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Dangerous Waters

​MOVIEGOERS CLUTCHED THEIR ARMRESTS in white-knuckled terror last year watching a ramshackle motorized skiff full of armed Somali pirates race toward the unarmed Maersk Alabama in the film Captain Phillips. The movie was based on an actual hijacking incident in 2009, a year when Somali pirates were striking many ships off the Horn of Africa.

Come 2014, and the waters of Africa are still treacherous for seafarers. But the global piracy picture is a turbulent one, and, as of last year, the eddies of maritime crime have shifted. Piracy off the coast of Somalia has now been reduced. In its stead, piracy has picked up off the coast of West Africa, and incidents in Southeast Asia are also on the rise, according to recent statistics and analysis.

There are several factors behind the recent success in fighting Somali piracy, says Ian Millen, director of intelligence for Dryad Maritime Intelligence Service. “It’s a combination of the cooperation of international naval forces, the embarked armed security personnel, and better compliance with risk management best practices by ship owners,” Millen says. Recent statistics bear this out. In 2013, just 15 piracy incidents were reported off Somalia, down from 75 in 2012 and 237 in 2011, according to the International Maritime Bureau division of the International Chamber of Commerce.

Somali piracy originally arose in the last decade in the wake of the country’s long-running civil war. In response, in 2008 a multinational coalition formed to fight piracy in the Gulf of Aden region. Somalia continues to be a failed state, and this makes it easier for international naval forces to run interdiction rescue and protection operations, since there is no stable, functioning government to prevent foreign forces from working in nearby coastal waters.

Meanwhile, as piracy has been reduced in East Africa, it has been surging in West Africa—especially in the Niger Delta and Gulf of Guinea regions. Unlike Somalia, the West African countries are not failed states and their governments do not welcome foreign fighters in their waters.

In addition, in the West African country of Nigeria, corruption makes successful prosecution of maritime criminals more difficult than in East Africa. So, the risk-reward ratio is better for the criminals in West Africa, Millen says. And West African pirates tend to be more violent than Somali pirates; the latter preferring to hold captives for ransom.

In 2013, Southeast Asia surged ahead of other areas in reported piracy incidents. Most of the incidents in Southeast Asia, however, are not full-on hijackings, but smaller-scale robberies targeting vessels in port or at anchor. “The vast majority are low-level crimes, but that doesn’t make them trivial,” Millen says. In some of the incidents, armed criminals viciously beat crew members, he adds.

In particular, the Singapore Strait, which stretches from the Strait of Malacca in the west to the South China Sea in the east, has seen a rise in action over the last year, according to Dryad. There were several organized crime theft s in 2013, generally involving small tankers taken to predetermined rendezvous points so cargo could be offloaded and stolen.

In the first quarter of 2014, analysts saw a shift in methods, which could reflect a new modus operandi for local maritime criminals. There were fewer robberies of ships anchored off the island of Pulau Nipah and more attacks of vessels moving through the Singapore Strait.

Analysts say it seems likely that pirates will remain active in Southeast Asia through 2014. “We’re not seeing the kind of maritime policing that would deter these guys,” Millen says. In the few instances when local authorities have bolstered patrols in hot-spots, the criminals are adept at moving operations elsewhere. Given this, the best chance to reduce risk in this region is for ship crews to be well-trained in antipiracy procedures.

In West Africa, particularly the Gulf of Guinea region, the piracy forecast for 2014 is similarly bleak, Dryad analysts say. Ship cargo theft remains a significant threat across the region, and incidents in the area of the Niger Delta continue. There have been efforts by national naval forces in the region to fight the trend, but the forces lack the capability to dramatically reduce maritime crime. However, improved cooperation among nations in the area, and more resources toward enforcement, could make a difference.

In East Africa, there are signs that recent success in fighting Somali piracy can be continued. For example, during the first quarter of 2014, an armed attack close to the Somali coast was repelled by an embarked armed security team, according to Dryad. However, this success does not mean that the problem has been completely eradicated. While Captain Phillips escaped and returned to sea 14 months after he was attacked, more than 60 seafarers are still languishing in captivity and being held for ransom in Somalia, according to Dryad.

The successes in fighting Somali piracy are ultimately just “buying time,” Millen says. The country’s crumbling economy provides a steady supply of desperately poor young men who will turn to piracy to survive. “Until you fix the problem on land, the motivation will still be there,” he says.