Although 2021 saw less piracy, threats remain

Global piracy in 2021 fell to its lowest level since 1994, but threats remain, warned Francois Morizur in a recent Maritime Executive article.

Morizur is Group Security Director at Bourbon. He spent 30 years in the French Navy’s special operations force and 13 years as Bourbon’s Country Security Manager for Nigeria and Cameroon.

Morizur noted that the historic low level of attacks included many incidents that did not meet the UNCLOS definition of maritime piracy. Although 90 incidents of piracy were reported in Asia, all of them occurred within 6 nautical miles of the coast (nearly half of them at anchor). 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.

Maritime piracy in the Indian Ocean has almost disappeared. Only one event (an incident aboard the Anatolian on August 13th, 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 were the cases of two ships attacked by heavily armed men in Port Aux Princes, Haiti.

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.

Several cases were reported of rescued migrants threatening the ship’s crew during rescue.

The Gulf of Guinea saw a significant fall in piracy acts observed in 2021 – down by more than 60% year on year, but it remained the hot spot for global maritime piracy. There was a very high level of threats/incidents until mid-February, followed by a sharp decline over the remaining 10 months of the year.

The kidnapping of crewmembers remained the main objective of the pirates, with 10 cases of kidnapping at sea resulting in the abduction of 71 sailors. At the end of the year there was an increase in the level of violence during piracy incidents, with several crew members killed or injured.

Morizur said that the trend during the last three months of 2021 showed 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 13th); an emerging trend in Asia (23 cases); and occasional events in South America (both west coast and east coast).

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

In the Mediterranean, problems on land could lead to threats offshore. The situation in Libya 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, Morizur warned.

The economic and social situation in Turkey also needed to be monitored, as the current government might 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 might generate a humanitarian crisis that would be directly faced by ships in transit in this area, wrote Morizur.

In South America the situation in the Gulf of Mexico and in Port Aux Princes needed to be followed carefully.

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

A resurgence of maritime piracy in the Indian Ocean remained unlikely, although the development of the situation along the coast of Mozambique depended on the evolution of the Islamic insurgency on land.

Because of the weather conditions, the Gulf of Guinea was generally more affected by maritime piracy up to March and during November and December, wrote Morizur.

Prior to 2021 the number of piracy incidents during the “active season” was running at around six to seven per month – but the latest months did not match the historical numbers. Morizur noted that several factors could have contributed to this decline.

  • 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”?

Morizur concluded that “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 to 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)”.

Attackers generally targeted unprotected vessels and (at least occasionally) vessels located in anchorage areas that were not sufficiently protected. Their objective would remain the same: the abduction of a massive number of crew members.

Morizur noted that 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 24th 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”, Morizur wrote.