2021 Was a Historic Low Point for Piracy, But Many Threats Remain

indonesian navy piracy
Robbers caught stealing wire rope from a barge in the Singapore Strait, Feb. 2021. The busy waterway is a hot spot for theft and armed robbery at sea (Indonesian Navy image)

Published Dec 29, 2021 7:16 PM by Francois Morizur

Global piracy in 2021 is at its lowest level since 1994. Moreover, this level is achieved with the inclusion of many incidents that do not meet the UNCLOS definition of maritime piracy, especially when considering the location of events.

For example, 90 incidents of piracy were reported in Asia. In fact, all of these incidents occurred within 6 nautical miles of the coast (nearly half of them at anchor). It is worth noting that more than half of the incidents (49) occurred in the Singapore Strait - more precisely, in the eastern part of the Strait, between 102 and 117 degrees East. It is worth noting that sea robbers were very frequently armed with knives or firearms, sometimes using violence or coercion during the acts of robbery, which is a notable development in this region.

Maritime piracy in the Indian Ocean has almost disappeared. Only one event (an incident aboard the ANATOLIAN on August 13, along the coast of Somalia) has been considered as a "maritime piracy act" by some specialized agencies, but the description of the event is more oriented towards post-smuggling. In the northern Indian Ocean, several cases of maritime terrorism have been reported against tankers attacked by air or sea drones near Oman and the entrance to the Persian Gulf or along the Yemeni coast and the entrance to the Red Sea.        

In South America, two cases of piracy were reported against a yacht and an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico. The other cases are concentrated in the anchorage areas of Callao in Peru and Guayaquil in Ecuador. Also noteworthy are the cases of two ships attacked in Port Aux Princes, Haiti, by heavily armed men.

No cases of piracy were reported in the Mediterranean, but several ships/tankers were stopped by the Libyan coast guard while transiting through 'unauthorized' areas. Illegal maritime migration remains high, with several cases of rescued migrants threatening the ship's crew during rescue.

Finally, the Gulf of Guinea, despite the drastic decrease in piracy acts observed in 2021 – a drop of more than 60 percent compared to 2020 - remains the hot spot for global maritime piracy. The year can be divided into two unequal parts in intensity and duration, with a very high level of threats/incidents until mid-February, followed by a sharp decline during the remaining 10 months of the year.     

In addition to the recurrent robberies of ships at anchor, the second characteristic is the confirmation of the very large dispersion of maritime piracy acts that took place in a danger area of 220,000 square nautical miles. The kidnapping of crewmembers remains the main objective of the pirates, with 10 cases of kidnapping at sea resulting in the abduction of 71 sailors. Finally - and especially at the end of the year - there was an increase in the level of violence during piracy incidents, with crew members killed or injured (Mozart -Tampen -Tonsberg -Tropical).

Possible developments in 2022

The trend during the last three months of 2021 shows a very low level of maritime piracy events in the Gulf of Guinea (just seven cases, including the attack on the Tampen at the Owendo anchorage on December 13); an emerging trend in Asia (23 cases); and occasional events in South America (both west coast and east coast).

In Asia, maritime piracy is likely to remain at the same level as in 2021 if there is no specific response (on land and at sea) from the nations of the Singapore Strait region. The area of concern should remain the northern part of Bintan and Batam islands, and the focus should remain on brigandage. The trend observed in the latter part of 2021 with the use of knives and firearms, if confirmed, could result in serious human injury. The pirates in this region have repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to rob despite the intervention of crew members.

In the Mediterranean, the geopolitical situation must be closely monitored, as problems on land can lead to threats offshore. In these areas, the situation in Libya - with its difficulties in setting up presidential elections – could upset the fragile balance between the different armed militias. Possible conflicts between these militias could have an impact on the maritime domain, especially for lucrative oil and gas installations and the specialized vessels that serve them.

The economic and social situation must also be monitored in Turkey, as the current government may counteract its internal difficulties by exacerbating maritime tensions with Greece and Cyprus, as well as the military ships of the EU’s Operation Irini sanctions enforcement mission. The control (or not) of the maritime exodus of migrants by Libya and Turkey may generate a humanitarian crisis that would be directly faced by ships in transit in this area.

In South America, the situation in the Gulf of Mexico and in Port Aux Princes must be followed carefully, as previous cases reported in these places have shown the dangerousness of the perpetrators.

In the Indian Ocean, it is likely that new terrorist attacks will occur against targeted ships (Israeli/US interests), mainly oil tankers, using air and/or sea explosive drones. These attacks are expected to be staged along the coasts of Yemen and Oman. Underwater mine attacks against ships anchored in the Persian Gulf/United Arab Emirates remain likely.

A resurgence of maritime piracy in the Indian Ocean remains unlikely. The situation along the coast of Mozambique will be monitored, and it will depend on the evolution of the Islamic insurgency on land.

The Gulf of Guinea is generally more affected by maritime piracy until March due to favorable weather conditions. The same is true for the last two months of the year. Based on past years, with the exception of 2021, the number of piracy incidents is expected to be around six to seven per month – but the latest months do not match the historical numbers. There may be multiple reasons for this decline in maritime piracy, potentially including:

- The recently-enacted Nigerian antipiracy law, the Suppression of Piracy and Other Maritime Offences Act 2019

- Nigeria’s Deep Blue Project, a maritime security surge operation

- Increasing numbers of military maritime platforms/operations by coastal countries

- The EU Coordinated Maritime Presence / GoG, a multilateral maritime patrol effort by European nations in the Gulf of Guinea

- Reduced activity of the "long-range" maritime pirate groups

- A "Pax Romana"?

On the other hand, some situations that have reduced maritime piracy in the past have not been observed in recent months, including:

- Elections on land

- Specific military operations on land

 Without getting too far ahead of ourselves, we can expect a limited number of piracy incidents over the next six months within the GOG, with occasional attacks on the high and very high seas (150-220 miles off Nigeria), attacks in the "soft zones" identified by GOG pirates (Offshore Benin/Togo/Ghana: Zone 1 and Offshore Gabon/Malabo/Sao Tome: Zone 2). The attackers generally target unprotected vessels and (at least occasionally) vessels located in anchorage areas that are not sufficiently protected. Their objective will remain the same: the abduction of a massive number of crew members.

The case of the firefight between the occupants of a speed boat and a special force attached to the Danish frigate Esbern Snare on November 24 demonstrated the many gaps in the coordination of the fight against maritime piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. The management of this case (and the fate of the arrested pirates in particular) will determine the range of operational activities of European warships operating in the emerging Coordinated Maritime Presence framework. This new initiative is an essential security support for vessels transiting the international waters and exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of West Africa.

Francois Morizur is Group Security Director at Bourbon. His experience includes 30 years in the French Navy's special operations force and 13 years as Bourbon's Country Security Manager for Nigeria and Cameroon. 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.