The challenges today of responding to piracy and the role of the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre

Michael Howlett, 18 Sep 2009

In recent years there have been notable increases in global piracy. These increases are almost entirely due to the activity of pirates off the coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden. In response to this increase in Somali piracy, a number of international navies are coordinating their efforts in attempting to provide safe passage around the Horn of Africa. Ships crews and owners are far more aware of the dangers and the preventative measures they can take. Given the prevailing anarchic political conditions in Somalia, the vigilance of merchant ships and international naval policing around the country’s coastal waters will continue to be required. The International Marine Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre is a key global actor in disseminating information on piracy and coordinating international responses towards it.

In 2008, the International Marine Bureau (IMB) Piracy Reporting Centre (PRC) received 293 reports of piracy and armed robbery against ships worldwide. This represents an increase from 263 in 2007 and 239 in 2006. There had actually been a fall in the number of pirate attacks for three years prior to 2006. A total of 49 vessels were successfully hijacked in 2008 with almost 900 crew members taken hostage. The first six months of 2009 have already witnessed 240 incidents reported with 31 vessels hijacked. Somali pirates are responsible for 30 of the hijacked vessels.

There were 111 attacks off the coasts of Somalia in 2008 of which 42 vessels have been hijacked and some 828 crew taken hostage. Ninety two vessels were targeted in the Gulf of Aden including 30 vessels hijacked. Nineteen ships were targeted off the eastern Somali coast including ten successful hijackings.

In the first six months of 2009, Somali pirates have targeted 136 vessels, resulting in 30 vessels hijacked and 497 crew taken hostage. The vessels are held by pirates in anchorages from Harardheere to Eyl on the East Coast of Somalia. In March and April of 2009, and in addition to targeting ships in the Gulf of Aden, Somali pirates increased their activities off the Indian Ocean. The attacks in the Indian Ocean currently occur close to 600 miles off the Somali coast. In late May and early June, suspected Somali pirates also began to target ships in the southern part of the Red Sea and one vessel was successfully hijacked by Somali pirates off the eastern coast of Oman. This continues to illustrate that distances from the coast is not a limitation to Somali pirate operations.

While in other high risk areas the attacks can include low level armed theft from the vessel, in Somalia every attack is aimed at a hijacking the ship, crew and cargo for ransom. Every unsuccessful attack should therefore be viewed as a failed hijacking. Large vessels have been seized well off the Somali coast in attacks launched from pirate mother ships. A loaded VLCC (very large crude carrier) of 318,000 tonnes deadweight was hijacked 450 miles south east of Mogadishu and taken back to the Somali coast.

From every perspective, the phenomenon of Somali piracy is unprecedented and has spiralled out of control. Crews and owners feel vulnerable and rightly believe that once a vessel is hijacked no one will come to their assistance. Insurance premiums for Gulf of Aden transits have substantially increased. Owners of major fleets are routing their vessels around the Cape of Good Hope rather than run the gauntlet of pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden.

Even today, the attacks in the Somali basin are continuing. The number of successful hijackings is, however, reducing. This is due to increased naval presence and to increased anti-piracy measures adopted by the ships themselves.

Actions by navies
Somalia by its own admission is unable to respond to this criminal upsurge. Its neighbouring states have limited resources to effectively deal with the problem. The only forces who have the capability to respond are the navies of third countries operating off the Horn of Africa. In today’s highly trade-dependent world, the protection of a major international waterway should be a key priority of the navies.

The IMB PRC works closely with all the naval commands with vessels in the region. It has been the IMB PRC’s experience that once information of the attack has been passed to the naval commands, if there is a naval vessel in the vicinity able to respond they will do so. Numerous attempted attacks have been prevented as a result. Pirates normally withdraw when they see a naval vessel or helicopter heading in their direction.

Today there are naval vessels from the EU Task Force, the US 5th Fleet, the French, Russian, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Turkish, Saudi Arabia and other navies. The waters off the northern and eastern coasts of Somalia stretch for hundreds of miles and these naval units are necessary to protect merchant shipping. Nevertheless, it is impossible to prevent every hijacking if the navies are purely reactive.

It is vital that vessels suspected of being mother ships be targeted for further investigation. It is the mother ship that is facilitating the attack and enabling the smaller attack crafts or skiffs to target vessels hundreds of miles from the coast. The IMB PRC obtains information on suspected mother ships from Masters transiting the area. In some cases the description of the mother ships and their location are known and passed on to the naval commands. The naval units should interdict the mother ships and try and board them. If as a result, a large number of arms or inexplicable numbers of “crew” are on board, a few options are possible. Firstly the arms may be confiscated or the vessel escorted to a nearby port for further investigation and a port state control inspection/detention. The disrupting of the operations of the pirates in this way forces risks and costs upon them. It prevents many potential attacks that the mother ship might have launched.

There continues to be a problem in finding suitable countries to hand over apprehended pirates for prosecution. Some have been handed over to neighbouring countries for prosecution. More than 100 pirates are awaiting trial in Kenya with approximately a further 50 held in the Seychelles. The legal basis for such action by the navies is in Article 110 of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and the recent UN Security Council Resolutions (UNSCR), particularly UNSCR 1846 and 1851.

Somali pirates today feel they operate with impunity - maximum return for zero risk. To deter them it is essential to change this perception.

The navies face their own challenges. It is unclear what a naval vessel is to do if they intervene and take pirates prisoner. There has been only one flag state and two neighbouring countries in the region which has accepted prisoners for investigation and prosecution. Naval vessels will understandably hesitate to intervene once hijackers have taken over a vessel and are holding crew hostage. Concern over the safety of the hostages may preclude armed intervention except in exceptional circumstances.

International navies are, however, the only effective response against Somali piracy. It is imperative that their presence in the region is maintained and built upon.

What can vessels do to protect themselves?
Industry associations have put together a Best Management Practice (BMP) in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia which details measures that vessels should adopt as they sail through pirate high risk areas.

The IMB was one of the organisations which contributed to the formulation of the BMP. The BMP contains information on how Masters can avoid, deter and possibly delay pirates from boarding and hijacking your vessel. The BMP has recently been revised and may be found on

The BMP recommends that Masters keep a sharp lookout for attack craft when transiting these waters. The further away the attack craft have been sighted the more time it gives the Master to raise the alarm and send messages to the IMB PRC, the navies and other vessels in the vicinity. Typically the attack craft (usually two or more) will approach the vessel firing automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenades on the accommodation block. Vessels that have managed to avoid being hijacked have all maintained or increased speed and manoeuvred aggressively to prevent the attack craft drawing up alongside. Heading into the swell, using the bow and stern wave to make it uncomfortable (and an unstable firing platform) for the approaching boats is a tactic used successfully by some Masters. Normally there will be a mother ship lurking in the vicinity of the attack. If the mother ship can be identified, heading away from the mother ship will draw the attack craft away from their comfort zone. These and other tactics used in combination have resulted in the attack craft giving up the chase after about 30-40 minutes and heading for an easier target.

Nigeria is also a high risk country. Unlike Somalia, however, Nigeria has an elected and democratically accountable government.

A total of 13 incidents were reported to the IMB PRC off the Nigerian coast in the first six months of 2009. There exists a problem of under reporting in Nigeria. This is evidenced by the fact that at least 24 additional attacks occurred in the same period, which have not been directly reported to the IMB PRC.

The majority of attacks are against vessels supporting the oil industry and are particularly violent in nature. There is a need, therefore, for each and every incident to be reported and brought to the attention of the Nigerian authorities. This is the only way in which the true risk associated to the area can be determined and accurate advice be given to shipmasters, owners and traders.

The reporting of attacks
It is vital that all attacks and attempted attacks globally are reported by the Masters at the time of or shortly after the attack. This is the first essential step in the response chain. Governments need data to determine the scale of the problem and to allocate resources to deal with this crime. It is obvious that the system for masters to report attacks should be made as easy as possible. Ships sail across territorial waters and jurisdictions. In the stressful aftermath of an attack the last thing the Master needs is to search around for the contact details of the nearest law enforcement agency and file his report.

The IMB PRC remains the only 24 hour manned centre geared up to receive reports of attacks on vessels wherever they are in the world. Every report is immediately passed on to the nearest law enforcement agency for their action. It is undoubtedly the most convenient way for a Master / ship owner to communicate these reports. The PRC has been instrumental is preventing a number of attempted hijackings and also in the successful recovery of a number of hijacked ships.

Success against piracy
Whilst the situation regarding Somali piracy has deteriorated, there have also been some noticeable geographic areas of improvement in recent years.

The first that deserves mention is the Malacca Straits. Since 2004, there has been a steady decline in the number of reported incidents in this strategic chokepoint. The reduction is directly attributable to the increased cooperation and patrols between the littoral states Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. In 2004, 38 reports were received compared to two in 2008. There can however be no room for complacency and the patrols must be maintained.

The second area or country of improvement is Indonesia. Once again there has been a steady and constant year-on-year decline in the number of incidents in the Indonesian archipelago. In 2004, a total of 94 incidents were reported. In every successive year has seen a reduction in the number of incidents. A total of 26 incidents were reported in 2008 and Indonesia should be applauded.

The third country that deserves mention is that of Bangladesh. In 2006, 47 incidents were recorded. All but one of these incidents were attacks against vessels at anchorage at the port of Chittagong. The attacks were low level incidents – or maritime muggings – where armed attackers would board vessels looking to steal items from the ship or from the crew. Fifteen reports were received for 2007 and 12 for 2008.

The IMB and the response to piracy
Piracy does not take place in countries in Western Europe or Singapore where there are strong maritime law enforcement regimes. It takes place in countries with civil wars, serious law enforcement problems and a lack of resources. The challenge is to motivate the governments in these countries to give priority and resources to their agencies to deal with piracy, a crime they do not often see as being high on their local political agenda.

Stimulating such action by these hard pressed governments requires independent pressure from an international body, backed up by a completely transparent set of statistics which are not subject to political manipulation or diplomatic understatement. This is what the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) seeks to achieve. The IMB can provide the catalyst for change in a way that no government / inter-government centre can. It is often the case that the IMB approach initially attracts criticism by governments in the high risk areas, but they act upon it and we see change and improvement. Such actions by law enforcement agencies are always publicly commended by the IMB. This has worked in the South China Sea, East Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, India and many others in the past 17 years that the IMB PRC has operated. Any country or organization serious about maritime security recognizes the unique value IMB adds.

Fighting piracy is not a competitive issue. The IMB believes that we should build on the current structures, not try to detract from them. The reporting of incidents should remain with the IMB PRC – for shipmasters it is the easiest way to report attacks – where most such reports are received. The IMB records are totally transparent. They are not subject to a veil of secrecy and “security” restrictions. The IMB’s position is that information at this level should always be available for the benefit of the maritime community.

The IMB PRC is run on donations from the industry and the shortfall every year is met from other anti-fraud activities of the IMB. The services of the PRC are free of cost to ship owners and Masters at all times. The PRC is located in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

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Michael Howlett

Michael Howlett, Divisional Director of the ICC International Maritime Bureau

Michael Howlett is a Divisional Director of the ICC International Maritime Bureau, London. He addressed the Marine Client Forum on Piracy at the Swiss Re Centre for Global Dialogue, 19 May 2009.

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