The business case for high-seas piracy

By Bernd Debusmann
November 26, 2008

Bernd Debusmann - Great Debate– Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own -

As far as illicit businesses with low risk and high rewards go, it doesn’t get much better than piracy on the high seas. The profit margins can easily surpass those of the cocaine trade. The risks?

“There is no reason not to be a pirate,” according to U.S. Vice Admiral William Gortney, who commands the U.S. navy’s Fifth Fleet. “The vessel I’m trying to pirate, they won’t shoot at me. I’m going to get my money.”

Even pirates who are intercepted have little to fear. “They won’t arrest me because there’s no place to try me.”

Gortney’s assessment of piracy’s low risk came in a radio interview that focused on the Gulf of Aden, where Somali pirates this month capped a string of increasingly brazen hijackings by seizing a Saudi supertanker carrying $100 million worth of U.S.-bound crude. But although attention is focused on the Horn of Africa, piracy is a global phenomenon (see map), relative impunity applies in many places, and a thick legal fog hangs over effective action.

Among questions to keep lawyers busy: Can a naval vessel fire on a suspected pirate ship? It depends. Who would be held accountable for someone killed in an exchange of fire between pirates and private security personnel traveling aboard a merchant ship? Which country’s jurisdiction applies, for example, to a Somali arrested on the high seas and taken aboard a Danish vessel?piracy1

“One of the challenges that we have…in piracy clearly is if you are intervening and you capture pirates, is there a path to prosecute them?” Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained at a recent Pentagon briefing.

A rough back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that the operation to hijack the Saudi tanker, the Sirius Star, cost no more than $25,000 assuming that the pirates bought new equipment and weapons ($450 apiece for an AK-47 Kalashnikov, $5,000 for an RPG 7 grenade launcher, $15,000 for a speedboat). That contrasts with an initial ransom demand from the tanker’s owner, Saudi Aramco, of $25 million.

“Piracy is an excellent business model if you operate from an impoverished, lawless place like Somalia,” says Patrick Cullen, a security expert at the London School of Economics who has been researching piracy. “The risk-reward ratio is just huge.”

One way to shrink that ratio would be to place private security guards on vessels that ply shipping routes prone to pirate attack, from the waters off Nigeria to the Molucca Straits and the Horn of Africa. That’s the solution recommended by the commander of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, whose area of responsibility covers 7.5 million square miles, including the waters off Somalia. Its warships can’t be everywhere.

Even with the additional deployment of warships from France, Britain, Denmark, Russia, India, Japan, Korea, and Malaysia, the navies are looking for needles in a haystack. The pirates launch speedboats from mother ships hundreds of miles off the coast.


Carrying armed guards aboard ships sounds a simple, straightforward solution. They stand watch; they fire warnings flares at an approaching speedboat manned by what looks like pirates. If the vessel doesn’t turn away, they blow it out of the water. End of story.

Except if the incident somehow turned into a court case and the ship’s crew and guards had to prove that the men in the approaching speedboat were driven by criminal intent. By some definitions, an act of piracy doesn’t begin until the grappling hooks are thrown over the side and the pirates start clambering up.

In the past, shipping companies, by and large, have been reluctant to add armed personnel to their crews, partly for reasons of cost – a security team can add $30,000 to $60,000 and more to a voyage – and partly because the statistical chance of having their ships hijacked or attacked are relatively small.

The International Maritime Organization puts the world trading fleet at 50,525 ships. In the first nine months of this year, the International Maritime Bureau’s piracy reporting center in Kuala Lumpur recorded 199 attacks on ships, including 36 hijackings. In percentage terms, this is not much.

But the targets, and the ransom demands, have been getting bigger. The Sirius Star was taken less than two months after the hijacking of a Ukrainian freighter, the Fainu, which carried some 30 T-72 tanks, crates of rocket-propelled grenades, anti-aircraft guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition. That capture made world headlines and raised fresh questions over existing anti-piracy tactics.

Private security firms see new markets and new opportunities. Several British firms have begun teaming up with insurance companies that offer lower rates for ships carrying security teams.

Anti-pirate devices now coming into use range from razor wire strung along the side of ships to sound cannon – a weapon that beams ear-splitting noise at suspected attackers.

One U.S. company, Blackwater Worldwide, is offering maritime escort services with  a 183-foot vessel that carries two helicopters, a crew of 15 and 35 guards. Blackwater says 13 shipping companies have expressed interest.

To make pirates think twice about the risk-reward ratio, nothing is likely to be as effective as brute force. But those who warn that 18th century methods can be problematic in the 21st can now point to the example set by the Indian frigate Tabar on November 18.

According to the Indian navy, the Tabar had come under fire from a suspected pirate mother ship that had failed to obey a command to stop.

The Indian frigate returned fire, “in self defense.” The ship blew up in a ball of fire and sank.

A week later, it turned out that the suspected mothership was a Thai freighter that was being taken over by pirates when the frigate approached.

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(Pictured above: pirates on a speedboat approach one of their mother boats docked near Eyl, Somalia, in a framegrab from November 24, 2008 TV footage. REUTERS/Reuters TV)


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Tim Randle – If so many of these comments are “absurd”, why add to the fray with ever more absurd, sheer nonsense? No sane person on here believes your suggestions come even close to understanding what is going on in Somalia at present. The difference between you and me is not ideology, but the fact that I’ve been there and seen it, you are evidently just another ‘send in the forces’ blowhard far away in America or wherever.

Posted by Marc | Report as abusive

Wow… Tim Randle is a moron…
Stick to wikipedia with your comments.

The only thing that can possibly work is making piracy unprofitable. Raise the risks by placing weapons in the hands of the crew and and the benefits are no longer worth it. Perhaps a shipping company cannot afford Blackwater or a sound cannon. But they certainly can afford a few automatic weapons, a few boxes of ammo and some kevlar or perhaps a couple extra crew with adjustable morals carrying some of their own weapons.

Posted by me | Report as abusive

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