Sea pirates. The unexpected consequences of a pandemic

The stereotypical image of a pirate that comes to mind is a middle-aged man with an eye patch, a parrot and a hook instead of a hand, like Captain Hook. Real pirates operating in international territories are not nice people looking for treasure, but criminals whose main goal is to steal and hijack ships passing through their waters or carrying valuable cargoes.

Maritime piracy has spread deep into the waters of Europe, Southeast Asia, East Asia, South Asia, the Persian Gulf, Madagascar, the Canary Islands, North America and the Caribbean Sea. According to the International Maritime Bureau, piracy can be defined as “the act of boarding any vessel with the intent to commit theft or other crime and with the intent or ability to use force in support of that act.”

In the last decade, with the exception of the infamous Somalis, one could talk about a decrease in pirate activity on international routes. The phenomenon still existed, but as a result of effective actions of interested countries, in the arena of international cooperation or with the help of better equipped security units, the number of pirate attacks gradually decreased.

The year 2020 proved to be exceptional once again, as a significant – 24 percent. – increase in maritime incidents of a pirate nature.

The main areas of attack activity were the following regions: Africa (mainly Nigeria) – 88 incidents and Southeast Asia (Singapore and Indonesia) – 62 incidents. Attacks also occurred off the coast of South and Central America (Brazil and Peru).

The main factor that played a role in reversing the declining trend of attacks was and is the global COVID-19 outbreak. The unknown threat forced individual governments to close or greatly restrict their labor markets.

The decline in global trade and the resulting increase in poverty has led to a deepening of pauperization among indigent societies, so that for many of them piracy has proven to be an opportunity for enrichment. The situation has become convenient for criminal activities due to the need for transfers for programs to offset the negative effects of covidien activities. Thus, the first to suffer were expenditures on maritime security.

Pirate is not the same as pirate

Pirate activities themselves can be divided into two categories: robbery and organized piracy, similar to old buccaneering. The former involves gathering a crew and placing them in fast boats that approach anchored ships to be attacked. The phenomenon of leaving ships at anchor is also related to covidieness and the limited resources of shipowners for experienced crew.

In order to reduce costs, companies hired inexperienced sailors, who despite warnings left the ships immobilized for the night, and these became easy targets for pirates. Once on the ship, the robbery would follow. Depending on the location of the attack, different things fell prey. Most often the crew was robbed and terrorized. Moreover, cargo or part of it was taken.

A rarer case is the hijacking of an entire ship. Such activity requires a large-scale logistical operation. Not only do you have to hijack the crew, but you also have to have a place to hold the ship. For this reason, only 3 hijackings out of 195 incidents were reported last year. The main purpose of attacks is to take hostages for which a ransom can be obtained – 135 cases.

It is such a lucrative occupation that with the exception of one episode in 2019, there are no fatalities among the hijackers. The poor orientation and training of the pirates is also evidenced by a report by the International Maritime Bureau, which shows that during the aforementioned 195 attacks, the attackers wielded 69 firearms and 46 knives. In other cases, they used unspecified weapons, which could have been anything from chains to planks.

The poor organization of the attackers can also be identified by the type of cargo being robbed. In July, a three-boat attack took place off the coast of Nigeria on the FPSO, a floating production, storage and offloading vessel capable of extracting and producing 50,000 barrels of oil per day. The target of the attack was not the crude, but nine crew members who were kidnapped for ransom while leaving all the cargo on board.

The Gulf of Guinea, especially the Niger Delta region, is a very dangerous place and is the scene of numerous hijackings. Violence during pirate attacks is standard here, and crew members are regularly beaten and threatened. In total, the IMB Piracy Reporting Center reports that 49 crew members were kidnapped in 2020, 32 between May and July to pay ransom in the Gulf of Guinea, and held captive on land for up to six weeks on average. Attempts to mitigate this problem are somewhat hampered by the fact that none of the countries in the region allow private security on board.

Professional pirates

Organized piracy looks very different from that described above. This procedure is based on the use of ordinary naval vessels well equipped and supplied, whose members are recruited from former soldiers, mercenaries and IT specialists.

Such groups usually operate under the auspices and protection of the government for which they operate. Their targets are individuals entering territory controlled by the principal. It is not uncommon for the target to be one particular commodity or product that they have been hired to acquire.

Most often this is a high-tech product, the capture of which will contribute to the technological advantage of one side and the problems of the other. Ships carrying this type of cargo are tracked by the pirates using intelligence information and modern technology, particularly online tracking applications and vessel tracking surveillance equipment. This is followed by a rapid and coordinated attack.

Unlike poorly organized groups that attack 45-75 miles from shore, these pirates are able to reach targets moored as far as 400 miles from the coastline. There are no cases of kidnapping people for ransom. These organized units, contrary to naval superstition, do not shy away from employing women whose job is usually to gain intelligence. They are planted as escorts or used in deep infiltration of targeted businesses.

The latter type of attack usually occurs in areas of Southeast Asia, the Strait of Malacca. This is the area connecting the South China Sea to the Andaman Sea. This area is considered by the People’s Republic of China to be its sphere of influence, plus China has the ability to remove inconvenient targets with paid piracy. It is no surprise to anyone that well-planned pirate attacks on ships carrying technology are funded by the government in Beijing. Another region where there have been increased acts of piracy in the past year is the Gulf of Mexico.

Reports have surfaced indicating that on July 24, a group of armed pirates attacked an offshore supply vessel that was conducting operations near the Odin Offshore Platform off the coast of Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz. Attacks in the bay continued into the summer, prompting the U.S. government to issue a special warning for the region in June, singling out the Bay of Campeche as a particularly dangerous region.

There were also incidents involving a Polish shipowner in December 2020. In the Gulf of Guinea, an attempt was made to hijack the container ship M/S Port Gdynia, a Maltese-flagged vessel, 20 of whose members were Polish. According to information provided by the government party, the sailors hid in a citadel, preventing the ship from sailing away. With the inability to take control of the ship, the pirates aborted the attack.

Against the pirates

States and organizations profiting from shipping and maritime trade have taken a number of military and legal measures to prevent pirate attacks. In addition to the presence of armed crews, specialized mercenary units, and regular troops on board, air cover and surveillance by drones and satellites are used. Those vessels that do not have the means for such protection usually group together in convoys, which are more difficult to attack than a single ship. Several international agreements have also been developed in recent years:

1) In 2006, the Regional Cooperation Agreement to Combat Piracy and Shipbreaking in Asia (ReCAAP) was concluded;

2) In 2009, a code of conduct was agreed with Djibouti (DCoC);

3) Finally, the Yaoundé Code of Conduct (YCoC) to combat illegal maritime activities in West and Central Africa was signed in 2013. by 25 regional states.

Despite nearly a decade of success in combating maritime piracy, 2020 was a reversal of the previous trend. There is no doubt that the reason for this is the coronavirus pandemic and the need to transfer resources to prevent its effects. In such a case, only the most important shipments can count on the current protection, the remaining cases have to reckon with the reduction of funds allocated for security, thus becoming an easy prey for pirates. Whether the increase in attacks in 2020 will turn out to be an isolated incident or rather a permanent phenomenon, it will be possible to tell in hindsight.

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