Safer waters: Global piracy menace on the wane

But reported attacks on Singapore ships and in South-east Asia waters remain high

SINGAPORE — Pirate attacks around the world have been on the wane in the last few years, based on the latest report by ICC International Maritime Bureau (IMB).

Last year, there were 264 attempted and actual attacks, down from 297 in 2012. The figure has been falling since 2010 — a trend which the IMB credited to more international patrols and military action in piracy-prone waters.

But despite the improving situation, the IMB report — which takes into account territories or countries whose ships were attacked at least a dozen times throughout the year — showed that ships managed from or registered in Singapore were among the most targeted by pirates.

Last year, 79 Singapore-managed vessels reported piracy incidents — the highest among all territories and countries — compared to 34 and 20 ships that were managed by Germany and Greece, respectively. There were also 39 ships registered in Singapore which reported attacks, second only to ships flying the Liberian flag (43).

Ships registered in Singapore fly the Republic’s flag but can originate from anywhere.

IMB Head of the Piracy Reporting Centre Noel Choong told TODAY that he did not think that ships managed from or registered in Singapore were prime targets for pirates for whatever reasons, including the level of security. He added that these shipmasters could have been more proactive in reporting pirate attacks.

Compared to the rest of the world, South-east Asia was the most piracy-prone region in the world last year, with 128 pirate attacks. In comparison, there were 79 and 26 attacks in the waters off Africa and the Indian subcontinent, respectively.

Pirates in the region around Singapore usually attack vessels during the night and are armed with knives, guns and machetes, the IMB report stated. Mr Choong said that in contrast to attacks in African waters, Southeast Asian pirates are easier to defend against as they tend to escape without confronting the crew once the alarm is raised. The bureau noted that the number of attacks in the Straits of Malacca has fallen substantially since aggressive patrols by littoral states — Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia — began in 2005.


The fall in the number of piracy attacks around the world was helped by a large drop in attacks in the Gulf of Aden. Once considered among the world’s most dangerous waters with 117 attacks in 2009, ships travelling through the gulf — located in the Arabian Sea, between Yemen and Somalia — reported only six attacks last year.

The IMB attributed this improvement to increased military action on suspicious small boats, military land-based anti-piracy operations, preventive measures and increased armed guards on ships.

Earlier this year, the Daily Telegraph attributed the declining trend to the security measures that came in the wake of the rampant piracy off the Somali coast between 2000 and 2010. In particular, Aug 21, 2008 was cited as the day when the shipping world woke up to the scale of the threat. That day, gangs of heavily armed pirates in skiffs were able to seize the merchant vessels Iran Deyanat, Irene and BBC Trinidad and hold their crews and cargos to ransom. The Daily Telegraph reported that within months in 2010, armed guards went from being a risky prospect to the industry standard for the world’s big shipping firms plying these waters. Now, there are hundreds of armed guards at sea off the coast of Somalia on any one day.

Since 2009, Singapore has been part of international anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden. Earlier this month, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) announced its fifth deployment of a task group which consisted of Formidable-class stealth frigate RSS Tenacious with a Sikorsky S-70B Seahawk naval helicopter on board. Prior to this deployment, the SAF has deployed task groups, comprising a Landing Ship Tank with two Super Puma Helicopters in 2009, 2010 and 2011, and a Formidable-class stealth Frigate with one Sikorsky S-70B naval helicopter in 2012.


While Mr Choong acknowledged that the anti-piracy efforts in general were bearing fruit, he nevertheless expressed concern over the number of unreported attacks. Citing IMB’s estimate that more than half of pirate attacks go unreported, Mr Choong said: “A lot of ships, when nothing is stolen, they do not want to report because (there is) a lot of paperwork, a lot of hassle (involved in reporting). Sometimes, the shipmasters want a clean record. The bad thing is if they do not report, another ship is going to get robbed.” The IMB noted that in particular, many unreported attacks happen in Indonesian waters. It advised ships to remain vigilant, report all actual and attempted attacks, and adopt anti-piracy measures.


Of the 264 attempted and actual attacks last year, 33 were listed in the IMB report as serious incidents and described in more detail. They took place in Gabon, the Ivory Coast, Malacca Straits, Malaysia, Nigeria, Somalia, the South China Sea and Togo. Three of the serious incidents were attacks on Singaporean or Singapore flagged ships. In one attack on Feb 22 last year, a Singaporean general cargo ship in Nigeria was chased and fired at by about six armed pirates. The alarm was raised and anti-piracy measures were activated, among other actions. The pirates eventually aborted their attempt to board the ship, and no injuries to the crew were reported, although the ship sustained some damages due to the firing. In another attack in Nigeria on June 13 last year, armed pirates successfully boarded a Singapore flagged tug. They kidnapped four crewmembers, and stole the crew’s personal belongings and valuables. The kidnapped crewmembers were released on June 21, and it is believed a ransom was paid.


Maritime Security News Note:
There are a number of points to take issue with in this article. To begin with, the suggestion that piracy is “on the wane” itself. Ask any senior naval officer working with the coalition forces in the Indian Ocean and they will tell you that piracy, certainly in the East African High Risk Area, is contained rather than on the wane. The naval ‘police’ are there, but so are opportunist pirates, as the ongoing reports of suspicious activity where ladders and firearms are sighted suggest, as do the continued warnings of pirates attempting to gauge the level of security on merchant ships.

Then we come to the fact that this piece again only looks at the International Maritime Bureau’s (IMB) statistics. By their own admission, the IMB does not log incidents not directly reported to them. So immediately their figures have to be questioned, despite the fact that the world’s media seems to treat the numbers as absolute. They do a great job, but they are not the only ones out there, as ReCAAP and the various information sharing centres will attest.

What are the reasons for the drop in pirate attacks? Is it navies? At the risk of banging the drum for private maritime security companies, I personally believe that, while the naval coalition has done well interdicting pirate action groups and making themselves more visible, the real reason pirate attacks have become less common is simple: armed guards on ships. A merchant ship is a reasonably secure platform from which to fire a semi-automatic assault rifle compared to a skiff bobbing about in the swell. I know which one I would rather be aboard.

If you’re a pirate, do you attack a ship which clearly has armed men on board? Probably not.

The truth is, of course, that there are still pirates out there, but many are engaged in criminality onshore until conditions improve for them at sea. The combination of naval forces, armed guards and Best Management Practice by the shipping industry has done a great job of dissuading them.

In Asia, meanwhile, “piracy” is far more likely to be armed robbery at sea or simple robbery at anchor than ‘proper’ piracy. West Africa remains a murky law unto itself, with crew kidnapping, armed robbery at sea and hijack for cargo theft still a huge issue, along with under-reporting and an apparent lack of will to actually jail pirates for their actions. When was the last time you read about a high profile piracy trial in a Gulf of Guinea state?

Finally, one item of particular interest; Noel Choong’s comment about under-reporting of piracy incidents and maritime crime. If the IMB themselves estimate that more than half of pirate attacks go unreported, just what is the true picture of maritime crime on the world’s oceans?



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