Piracy and Armed Robbery
An evolving threat on both coasts
Though terrorism is a growing concern in some regions, the most significant challenge to effective maritime governance and security across sub-Saharan Africa is piracy and armed robbery at sea. Piracy and armed robbery are distinguished by geography. Attacks beyond a state’s territorial sea are classified as piracy, those within are armed robbery. In either case, these crimes endanger seafarers, threaten commerce, fund violent actors, and enable transnational criminal networks. The piracy and armed robbery score measures a country’s proximity to piracy and armed robbery incidents using data from Oceans Beyond Piracy’s annual State of Piracy report.1
High scores for rule of law and coastal welfare are related to low incidence of piracy and armed robbery. Waters with the least piracy and armed robbery also have the highest fisheries scores.
This section is divided into four parts. The first will discuss the three primary models of piracy: kidnap for ransom, hijacking for cargo theft, and robbery. The second and third will provide overviews of violence at sea in the Gulf of Guinea and the Horn of Africa, respectively. Finally, the section concludes with a summary of the methodology.
Three Models of Piracy
Kidnapping, robbery, hijacking
As with other crimes perpetrated at sea, piracy and armed robbery are challenging to address. This is compounded by disincentives to reporting that have led to massive underreporting, such that the scope of the problem is not fully understood. Regardless of the true scale of piracy and armed robbery at sea, there are three dominant models for successful attacks.
Kidnap for Ransom
In kidnap for ransom attacks, perpetrators aim to capture a vessel and its crew and hold them— sometimes onshore—until a ransom payment is received. Historically, kidnap for ransom attacks are most closely associated with East African pirate groups, but a considerable increase in the number of these attacks was observed in West Africa in 2016.
Some regional variations of this model exist. In East Africa, pirate groups generally take the entire crew and their vessel hostage. In West Africa, kidnappers tend to target high-ranking members of the crew, such as the captain or other officers. These crew members are then removed from the vessel and held onshore. The duration of captivity also varies. West African kidnappers typically hold their hostages between two and four weeks, compared to months or years in East Africa. In either case, the victims are subjected to considerable amounts of cruel treatment.
Hijacking for Cargo Theft
Hijacking for cargo theft entails perpetrators attacking a tanker and siphoning its oil while the crew is temporarily held captive onboard. The oil is then sold through black market channels. This form of piracy has been especially prevalent in the Gulf of Guinea, though the rise in kidnap for ransom attacks has corresponded with a decline in hijackings for cargo theft.
Robberies occur when perpetrators board a vessel and steal ship stores, equipment, and/or personal effects from the crew. They most often take place in port or at anchorage and differ from kidnappings in that profits come from the sale of stolen goods rather than the ransoming of a ship, its crew or cargo.
Gulf of Guinea
The Global Hotspot for Piracy, Armed Robbery, and Extractives Crime
The Gulf of Guinea has earned its reputation for being the most dangerous area of transit in the world for seafarers. Since 2013, attacks in West Africa have occurred at much higher frequency than in East Africa. There were 100 estimated attacks in the Gulf of Guinea in 2013 compared to 23 off the Somali coast.2 In 2016, 95 attacks were reported in the Gulf of Guinea compared to 27 attacks in the Horn of Africa. This difference is particularly significant in terms of the human cost. Nearly 1,400 more seafarers were subjected to attacks in the Gulf of Guinea than off the coast of Somalia.3
While the number of attacks has remained high in recent years, the model of piracy has gradually shifted.
PIRACY INCIDENTS BY TYPE, GULF OF GUINEA
- Highjack for cargo theft
The Niger Delta has an abundance of oil wealth, and criminal networks have historically turned to hijacking for cargo theft for a cut of the region’s riches. This takes place when a vessel is commandeered, its tracking devices disabled, its crew held captive, and its cargo siphoned off onto a smaller ship and sold on the black market. This process is time-consuming and logistically complex. As naval activity has increased since 2013, and Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari made cracking down on oil theft a hallmark of his administration since 2015, the number of hijackings for cargo theft has fallen drastically while kidnap for ransom attacks, a much faster and less resource-intensive crime, have been on the rise.
In 2014, there were 5 incidents of hijacking for cargo theft and 15 kidnap for ransom attacks. By 2016, hijacking for cargo theft incidents had dropped by 80 percent while kidnap for ransom attacks rose by nearly 30 percent from 2015. Though captured crew members spend relatively little time in captivity compared to historical averages in East Africa, the high turnover of hostages and the frequency of armed attacks results in a high level of violence.
While piracy attacks have shifted away from hijacking for cargo theft to kidnapping for ransom, oil theft in the Delta has not disappeared. Well-armed rebel groups successfully attacked several high-value, strategic targets in 2016, including Shell’s Forcados oil pipeline, Chevron’s Okan platform, and the largest export terminal in Nigeria, ExxonMobil’s Qua Iboe. These incidents reflect continued interest in disrupting the business of foreign oil companies through illicit activities.
The Horn of Africa and the Bab el-Mandeb
At the peak of piracy between 2008 and 2012, thousands of seafarers and their vessels were taken hostage. In response, the international community spent billions of dollars to protect vessels transiting the Western Indian Ocean: international navies deployed to the region, East African judicial systems absorbed the impact of piracy trials, and merchant vessels began to apply vessel self-protection measures, including re-routing around or increasing speeds through the High Risk Area.
While no merchant vessels were hijacked between 2012 and 2017, pirate groups took a number of smaller, more vulnerable vessels, demonstrating their continued intention to hijack ships and their crews. In the spring of 2017, after almost five years without a successful attack on a merchant vessel, pirates hijacked Aris-13. In the weeks that followed, pirate groups operating off the coast of Somalia hijacked four additional vessels.
Though down from its peak, piracy remains a threat around the Horn of Africa. Maritime terrorism is an emerging hazard.
Maritime terrorism incident
Attacks on five vessels in the Bab el-Mandeb strait in the last quarter of 2016 raised concerns over increasing maritime instability there. The trend continued into 2017 with Oceans Beyond Piracy recording an increase in suspicious activity in the Bab el-Mandeb, including sightings of naval mines and marine-borne improvised explosive devices.4
The full extent to which these violent incidents might impact the international community has yet to be seen, but vessel traffic transiting the Gulf of Aden must continue to be vigilant.
Data and Methods
How we created the Piracy and Armed Robbery score
The piracy and armed robbery score is measured by the proximity of incidents to the coastline. Incidents are classified as piracy or armed robbery using the classification system of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which relies on the definition of piracy in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). According to Article 101 of UNCLOS 1982:
Piracy consists of any of the following acts:
(a) any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft, and directed:
(i) on the high seas, against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board such ship or aircraft;
(ii) against a ship, aircraft, persons or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any State;
(b) any act of voluntary participation in the operation of a ship or of an aircraft with knowledge of facts making it a pirate ship or aircraft;
(c) any act of inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act described in subparagraph (a) or (b).
The IMO clarifies the definition of armed robbery as:
1) Any illegal act of violence or detention or any act of depredation, or threat thereof, other than an act of piracy, committed for private ends and directed against a ship or against persons or property on board such a ship, within a State’s internal waters, archipelagic waters and territorial sea;
2) Any act of inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act described above.
The principal difference between piracy and armed robbery is geography. Piracy takes place in international waters, including the high seas, EEZs, and contiguous zones. Armed robbery occurs in territorial and internal waters.
Because many attacks occur just outside a nation’s EEZ, this score is not calculated as a simple count of events within an EEZ. Rather, it measures a nation’s proximity to incidents of piracy and armed robbery.
More details about all of these scores are available on our data page.