FleetMon in Research: A Closer Look Into the Scourge of Piracy

in Trends by

On September 25th, 2008, the vessel FAINA entered the Gulf of Aden, one of the most notorious pirate hotspots in the world, where the ship was hijacked, and the crew was taken hostage. FAINA carried military hardware that included tanks, military vehicles, aircraft artillery, rocket batteries, machine guns, RPG, etc. Given their sensitive cargo, it was expected that best efforts would be placed, and the vessel would be freed soon. However, only after five months, a Ukrainian Billionaire paid the negotiated ransom of 3.2 million dollars, FAINA was freed [1][2].

The Somali pirates holding the merchant vessel MV FAINA stand on the deck of the ship after a U.S. Navy request to check on the health and welfare of the ships crew. The Belize-flagged cargo ship, owned and operated by Kaalbye Shipping, Ukraine, was seized by pirates Sept. 25 and forced to proceed to anchorage off the Somali coast. The ship is carrying a cargo of Ukrainian T-72 tanks and related military equipment. ©U.S. Navy photo by Mass communication Specialist 2nd Class Jason R. Zalasky

Pirates have often been portrayed as swashbuckling adventurers, but that is something miles away from reality. In today’s world, pirates pose an immediate threat to seafarers and cost hundreds of millions of dollars to the global economy. Let’s understand how this piracy affects global trade, what risks it poses to the maritime industry, and how we, sitting miles away in our homes, are indirectly affected by it.

How Piracy Affects More Than Just the Seafarers

Apart from the hundreds of millions of dollars paid directly as ransom, piracy costs the affected economies billions in lost trade and government revenue. According to the Oceans Beyond Piracy State of Piracy report 2018, the direct costs to shippers included $367.3 million for contracted security, $39.2 million for additional insurance, $4 million for ship protection, and $111 million for additional labor [4]. The world bank has placed the loss due to piracy to be 1% of the value of all goods transiting in the region [3], this brings in inefficiency in the system and adds to the cost of transportation.

The Different Strains of Piracy

Pirates in the Gulf of Guinea

Piracy is different in different parts of the world. Each has a distinct operations model in the Gulf of Guinea, the South China Sea, the Latin American coasts, or the infamous Somalia region. Presently, the pirates in the Gulf of Guinea and near West Africa are the most prolific and dangerous in the world. Piracy here in the early 2010s was mostly focused on the theft of crude oil and other related products [3]. Pirates of the Gulf of Guinea would steal oil, primarily crude oil, from cargo ships and then either sell it on the black market or refine themselves in makeshift refineries [5]. A notorious case is MT KERALA, where 12,000 metric tonnes of diesel were stolen from the tanker in 2014 [3]. However, these pirates have now shifted their focus. In 2015, as much as 80% of the incidents of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea were characterized by Oceans Beyond Piracy as crimes of robbery and hijacking for theft [4], but things changed when the oil prices changed. The oil price was $110.62 per barrel in 2013, and it fell to $36.81 in 2016. With oil being less profitable, pirates moved into kidnapping [3].

Gulf of Guinea in ©FleetMon Explorer

Pirates in the South China Sea

The model of piracy in the South China Sea is different. Here robbery is more prevalent than kidnapping. In the region, there is a complex tussle between the governments of the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and China for laying claim on these waters. International territorial disputes thus make patrolling and conducting counter-piracy operations extremely difficult, with naval forces of neighboring countries occasionally locking horns. Once captured, however, the pirates are swiftly prosecuted by countries as the area is in its exclusive economic zone. Though thousands of islands dot the area, providing a great haven for pirates to base their operations, piracy incidents are less prevalent compared in Somalia or the Gulf of Guinea. This is because incidents of piracy in an exclusive economic zone, which is in the country’s sovereign territory, are little different from an incident of robbery on the mainland of the country in question. This provides the legal channel for the countries to prosecute captured pirates.

There were only three confirmed incidents of pirates using guns of the total 103 incidents in the South China Seas. The majority of these incidents take place in the hours of darkness. Robbers are usually unarmed or armed with long knives, and violence during attacks is usually low. Engine spares and ship stores are the usual pickings for the pirates [6].

In the past, more organized pirates have managed to vanish entire ships in these waters. On February 6th, 2010, a tugboat, ASTA disappeared off the island of Tiaman, Malaysia. Two months later, another tugboat, the ATLANTIC 3, went missing near Batam Island, Indonesia. This bore all the markings of an organized crime syndicate as in the region also exists a thriving second-hand market for tugboats, where repainted vessels are sold under new names and flags with forged documents.

ATLANTIC 3 was recovered 2,500 kilometers away from where it was hijacked. The ship had new papers, a new flag, and a new name, MARLYN 8, on its side. The authorities found the vessel whose name was being cut away with gas torches. The case of ASTA was also similar. The Philippine coast guard found it. It had been renamed ROXY-I but had the same IMO number as ASTA [7][8]. In each case, the vessel returned to the original owner. However, the pirates had already succeeded in selling the stolen ship.

The Journey of Somali Pirates

The fall of a dictatorship in Somalia in the 1990s was followed by political destabilization and social unrest in the country. Fishing was a significant source of employment in the region. Still, with no government in place, foreign deep-water fishers stole as much as $300 million of fish from Somalian coastal waters every year [11]. To make things worse for Somalia, the ‘Ndrangheta, a criminal organization from Italy, dumped toxic and radioactive waste off the Somalian coast. The radioactive barrels and containers washed ashore when the Indonesian Tsunami hit in 2004. The Somali NGO Daryeel Bulsho Guud found concrete evidence of radioactive and chemical waste in 2006 [10].

Fishermen here were forced to defend their fishing expeditions from foreign trawlers. The earliest pirates were frustrated fishermen who boarded the fishing vessels and demanded a “fishing fee.” This involved holding the vessel for 24 hours for around $50,000. Later, more pirates banded together and claimed to be the de facto coast guard, protecting the oceans till the government could pull itself back together. They came into the global spotlight much later when they graduated to targeting cargo vessels.

Over time developed, a complicated and organized structure that benefited from piracy. Pirate bosses and investors started to put the money upfront for a piracy operation. A well-funded operation has a mother ship with two or three boats, 25-30 people that are well armed and trained, and weapons with at least one RPG. After the successful piracy attack, the ship and crew must be hidden away. This is where Somalia’s lack of a powerful government worked in the pirates’ favor.

Some ports and local communities take a 10% cut of the ransom for housing the vessels and the hostages. 30% of the ransom goes to the initial investors. The leftover money is split between the attack crew, with a bonus of around $10,000 for the pirate who boards the ship first [9]. It is estimated that US$339 million to US$413 million was claimed in ransoms for pirate acts off the coast of Somalia and the Horn of Africa between April 2005 and December 2012 [9].

The piracy trend in Somalia also changed, as there has not been a single successful attack since March 2017 in the region [12]. This can be attributed to several factors, such as regular patrolling of foreign navy ships, the presence of arms guards on board cargo vessels, and the emergence of other lucrative options for Somalian pirate bosses. It is reported that the pirate bosses had diversified into human trafficking, gun smuggling, influencing political elections, and so on. However, the IMB still has a warning against Somali pirates as they are still a potential threat [13].

Defense Against Piracy

There are measures that a vessel can adopt to reduce its chances of being boarded by pirates. These include having an anti-piracy plan, being aware of the latest warnings and alerts, and trying to pass the high-risk area at high speed. The AIS system is recommended to remain switched on and only broadcast limited data while transiting the high-risk areas so that the military vessels can track the ship. Installation of motion sensor systems, hardening doors, having a citadel where the crew may retreat to when attacked, etc., are some anti-piracy measures that ships take to deter pirates. A concertina razor wire of good tensile strength can be fastened securely to make the boarding of pirates difficult so that the crew can get time to hide in citadels.

It is highly recommended that drills are carried out rehearsing the scenario of a pirate attack to keep the crew well prepared for handling piracy situations. Boiling water can also be sprayed off the side of the ships, making it difficult for boats to remain at the side. And, of course, trained private security professionals are always great at deterring pirates [14][15].


Piracy has been around for hundreds of years. The silver bullet against piracy is none other than economics. Gunboats and suppression of piracy by force are only short-term measures and are present due to the lack of a better alternative. Developing a robust system to handle the pirates after they are arrested is a great start. A joint effort of private and government organizations in developing the foundations of the countries where piracy originates is the only way out.

Research & Development at FleetMon

At FleetMon, we have not only created the world’s first vessel database, but we are also very passionate about research and development. We motivate scientists, institutes, and universities to use our powerful and customized API solutions and provide access to our historical vessel position database.

We currently support Anup Phayal, Ph.D., an associate professor from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. He is seeking to understand the factors causing maritime piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.

Find out more about him

Dr. Anup Phayal has an MSc degree from the London School of Economics and a doctorate from the University of Kentucky. Throughout his career, he has published authoritative work on how social, political, and economic factors influence crime and violence. His works on this complex phenomenon also seek to inform policy making. He has received numerous awards and, most recently, a grant from the MINERVA Research Initiative for his collaborated research on maritime crime in South East Asia. He has many peer-reviewed articles in esteemed international journals and has contributed pivotal chapters to critically acclaimed Foreign Policy and International Relations books. He has been a reviewer for many international journals and has served as a UN peacekeeper in more than one country.

At a very early age, Dr. Phayal was fascinated with the social dynamics and the more intricate workings of armed conflicts between state and non-state actors. Following his interests, he pursued an academic career where he could study and research topics related to conflict, peace, and security. 

Currently, he is working to understand the intricacies of the world of maritime piracy; how factors such as inequality, poverty, opportunity, and inter-state relations help foster piracy. He collaborated with Dr. Brandon Prins at the University of Tennessee in building a reliable dataset of all piracy events worldwide. It facilitated the testing of hypotheses regarding the causes and effects of piracy. His most recent undertaking is uncovering a possible nexus between illegal fishers and pirates.

Dr. Phayal continues his work in building a safer and more secure maritime space, offering political solutions to the problem of piracy that is both adaptive and resilient.

We provide him with the data he needs and we will post regular updates on his research on our FleetMon blog.

List of References

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MV_Faina

[2] Ross Kemp: In Search Of Pirates in South East Asia (Episode 3) | Full Documentary | True Crime| https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4TNgh5f7cIk&t=3s

[3] Pirates of the Gulf of Guinea: A Cost Analysis for Coastal States | https://www.stableseas.org/post/pirates-of-the-gulf-of-guinea-a-cost-analysis-for-coastal-states

[4] Oceans Beyond piracy: State of piracy report 2018 | https://www.stableseas.org/post/state-of-maritime-piracy-2018

[5] Pirates are Running Wild off West Africa’s Coast | System Error | https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6XtuPck0b4U

[6] State of Maritime Piracy 2020. | https://www.stableseas.org/post/state-of-maritime-piracy-2020#:~:text=The%20State%20of%20Maritime%20Piracy,of%20the%20Stable%20Seas%20program

[7] Asta Found | https://www.recaap.org/resources/ck/files/alerts/2010/Incident%20Update-ASTA%20Found%20(25%20Feb%2010).pdf

[8] Atlantic 3 tugboat found | https://www.recaap.org/resources/ck/files/alerts/2010/Incident%20Update-Atlantic%203%20(19%20May%2010).pdf

[9] Pirate Trails: Tracking the Illicit Financial Flows from Piracy off the Horn of Africa | https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/financialsector/publication/pirate-trails-tracking-the-illicit-financial-flows-from-piracy-off-the-horn-of-africa

[10] Toxic waste dumping by the ‘Ndrangheta | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toxic_waste_dumping_by_the_%27Ndrangheta#:~:text=Alleged%20delivery%20of%20toxic%20waste%20to%20Somalia,-Both%20Fonti%20and&text=Fonti%20claims%20that%20Italian%20TV,waste%20arrive%20in%20Bosaso%2C%20Somalia

[11] How Somalia’s Fishermen Became Pirates | http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1892376,00.html

[12] United Nations Security Council Resolution 2068 (2021)[12] https://news.un.org/pages/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/UN-GCRG-Brief-1.pdf

[13] The Desert and the Sea: 977 Days Captive on the Somali Pirate Coast

[14] Best Management Practices 5th Issue | https://www.steamshipmutual.com/sites/default/files/downloads/loss-prevention/BMP%25205.pdf

[15] Global Counter Piracy Guidance | https://www.steamshipmutual.com/sites/default/files/downloads/loss-prevention/global-counter-piracy-guidance.pdf