Waterborne piracy is as old as water transportation and unlikely to disappear any time soon, in spite of recent successes in the Indian Ocean, the world’s most-notorious pirate waters.
Just as a combination of pacification ashore, armed guards onboard and the European Union Naval Force ATALANTA (EU NAVFOR) brought success in suppressing this threat (there have been no successful commercial vessel hijackings on the Somali coast since 2013), piracy on the west coast of Africa popped up like a mole. Now, as the Gulf of Guinea sees a respite from such attacks, the pirates of the Straits of Malacca are raising their ugly heads again.
Always ready to respond to changing circumstances, the West Africa pirates weren’t interested in holding ships for ransom. That requires lawless territory, like the Somalia coastline during the civil war, and not even the most dysfunctional country on Africa’s west coast would permit a ship to remain hijacked on its shores. So these pirates naturally turned to the cargoes. Liquid fuels like crude and diesel can be pumped into barges or trucks and disappear into the vast maw of Africa’s black market. The hijacked crews are sometimes taken ashore and held as hostages, but more often the survivors — these pirates are no more considerate of human life than Somali pirates — are released with the ship after the fuel is pumped off.
The hothouse atmosphere of Africa’s west coast is conducive to this kind of smaller-scale piracy, in a region where more-ambitious attempts are likely to end with a storming of the ship and blood in the scuppers. But the technique can also work elsewhere, as the brigands of the Malacca Straits, the original pirates of the modern age, are showing. They’ve apparently learned from their West African colleagues that liquid fuels are a lot easier to steal and sell than ships and crews.
According to an Aug. 9 news item on Maritime Bulletin, the products tanker Joaquim was reported missing in the Malacca Straits the previous night. Several days later she was found in a remote cove with its cargo of 3,500 tons of oil gone and the crew traumatized by beatings. Indonesian authorities later detained a vessel suspected of receiving the stolen cargo, but it doesn’t appear the oil or the pirates were ever found.
With Galmudug President Abdi Qeybdiid, Galcayo, Somalia, February 2013. Photo courtesy Max Hardberger.Just as pirates can learn from their colleagues’ successful adaptations, so can anti-piracy authorities. For example, we’ve learned from the Somali experience that control of coastal places of refuge is essential. However, this can’t be done piecemeal. In 2012, when I went with President Abdi Qeybdiid of Galmudug —accompanied, of course, by his militia — to the pirate town of Hobyo, we found the pirates gone. But the pirates had simply moved their base and the two ships they were holding 60 miles south, to Al Shabaab territory where they could pay for protection.
Unfortunately for them, Al Shabaab proved prickly allies — for starters, they didn’t like the pirates’ weakness for booze and prostitutes — and the advent of armed shipboard guards and the EU NAVFOR flotilla ended their pirate careers, at least for the time being. So for the most part, they’ve gone back to camel herding or working in private militias. A few, in a nice piece of irony, have found work as armed guards on the Yemeni trawlers constantly poaching in Somali waters, fighting off other Somali pirates.
This doesn’t mean the Somali pirate threat to commercial shipping is over. I met some fishermen in Hobyo who likely had piracy in their backgrounds, and I didn’t get the impression they’d given it up for good. Even “the pirate king of Hobyo,” who fled to Puntland when he heard President Qeybdiid was coming, made sure his half-completed mansion was well fenced and boarded up before he left.
The lesson here is that although piracy can’t be erased it can be suppressed. The measures that worked in the Indian Ocean can work everywhere. A natural confluence of technological advances, including AIS reporting and tracking, naval forces coordination, and intelligence gathering, will continue to help. Some regulatory changes, including a relaxation of some nations’ laws restricting onboard possession of arms, could also help. But ultimately it will be our ability to adapt to the continuing adaptations of the pirates themselves that will prevail.