The dynamics of modern global sea piracy

ISIS flag also used by Abu Sayyef

By Capt. U. S. Gogate and Eshan Arya

A merchant ship escaped an attack by pirate speed boats off the coast of Nigeria on November 1, 2017. The nearby Nigerian naval ship fended off this attack.  This hijacking experience traumatized the merchant ship crew. Earlier this year, on March 23, another merchant ship escaped a piracy attack. The attempted attack took place in the Celeb Sea near Southern Philippines. The sea pirates were members of terrorist organization Abu Sayyaf. The coast guards in the area protected the ship on time.Sea Piracy is an unlawful activity at sea. It exists even today in many parts of the world. Any ship running in the sea piracy areas is still exposed to the high risks of violent attacks, hijack, kidnapping, property, and cargo stealing and ransoms. As funding and resources are available the sea piracy continues unabated.Serious attacks by sea pirates occur off Somalia, East Africa, West Africa, Ecuador, Peru, Red Sea areas, the Indian ports of Kandla and Chennai, Indonesia, and the Singapore straits.The IMB (International Maritime Board) in association with the UKMTO (UK Marine Trade Operations) & NATO (The North Atlantic Treaty Organization) continue to watch the Sea Piracy areas along with the other stakeholders. These stakeholders include ship owners, insurance companies, and fishing companies. They watch sea piracy through live piracy maps, MRCC (Marine Radio Communication) networks, MCRC (Marine Casualty Response Centres), and SATCOM (Satellite Communications).These monitoring methods are liaised with the IMB (International Maritime Bureau). The live piracy maps are available through the ICC (International Criminal Court). The IMO (International Maritime Organization) gives guidelines for the usage of these maps and monitoring systems. Merchant ship companies need to follow these monitoring methods to follow insurance companies. This is a prerequisite to receive an insurance.In addition to these methods, ships need further on-board security codes. These codes are called ISPS (International Ship and Port Facility Security Code), and are binding on ship operators and ship’s crew while passing through high piracy areas. The IMO approves these codes.Sea piracy continues to evolve due to their ongoing funding. Sea piracy is not self-sufficient. It needs external funding as it is an organized crime syndicate. Sea piracy is highly organized, and it needs funds to recruit people, for weapons, long range boats, fuel, boat maintenance, food, and salaries of the pirates. Terrorist groups within the piracy areas give these funds. The pirates contracted are often unemployed fishermen from poorer countries. The terrorist organizations train these fishermen in small arms and RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenades).The recruitment of fishermen as future pirates occurs within areas of high political instability. Susceptible areas for recruitment also happen to have elevated levels of unemployment, poverty, and weak law enforcement. These areas also lack human capital due to lack of access to educational institutions. Local militant groups or radical insurgents are responsible for propagating sea piracy in these vulnerable areas. Some of these major criminal rings include Abu Sayyaf in Southern Philippines, Al Shabab in Somalia, and the NDLF (Niger Delta Liberation Front) in Nigeria.These militant groups have the necessary information about ships and their cargoes. They carry out the systematic and planned attacks based on this information. Militant groups access this information through different channels. It is often the ship crew who leak information about the nature of cargo on the ships. The cargo on the ships could be fuel such as diesel or valuable gas oil. The cargo could also be arms and ammunitions. Apart from the ship’s crew, sometimes it is the clearing and forwarding agencies or ship’s cargo agents, who collaborate with the militant groups.

Piracy attacks use leaked information for planning and execution. The nature of the piracy varies as per the geographical areas. The Indonesian sea piracy is about stealing cargoes and crew belongings. Philippines sees sea piracy aimed at hijacking the ships with the intention of using them as mother ships.

Al Shabab backed attacks focus on kidnaping crew for ransom. However, attacking ships for Somali pirates backed by Al Shabab is not as easy. This is due to the huge 500-600 nautical miles trade route. Due to this large sea area, the attacks need to be systematic. Pirates boats cannot simply wander around looking for victims. Attacks need to be planned within a diameter of 50 nautical miles due to the size of the trade route. The crew is held for ransom of millions of dollars once ships are attacked. This ransom feeds back to the Al Shabab militant activities. The ship’s attending agents organise for receiving ransoms and dispersing of the ship’s kidnapped crew. The attending agents are not official or registered and trackable staff. They are like freelance mercenaries that stay incognito.

Abu Sayyaf backed attacks are different to the Al Shabab backed attacks. Abu Sayyaf runs off Southern Philippines. The ships attacked here are not held for ransom. While some may demand ransom, the main intention is to use the ship as a mother ship. Merchant ships have valuable technology and infrastructure that can be used for militant activities. The attacked ships can be used by pirates as living quarters, workshops for training and assembling weapons. Ships also hold extremely expensive communication systems, SATCOM, navigation equipment, radar and AIS (Automatic Identification System). Accessing these technologies could be difficult outside the ships on the shores. Hence these ships are converted to base camps for long term militant operations. The AIS is used to detect and find information of passer ships. Accessing the AIS thus gives the militant groups and pirates to plan further and newer attacks.

Sea pirates usually attack weaker targets. When armed guards do not protect ships they are considered weaker targets. Weaker targets also do not have access barricades, have slow speed and a low freeboard for easy boarding. The IMB regularly updates its advisories to the merchant ships so that they are better protected once in the known piracy risk areas. Many merchant ships carry privately contracted armed security guards who sail on board while the ship is in such piracy areas. The Armed Guards are covered by SOP (Standard Operating Procedures) for engagement with the pirates. They can use their guns to safe guard the ships if necessary.

Licenced security agencies hire these security guards and contract them to the shipping voyages. Ship companies pay the agencies from $2000- $5000 a day. Ships are provided with 4-6 armed guards. These guards receive around $250 per day from their agencies. These guards have a license to operate arms and they have their own standalone communication system. Once the guards board the ship, the floating armouries provide them with the necessary guns and ammunition.

Floating armouries Floating armouries are vessels used to store military grade weapons. Many countries give access to such floating armouries or allow the arms storage inside the local Naval boundaries. These countries become a major point of arrangements for the security guards joining or signing off from the ships.

Despite the use of armed guards, the pirates successfully attack some ships. This happens when the pirates have weapons more advanced than the one owned by the guards. Sometimes they attack in 3-4 speed boats from all directions and outnumber the guards firing at them.

Apart from the security guards on the ships, naval ships also patrol the waters within their country’s authority. Outside the authority, within international waters NATO has anti-piracy patrolling naval ships. However, the patrolling Navies may scale down their crafts and personnel for deployment elsewhere. It could be for military exercises or relief work towards natural calamities. This is when the sea piracy may regain its momentum.

~ ~ Capt. U. S. Gogate is a senior merchant navy Captain training ships multi-national officers and crews in ship operating and ship security skills. Eshan Arya is a PhD student in Politics at La Trobe University. Eshan is also founder and President of United and Peaceful Subcontinent Inc: Facebook page here.

Eshan 01
Eshan Arya

Further reading:

Neubauer, S 2017, ‘Somalia: A Terrorist-Piracy Nexus?’, HuffPost, viewed 12 November 2017, <;.

Singh, A 2017, ‘The changing face of maritime terrorism’, The Strategist, viewed 14 November 2017, <;.

Peel, M 2017, ‘Islamist militant piracy troubles Philippines’, Financial Times, viewed 12 November 2017, <;.

Marmon, W 2011, ‘Merchant Ships Starting to Carry Armed Guards against Somali Pirates’, The European Institute, viewed 15 November 2017, <;.

Sun 12 noon.


  1. An Article which makes interesting reading, especially because of the uncommon nature of the Subject. Gives rise to realisation of the use of technology by yet another type of Organised Crime and development of this branch of Organised Crime as a Resource for Terrorrism


  2. The Analytical Differentiation of objectives of Sea Pirates and their Modus Operandi speaks volumes about the Author’s depth of knowledge. Besides Sea Piracy itself, the differentiation also could be considered for orienting Maritime aspects of National Security


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