Pirates have been sailing the seas of the world from time immemorial. What some historians call the “golden age” of piracy started in the 16th century and continued into the 18th century. Perhaps the most successful and best known of the pirate crews during that period were the Barbary Corsairs, bands of pirates who plied their trade along the Northern Coast of Africa. The Corsairs pioneered many of the tactics used by modern-day pirates. They boarded ships, stole cargo, slaughtered some crew members and held others hostage, and demanded that the Western countries pay them to provide “protection.”

Most merchant crews of that era lacked even line-of-sight communications and often did not realize their ships were under attack until it was too late. And, of course, they did not have any of the advanced technology – specifically including detection systems and devices – that would give them what today is called situational awareness. Most European countries paid protection money to the pirates so that their ships could safely move through the trading ports of the Mediterranean.

The then-fledgling U.S. government did not have the money to pay the pirates, so – after several politically embarrassing incidents – President Thomas Jefferson sent a U.S. Marine detachment to the North Coast of Africa to protect American merchant ships from pirate attacks. It was not an easy or, at first, totally successful assignment, but the Marines eventually defeated the pirates in many ports along the southern littoral of the Mediterranean, ensuring safe passage for American and European traders.

A Change in Tactics, an Increase in Numbers Modern-day pirates usually board ships searching for money or marketable cargo. Sometimes they have been easily frightened off by alert crew members. However, their tactics have changed dramatically during the past year. Pirates from lawless areas worldwide have defiantly increased the use of force and violence against merchant ships and private yachts. They hijack ships, holding the ships and crews hostage and demanding millions of dollars in ransom payments.

A number of merchant crew members have been injured or killed during these attacks – which occur worldwide, but have been concentrated mostly off the eastern coast of Africa. It is estimated that close to $150 million in ransom money was paid in 2008 to pirates who were operating primarily in the Gulf of Aden. The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) reported that there were 293 pirate attacks against ships worldwide in 2008, compared with 263 attacks in 2007. There were 49 ship hijackings in 2008, a 200 percent increase over 2007 – again, according to the IMB – with 898 crew members taken hostage.

Most of the hijackings reported worldwide in the past several years were Most merchant crews are not properly trained on threat recognition and do not know how to cope with pirate attacks and boardings concentrated in the Gulf of Aden. However, many maritime-security experts, including at least some senior IMB officials, believe that the number of attacks and incidents reported represents only about one-fifth to one-third of the actual attacks that took place worldwide. Yacht crews and the owners of small cruising vessels also have reported an increase in attacks and violence against their vessels off the coasts of Central and South America; many of those attacks were not reported to the IMB.

There are very few groups of mariners who are immune to pirate attacks. Pirates can strike virtually anywhere, at any time, and against almost any target (except for armed naval vessels). In recent months various bands of pirates have been targeting large commercial vessels – e.g., container ships, bulk cargo carriers, oil and chemical tankers, and cruise ships – as well as the mega-yachts. Most pirate attacks against ships underway take place during daylight hours, but attacks against ships anchored or moored usually take place during the night. Significantly, most of the attacks that were reported had at least one thing in common: The crews of the ships being attacked did not realize they were under attack until the attack was in progress.

Unlike the crews of merchant ships in the times of the Barbary Corsairs, those who man today’s merchant ships have a variety of technologies and systems available to help improve their situational awareness. With early-warning equipment and vigilant crews, most attacks could be prevented. There are numerous types of electronic systems – long-range cameras, for example, as well as surface-search radars and access-control systems – available to diminish the pirate threat.

Vigilance, Training, and Modern Equipment Crew vigilance and training also are essential to halting or at least diminishing the number of additional pirate attacks in the future. Unfortunately, most merchant crews are not properly trained on threat recognition, and also do not know how to cope with pirate attacks and boardings. Moreover, many vessels do not have emergency plans in place to deal with attempted attacks and boardings. However, first-hand accounts of recent pirate attacks (and attempted attacks) show that trained and prepared crews that are equipped with early-warning systems have usually been able to prevent attacks and hijackings. (The IMB does not keep statistics on how, precisely, various attacks were prevented; that information is available only by reading individual attack reports and by interviewing crew members).

Not incidentally, many if not all maritime-security experts believe the piracy attacks are not a problem that should be assigned to naval forces but, rather, a law-enforcement problem that requires action by law-enforcement agencies. In fact, most of the world’s navies have no “rules of engagement” covering piracy incidents and typically release pirates after they have been captured. Only recently, in fact, has the United States itself signed an agreement (with an unnamed country in the Gulf area) to prosecute pirates. After that agreement is ready to be fully implemented, it is expected that the U.S. Navy will change its rules of engagement and permit its ships to pursue and arrest pirates in the Gulf of Aden.

Some shipping industry experts nonetheless believe that the continued attacks on merchant vessels will soon have an adverse worldwide economic impact because of increased insurance costs, the increased operational costs incurring by avoiding certain areas, and higher security costs in general. Meanwhile, because of the major increase in pirate attacks that has occurred in recent year, more than 20 countries already have stationed armed naval vessels in the Gulf of Aden, and have achieved some minor successes in reducing piracy in that area.

However, the naval vessels on the scene report to no central command and/or coordination center. The crews of the Navy ships speak different languages, of course, so a coordinated response is difficult to achieve, which means that most merchant ships and their crews may still have to defend themselves from future attacks. Statistics developed from accounts of previous attacks show, fortunately, that the combination of situational awareness, improved technology, and well trained crew members will help merchant vessels worldwide cope much more successfully in the future with the threat posed by international piracy.

Corey Ranslem

Corey D. Ranslem, chief executive officer of Secure Waters Security Group Inc. – a maritime-security and consulting firm heavily involved in maritime training, maritime security, and a broad spectrum of other security programs in the maritime field – is the former regional manager of Federal Government Operations for Smiths Detection. He has received numerous awards and citations from the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies and organizations active in the field of maritime security. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication and Political Science from the University of Northern Iowa and an MBA in International Business from Georgetown University; he has almost 18 years of experience in maritime law enforcement and security.

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