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Piracy

Pirates are making a comeback on the high seas, and have Africa and Asia in their sights

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Mariam Amini | @mariamamini

Across the world, pirates are setting sail on the high seas again, costing shippers and insurers hundreds of millions of dollars, after declining since the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama off Horn of Africa.

Once contained by international policing efforts, piracy appears to be staging a comeback. According to a new report from watchdog group Oceans Beyond Piracy, seafaring incidents involving kidnap for ransom jumped last year, with West Africa and Asia becoming prime targets. The latter’s Sulu and Celebes Seas, neither of which saw any attacks at all in 2015, combined for 21 in 2016, the organization said in its State of Maritime Piracy report.

Overall, Asia led the way with 125 instances of piracy, while West Africa had 95: Those figures included armed robbery, hijackings, kidnappings and ship boardings.

The shores of Africa remain attractive to pirates, with an estimated 90 percent of all its exports and imports moving across the high seas. In East Africa alone, where Capt. Richard Phillips’ Maersk Alabama was hijacked in 2009, pirates originating from Somalia cost businesses nearly $2 billion last year in ransoms, security, insurance and other preventative measures. The hijacking was depicted in the 2013 movie “Captain Phillips,” starring Tom Hanks.

In 2009, Somali pirates established a “stock market” in Haradheere, a small fishing village northeast of Mogadishu, to fund their hijacking activities off the Horn of Africa. More recently, Somali outlaws successfully hijacked a commercial oil ship for the first time in five years, underscoring the rising dangers to vessels sailing the high seas.

Gerry Northwood, the COO at MAST, the maritime risk management consultancy, told CNBC there is still a considerable danger to commercial vessels.

“If presented with an opportunity, pirate investors will gladly return to the business model which proved so lucrative between 2008 and 2010,” said Northwood, a former Royal Navy counter-piracy commander. He referred to a time frame where piracy was rampant, reflected in the $7 billion the shipping industry was forced to cough up in 2010, according to OBP data.

‘Dipping their toe in the water once more’

At its peak, piracy in East Africa prompted NATO, the European Naval Force and U.S. Combined Maritime Forces to create an international coalition. Dubbed “Operation Ocean Shield” by NATO, the effort dramatically curbed attacks on the high seas, with not a single ship having been captured by pirates off the Horn of Africa between 2012 and 2016.

However, MAST’s Norwood said the rise in attacks could be seen as pirates “dipping their toe in the water once more.”

A NATO official told CNBC via email: “Given the complete lack of attacks during [2012-2016], Allies agreed that the mission had achieved its military objectives — but that the Alliance would keep a close eye on developments.” Should the need arise, however, allies could restart counter-piracy patrols, he added.

According to the U.S. Navy, certain vessels have been able to fend off attacks themselves, or at least hold off attackers until naval forces arrived on scene. Still, MAST data show that of 48 instances of piracy in the first quarter of 2017, 36 were either boardings or outright hijackings.

Piracy in the South China Sea

For pirates, trade ships remain to be an attractive target in Asian waters as well: In this year alone, MAST reported 17 maritime crime incidents across Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia. About $40 billion worth of cargo passes through the area annually, with at least $700 million in Indonesian coal exports going to the Philippines.

According to MAST, commercial vessels may already be rerouting around these islands, and any escalation of tensions in the area — such as China’s territorial dispute in the South China Sea — could disrupt trade and give pirates a new opening in the Far East.

“It is clear is that the maritime environment is linked to global events and not immune to crime and terrorism in their many forms,” Northwood said.

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Piracy

What is happening to Africa’s pirates?

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MODERN African pirates prefer machetes, machineguns and ransoms to cutlasses and parrots. They can make millions of dollars from one captured ship.

Ten years ago Somalia’s coast was the centre of the maritime-hijacking world. The country lacked a coastguard or functioning state machinery, which allowed heavily armed pirates to sail up to huge cargo vessels in speedboats before boarding and taking crew and ship hostage. But 2017 was not a good year for buccaneers.

According to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), which monitors crime at sea, global piracy and robbery at sea dipped to their lowest points in over two decades. So what is happening to Africa’s pirates?

The peak years of the Somali piracy crisis were 2007 to 2012. Attacks across the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea and the Red Sea took place nearly daily. In 2011 there were 237 attacks in the region, reportedly costing businesses and insurers $8.3bn (£5.1bn). Recently, however, Somali piracy has plummeted.
According to the IMB, just nine vessels were hijacked off the Somali coast last year. This is in part because regional security has improved dramatically. The Gulf of Aden leads to the Suez canal, through which roughly 10% of global trade flows. After scores of kidnaps and hijackings, the world launched a huge naval anti-piracy effort in 2008.

For the first time since the second world war, all five permanent members of the UN Security Council deployed forces together, with the aim of countering the threat and patrolling the Somali coastline. Along with the introduction of armed guards, barbed wire and evasive-manoeuvre training on merchant ships, this campaign has slashed the number of successful boarding incidents off Somalia, according to Henry MacHale at Aspen Insurance.

Somali pirates may have hung up their Kalashnikovs for now, but on the other side of Africa, piracy off the Nigerian coast is increasing. In 2017, 33 incidents of piracy and robbery at sea, successful or otherwise, were reported within 12 nautical miles of the coastline.

In 2011 there were ten. Ultra-violent Nigerian pirates armed with heavy machineguns and rocket-propelled grenades are often behind the attacks. Somali pirates usually board vessels, then drop anchor and hold them until they get ransom money.

Nigerian pirates are different. They move fast, take part in ferocious gun-battles and snatch victims off ships before retreating into the Niger Delta’s maze of rivers, where it is very difficult for security forces to find them.

The number of kidnappings is also sky-high. According to the IMB, 65 of the 75 crew members kidnapped in 2017 were taken in or around Nigerian waters.

Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, which stretches from Gabon to Liberia, has not reached the levels it did off Somalia. But Cyrus Mody from the IMB suggests that the figures underplay the danger.

The IMB’s data do not include attacks on fishing craft or ferries, which are certainly being terrorised by the pirates. Additionally, it seems likely that operators are not reporting some incidents.

“Over the years [the Nigerian pirates] haven’t been arrested or prosecuted it seems,” says Mr Mody. “Ship owners have lost trust in the system.” By reporting an incident they risk suffering violent attacks on their ships in future. So they stay quiet.

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Briefing Room

Piracy, armed robbery against ships falls to two-decade low: report

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NAIROBI – A total of 180 incidents of maritime piracy and armed robbery were reported in 2017, the lowest annual number of incidents since 1995 when 188 reports were received, a global maritime body said on Wednesday.

The latest report released in London by the International Chamber of Commerce’s International Maritime Bureau (IMB) reveals that pirates boarded 136 vessels in 2017, while there were 22 attempted attacks, 16 vessels fired upon and six vessels hijacked.
Despite the fall, the global maritime body cautioned foreign vessels/masters not to be complacent as they transit the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

“Although the number of attacks is down this year in comparison with last year, the Gulf of Guinea and the waters around Nigeria remain a threat to seafarers. The Nigerian authorities have intervened in a number of incidents helping to prevent incidents from escalating,” said Pottengal Mukundan, Director of IMB.

According to IMB, in 15 separate incidents, 91 crew members were taken hostage and 75 were kidnapped from their vessels in 13 other incidents. Three crew members were killed in 2017 and six injured.
In 2016, a total of 191 incidents were reported, with 150 vessels boarded and 151 crew members taken hostage.
The report also called on shipmasters to follow the industry’s Best Management Practices and continue to remain vigilant as they sail through waters off Somalia.

The report said nine incidents were recorded off Somalia in 2017, up from two in 2016. In November, a container ship was attacked by armed pirates approximately 280 nautical miles east of Somali capital Mogadishu.
The pirates, unable to board the vessel due to the ship’s evasive maneuvering fired two RPG rockets, both of which missed, before retreating.

The IMB said six Somali pirates were subsequently detained by European Union Naval Force, transferred to the Seychelles and charged with “committing an act of piracy” where they face up to 30 years’ imprisonment, if convicted.
“This dramatic incident, alongside our 2017 figures, demonstrates that Somali pirates retain the capability and intent to launch attacks against merchant vessels hundreds of miles from their coastline,” Mukundan said.
According to IMB, there were 36 reported incidents in the Gulf of Guinea last year with no vessels hijacked in this area and 10 incidents of kidnapping involving 65 crew members in or around Nigerian waters. Globally 16 vessels reported being fired upon — including seven in the Gulf of Guinea.

The drop in piracy incidents is however a relief to shipping companies using the Indian Ocean that had in previous years been the target of pirates, often paying heavy ransom to secure release of their vehicles and the crew.
The African maritime industry, along the Indian Ocean had until 2013 been greatly affected by piracy that raised the costs of shipping as insurance companies and private ship security companies increased their premiums to mitigate the risks.

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Piracy

Certain powers funding Somalia pirates to undermine Iran economy

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MEHR NEWS — Iran’s Navy Commander Khanzadi deemed Somalia piracy as a kind of terrorism formed in 2007 by proxy in a bid to undermine the Islamic Republic’s economy.

Navy Commander Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi made the remark on Sunday in a welcoming ceremony for the return of the 49th fleet after 67 days of voyage on open seas, adding “there was a tremendous attempt at depicting the presence of piracy off the coast of Somalia as something natural, but the acts of piracy reveal certain coordinators and perpetrators behind this new phenomenon in the 21st century.”

Khanzadi went on to add that certain powers are supplying Somalia pirates with intelligence and equipment, and funding them in a bid to undermine the economy of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The Iranian Navy has been conducting anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden since November 2008 to safeguard the vessels involved in maritime trade, especially the ships and oil tankers owned or leased by Iran.

Elsewhere, Khanzadi referred to the ‘Indian Ocean Naval Symposium’ (IONS) that was formed in 2010 with efforts by regional countries, including Iran, and noted that Iran’s Navy had proposed a plan for formation of a martial naval fleet at the IONS, which was approved by 36 countries in the region and it was decided that Iran present the complementary plan in the future.

He went on to add that the final decision on the proposal at the 2016 IONS in Bangladesh did not reach the point of implementation, but it managed to lead to the staging of relief and rescue exercises by Indian Ocean Naval Forces.

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