laxer or where port security officials can be bribed.