Industry » Features » Piracy: Disarming the Media Hype

Piracy: Disarming the Media Hype

Smali pirates 2 4

There is no doubt that piracy is a real threat that requires a definitive and robust response. Few disagree that media reporting is vital in maintaining the debate over the security of vessels to ensure safe passage. But does the mainstream media distort and sensationalise the real dangers?

Is there a disproportionate focus on piracy while other threats remain unreported? 

Likewise, how fair is the portrayal of security firms simply as ‘hired guns’ or ‘brutes in suits’, and where do armed guards sit in the broader picture of maritime security?

In this two-part feature, OnboardOnline consults a wide range of leading industry professionals, including regulators, intelligence agencies and maritime security providers, to dispel some myths around the perception of threat (both at sea and in port) and misconceptions about the industry’s response, to get a clearer understanding of maritime security in today’s world.

The obsession with piracy

‘There is an almost morbid fascination with piracy’.  So says Steven Jones, Maritime Director of The Security Association for the Maritime Industry (SAMI). The world’s obsession with pirates barely needs explaining; they have fascinated us ever since Captain Charles Johnson’s 'A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates' became a bestseller in 1724.  Although today’s pirates are far removed from the swashbuckling adventurers of old, the perceived danger, violence, and allure continue to enthral the general public, stacking up column inches. Meanwhile, movies such as the recent Hollywood treatment, ‘Captain Phillips’, and the subtle, stark Danish noir, ‘Kapringen’ (A Hijacking), continue to feed the public's appetite for this macabre topic.

Somali Pirates 600When you think of modern piracy, most likely you think of Somalia. We’ve all heard the stories about attacks off Somalia’s coastline, especially in the Gulf of Aden. Sometimes barely a week goes by without another chilling headline of armed hijackings – attempted or successful – with crews held at ransom by ‘lawless, bloodthirsty rogues’. The tabloid press savours these stories. Speaking of ‘gangs of gun-toting Somali pirates’, the UK’s Daily Mail (a rag not heralded for its subtlety) uses the terms ‘dhow’ and ‘pirate ship’ interchangeably. More disturbingly, another article in the Daily Mail effectively ridicules the US Navy by reporting the alleged use of Britney Spears' two biggest hits ‘Baby One More Time’ and ‘Oops I did it again’ to scare off Somali pirates who hate Western culture. If only it were that simple.

Somali piracy has been a persistent concern over the last decade, causing significant disruption, anxiety, and harm to yachting and shipping alike. The Security & Defence Agenda (SDA) – a Brussels-based think tank founded to address concerns of NATO, the EU and beyond – recently reported on the broader effects: ‘Maritime piracy has over time become one of the gravest security threats in Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden. It has led to maritime and human insecurity and interrupted delivery of shipments, increasing shipping expenses. Food aid deliveries have also been disrupted.’

The resulting media attention and bad publicity have had a negative effect on trade, creating pressure to step up international efforts to keep the threat at bay – and with some success. Key speakers at a recent summit co-organised by the United States Mission to the European Union and U.S. Mission to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) suggested that piracy in the Gulf of Aden has – temporarily, at least – been all but wiped out.

As Rear Admiral Giorgio Lazio, Chief of Staff of NATO’s Maritime Command asserts, with a cautionary note, ‘Piracy at the moment is not an issue in the Gulf of Aden not because the pirates are gone. There are too many ships patrolling and too much security.’  However, if the core issues underpinning piracy haven’t been addressed, then critics are right to question if this model is sustainable. Robert G. Bell, Senior Civilian Representative of the Secretary of Defense in Europe and Defense Advisor to the U.S. Ambassador to NATO, thinks not: ‘Sending out a multi-capable ship with crew to wait for pirates is not optimal use of resources in times of austerity.’

OO Quinsec binoculars Hanjin cropped 600Koen Vervaeke, European External Action Service (EEAS) Director for the Horn of Africa, suggests an alternative approach longterm: ‘The permanent solution is capacity building on land. Maritime crime has not been cured; we have only suppressed piracy.’ We spoke to the operations team at Allmode International Security Services, a comprehensive service that equips shipping companies and yacht captains with up-to-date intelligence globally, as well as providing training to crews. In response, the Operations Director says: ‘This is just the sort of remark that needs to be enforced within the greater market place. Reducing the Naval or PMSC [private maritime security company] presence will only increase the pirates' ability to re-engage with commercial and private vessels.’  Clearly the status quo is fragile.

Nevertheless, with the Somali threat apparently at bay while international patrols remain, should we be focusing more on other maritime threats? Industry insiders say a resounding ‘yes’, since the level of piracy in other regions is equally significant but far less reported. As Michael Frodl of C-LEVEL Maritime Risks, a US-based intelligence agency, notes, ‘Piracy is a threat all over - in the North West Indian Ocean Rim, the Gulf of Guinea, South East Asia, and in the Caribbean’.

Another member of the Allmode operations team agrees that the press fixation on the Horn of Africa obscures the broader picture: 'There has been a surge in piracy in Southeast Asia, particularly in the maritime trading hub of the Malacca Straits, between Malaysia and Indonesia.’  The statistics are revealing of this upwards trend which began around 2010.  ‘Attacks in the region topped 150 last year…  Last month the International Maritime Bureau said that there had been 23 actual or attempted attacks in Southeast Asian waters between January and March, mainly off Indonesia, but piracy off West Africa, and some parts of the Caribbean are other areas of concern.’  

Facing up to the wider threats

There are numerous other threats that mariners have to contend with, at sea and in port, in the form of lone chancers, small gangs, and large, highly organized criminal organisations. These threats are rife but rarely reported (we launch a survey on this subject later this month).

HMS Monmouth counter piracy measures flikr 600Consequently, Allmode emphasise the need to differentiate between ‘piracy’ and other types of waterborne criminality. ‘It is important to distinguish between piracy on the high seas, which is generally well reported, and maritime crime that occurs within the territorial waters of a nation state. Maritime crime within territorial waters is a matter for Coastguards and the Police and may often be under reported. Maritime crime includes acts of terrorism which are on the rise, trafficking of contraband, fraud, robbery, assault and theft; and there is an ongoing debate as to whether crime in ports and dockyards falls within the definition of maritime crime.’

The situation around certain types of criminality can be difficult to unravel. Human trafficking and the smuggling of stolen goods are common occurences which may not appear to pose any immediate or mortal risk, but such incidents are rarely independent of larger more organized criminal activiy.

Another threat cited by Allmode is terrorist activity at sea. Allmode’s Operations Director notes the growing significance and a worrying shift in emphasis: ‘We have seen a demotic change in the pirate MO over the last 14 months and it is my personal belief that as the regional instability is threatened we will see a change towards not just piracy but terrorism against shipping given the immediate media hype that would follow.’

To clarify, he cites the following groups currently operating in different regions: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Ansar al-Sharia (AAS), Al-Qaeda in Yemen (AQY), Ansar Beit (Bayt) al-Maqdis (ABM), Al-Shabaab in eastern Africa, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghred and Al-Nusra Front.

Piracy hearts and minds 

Towards a longterm solution, we can view the situation from another perspective. Is our moralistic reporting of piracy counterproductive?  Should we spend more time trying to understand what motivates these attacks in order to prevent them? Can we influence the geopolitical and socio-economic context that drives them? 

Smali pirates 2The response from the industry is unsurprisingly resilient.

SAMI’s Steven Jones: ‘There is an argument for this view, and perhaps it is right that until we are able to drill down past the generalities, to fix the real root causes then we will never really be able to address piracy. However, it should not be forgotten that those who capture innocent crews and vessels are violent thugs, who murder, rape, torture and who have destroyed the lives of many hundreds of seafarers.’

This is a view shared by many, as one member of the Allmode team notes: ‘Piracy is a heinous crime involving the extortion of money from shipping companies, or more often the families of seafarers from poor backgrounds, under the threat of violence, torture or severe physical and mental intimidation. Piracy is never justifiable, even taking into account mitigating circumstances such as Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing activity, supposed toxic waste dumping or other perceived injustices. The treatment of seafarer hostages in certain cases has been appalling and has inflicted severe physical and mental trauma on hostages and their families following long periods of incarceration that in some cases has led to the breakup of families, suicide and loss of life.’

At the same time, it is difficult to persuade victims of the merits of understanding their attackers. Those passing through dangerous waters simply want a safe passage, free from attack.

For the longterms, as Steven Jones points out ‘We do perhaps need to find a balancing act between the natural resentment and hatred of those who commit evil acts, and the compassion to try and help them to stop. Alas this is an approach which seems far outside the scope of many to pursue, let alone achieve, and is beyond the superyacht community to drive in isolation.’

To many, piracy is seen as inevitable, the result of the economic and cultural context which cannot easily be mollified. As Chris Stewart, CEO of Black Pearl Maritime Security, notes, ‘Some issues are born from cultural and historical contexts and will never change a nation’s approach to making money! The case of Somalia is: fishing fleets have ravaged their waters, warlords have divided power and terrorists have seen a gap in the spiritual ‘faith’ cultures. The individual is possibly not a lawless opportunist but, given the peer pressure and the overwhelming need to survive, they can be manipulated and coerced into doing anything for money.’

Allmode agrees: ‘Piracy off the coast of Somalia and Nigeria is purely financially motivated, from the pirates doing the hijacking to the warlord backing the pirates with kit and boats. The pirate doing the hijacking often gets very little cash out of the paid ransom, but it would still be more than they could ever earn fishing or farming.’

Maldives 600What does the future hold?

Piracy is one of the oldest trades and, despit all international efforts, the likelihood of iradicating it is remote. 

Another member of the Allmode team speaks frankly: ‘Trying to look at the reasons why (Somali) piracy exists is (in my personal opinion) a largely pointless exercise. Somali piracy exists for many reasons, not least the fact that a country of 10 million people has had no effective functioning government for 25 years, has the longest (un-policed) coastline in Africa, is almost three times the area of the UK (again largely lawless), has the third lowest per capita GDP in the world and little light at the end of the tunnel. As a result, don’t expect Somalis to stop trying to make a few dollars from hijacking ships anytime in the foreseeable future. Piracy in other areas of the world exists and works for other reasons, but all of them follow a business model of some kind and that’s the reason their industry will continue in perpetuity.’

Steven Jones agrees,‘Sadly it seems that we are no closer to seeing an end to piracy or maritime criminality. The threats may evolve, the places may change, but ultimately superyachts, their crews and passengers remain an inviting target.’

The only sensible conclusion to draw is the need for a global and cross-functional effort to keep piracy at bay. At the same time, if the problem will not go away, there's an argument for providing much more in the way of security training for those at the sharp end, so they can better protect themselves at sea and ashore. At the same time, sensational stories will continue to sell papers, but the media would serve us better by spreading awareness of the real risks and dangers that surround us, on crossings, on charter and in port.


To follow: In the second half of this feature, we look at the maritime industry’s response to threats at sea, including measures for crew to avoid danger, the role of private security firms, their reputation and regulation in the yachting industry.

*Photo credits:Wikimedia commons, Quinsec Security Management,, Wikimedia Commons, OnboardOnline

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