Southeast Asia surpasses West Africa in piracy incidents

Philippine maritime police patrolling the waters at sunset. Credit: Giles Clarke/Getty Images

According to the latest quarterly report by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), Southeast Asia has recorded 51 piracy attacks year to date, surpassing the Gulf of Guinea (GoG) with 44 incidents.

The IMB report shows a marked increase in attacks in Southeast Asia, compared with 35 piracy incidents for the same time period in 2019. Despite Singapore upping its efforts to tackle piracy, with the restructuring of its Maritime Task Force in February 2020, attacks increased significantly in the Singapore Strait. Fifteen incidents were reported between January and September 2020 compared with one in 2019. Incidents doubled in the Philippines where eight attacks were recorded in 2020 compared with four in 2019.

However, maritime security experts want to reassure crew navigating the waters of Southeast Asia. “Fortunately, even if the overall numbers are higher for Southeast Asia as compared with the Gulf of Guinea, it’s important to keep the nature of the incidents in mind,” Thomas Timlen, Southeast Asia analyst at Risk Intelligence, told SAS. “Generally, the activity in Southeast Asia involves less violence.”

Timlen explained that even though the perpetrators are seen to be armed, most often with knives, it is rare for crew to be injured. “The perpetrators in Southeast Asia are more prone to escape upon detection than they are to confront the crew,” said Timlen.

In its report, the IMB warns crew to remain vigilant in the Singapore Strait, especially at night. Vessels should sound the alarm and notify the authorities on spotting potential robbers or pirates, as it will deter them from carrying out an attack.

Although Southeast Asia reported more piracy incidents, the GoG accounted for 95% of global kidnappings. West African pirates are also abducting larger numbers of crew; 80 seafarers were kidnapped over 14 incidents. Dirk Siebels, senior risk analyst at Risk Intelligence, confirmed to SAS that the average number of hostages is rising in the GoG, from about four per attack in 2016 to about eight in 2019.

“Criminal groups in the Niger Delta are now very confident that they are able to protect large groups of hostages during ransom negotiations,” said Siebels. “In turn, that leads to higher ransom payments, which unfortunately means that the overall ‘business model’ is unlikely to change in the near future.”

Robert Peters, senior intelligence analyst at Ambrey, concurred that the kidnapping of larger groups of crew members results in larger ransoms being paid out. However, Ambrey has identified diminishing returns per additional crew members in part because of response providers, and that ransoms are paid for the whole crew and not on a person-by-person basis.

Graeme Gibbon-Brooks, CEO at technical security consultancy Gibbon-Brooks Ltd , explained that the kidnappings are organised from information leaks on the vessel location, and the attacks are usually local and opportunistic. Furthermore, the increase in kidnappings in the latter part of the year may be due to the approaching festive season. “A key indicator of hostage taking, especially in the Christian south of Nigeria, is the run-up to Christmas to generate money,” concluded Gibbon-Brooks.