PUNTLAND, SOMALIA – JANUARY 29: Puntland Maritime Police Forces (PMPF) are patrolling against the recently increasing pirate attacks off the coast in Puntland, Somalia on January 29, 2024. (Photo by Abuukar Mohamed Muhidin/Anadolu via Getty Images)
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Somali pirates are back on the attack, with piracy around the Horn of Africa rising sharply in recent months and adding to concerns for shipping vessels, government forces and private security already locked in a battle in the Red Sea with Houthi rebels.
Over the past three months, there has been more piracy in the Horn of Africa region than at any point in the last six years, according to Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), an independent think tank, with high ransoms for seafarers or vessels, and robbing of ship passengers by pirates.
Piracy off the coast of Somalia had been on the decline in recent years after peaking in 2011 when Somali pirates launched 212 attacks. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) passed seven resolutions targeting Somalia piracy between December 2010 and March 2022, permitting foreign naval and air forces to enter and patrol Somali waters and authorizing the European Union Naval Force Operation Atalanta, working with a U.S.-led task force, to use “all necessary means to repress piracy and armed robbery at sea.”
The cost of piracy to the global economy is a steep one. A 2013 World Bank study, still widelt cited today, estimated that piracy cost the global economy around $18 billion annually.
According to the UNSC, the anti-piracy measures in place to enforce the freedom of navigation off the coast of Somalia expired quietly after its last renewal for three months after December 3, 2021.
Since last November, merchant vessels have been the target of about 20% of Somali piracy-related incidents, according to Dan Mueller, lead analyst for the Middle Eastern Region for maritime security firm Ambrey. On December 14, The International Chamber of Shipping reported the hijacking of a Handymax bulk carrier, the first successful hijacking of a vessel off the coast of Somalia since 2017. The pirates have also been attacking fishing vessels, mostly Iranian, as well as many other small boats such as skiffs.
Ocean piracy is rising across the world
Data from 2023 shows that by many key measures, piracy is on the rise in key global shipping lanes.
There were 120 incidents of maritime piracy and armed robbery against ships reported in 2023, compared to 115 in 2022, according to the annual Piracy and Armed Robbery Report of the ICC International Maritime Bureau (IMB). The IMB also found increased threats to crew safety, with the number of crews taken hostage rising from 41 to 73 in 2023, and crews kidnapped from two to 14.
A spokesperson for the International Maritime Organization (IMO) which represents the seafarer spokesperson stressed to CNBC in an email, “The entire world depends on international shipping and seafarers, and therefore ships and cargoes should not be the subject of any type of attacks. The safety of seafarers are paramount – they are innocent victims who are simply doing their jobs in very harsh conditions.”
The UNSC did not respond to CNBC’s request for comment about reinstating anti-piracy resolutions related to Somalia.
The IMO said it is working very closely with countries in the region through the Djibouti Code of Conduct to address piracy and avoid any escalation, through capacity-building, national legislation, information sharing and regional coordination.
“We are also looking the possibility of updating the IMO guidance on piracy to take into account new threats and technologies that can affect the safety of seafarers,” said a spokesperson.
A 2010 photo of an armed Somali pirate keeping vigil on the coastline at Hobyo, northeastern Somalia, while the Greek cargo ship, MV Filitsa is anchored just off the shores of Hobyo where it was held by pirates after beimng captured some 513 nautical miles northeast of the Seychelles as it was sailing from Kuwait to Durban in South Africa loaded with fertilizer.
Mohamed Dahir | Afp | Getty Images
According to maritime security firm Dryad Global, shipping from the coast of the Horn of Africa to the coast of India is considered a “high risk zone.” There are 25 countries in the region with their naval forces, but given the size of the area, the numbers are not a sufficient guarantee of safe navigation.
A slight increase in piracy has also been recorded in the Gulf of Guinea on Africa’s West Coast, where 22 piracy incidents were recorded in 2023, compared to 19 in 2022, 35 in 2021, and 81 in 2020. According to the IMB, these waters accounted for three of the four globally reported hijackings, all 14 crew kidnappings, and 75% of reported crew hostages and two injured crew in 2023.
The Singapore Straits are another area of concern due to the high number of incidents in the region. While the IMB considers these incidents low-level opportunistic crimes, 95% of the reported incidents were successful.
“Crew continue to be harmed with nine taken hostage and two threatened. Guns were reported in three recorded incidents and knives in 15,” the IMB report noted.
Maritime security efforts
To help deter piracy and enhance maritime security, vessels deploy what’s called Best Management Practice (BMP) 5 when operating in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, Indian Ocean, and Arabian Sea.
“Private armed security teams have proven effective alongside BMP 5 measures,” Mueller said. “An adequate citadel has proven vital to enable the crew to remain safe until military responses can be coordinated.”
Citadels are a pre-determined fortified area on a vessel built to resist pirates from gaining entry for a period of time to protect a crew.
Dozens of companies in the maritime security space could see an increase in their business as the threats against commercial shipping widen. The size of the maritime safety market has grown to keep up with the flow of trade and will grow from $19.85 billion in 2023 to $21.18 billion in 2024, according to ResearchAndMarkets.com, and is forecast to reach $25.93 billion in 2028 at a compound annual growth rate of 5.2%. The list of major companies operating in the market of maritime safety systems includes several niche players as well as major industrials and defense contractors, such as Raytheon, Honeywell International, Elbit Systems Ltd., L3Harris Technologies, Lockheed Martin, and General Dynamics Corporation.
Mueller said the Indian Navy and Coast Guard along with the EU Operation Atalanta and national counter-piracy missions are active in the region where Somali pirates have attacked.
“Indian forces have successfully operated against PAGs [pirate action group] in four boarding incidents,” he said.
U.S. and allied defense
On February 1, the Biden Administration approved a $3.99 billion sale of drones and military equipment to India to be used to augment its maritime safety and surveillance. Included in the sale, according to the State Department: 31 Sky Guardian drones, 310 small-diameter bombs, 170 Hellfire missiles, and other related support equipment.
A spokesperson for the Atalanta anti-piracy effort based out of the Rota Naval Base, Spain, told CNBC via email that the coalition of maritime forces protecting against pirates around the Horn of Africa will be enhanced.
“In a week’s time, we will have additional ships and forces deployed to the area. We will do our utmost to continue fulfilling our missions, which include the fight against piracy and the protection of Word Food Programme vessels and all vulnerable vessels in our Area of Operations against these criminal networks,” the spokesperson wrote. “We will continue to work together with our international partners to maintain maritime security.”
Atalanta includes permanent flagship vessel ESPS VICTORIA and at certain periods of time, numerous other vessels to support the operation. EUNAVFOR currently has four more ships offering support: ITS Martinengo, FS Alsace, FS Languedoc, and ITS Duilio. The spokesperson said EU member state support allows the operation to increase the number of assets very quickly, if necessary.
In response to a question from CNBC about expanding Red Sea security coverage to the Somali Coast, a U.S. Navy spokesperson wrote, “To protect operational security and the safety of our service members, we do not discuss or forecast future operations or postures.”
“What we can tell you is that Operation Prosperity Guardian (OPG) is working with participating countries to utilize increased patrols in the Red Sea to offer reassurance to the shipping industry and protect maritime traffic,” the Navy spokesperson said.
In the Red Sea, the U.S. Navy is working with allies to increase efforts to prevent Houthi rebel attacks, which are continuing despite multiple U.S. airstrikes against Houthi targets. Much merchant vessel traffic is now taking the longer transit around the Cape of Good Hope instead of transiting the Red Sea. French ocean carrier CMA CGM is among firms to fully halt its Red Sea transits, according to a person familiar with the matter. It joins shipping giants MSC, Maersk, Hapag Lloyd and others who have earlier announced they were diverting away from the Red Sea. According to Kuehne + Nagel data, almost 100% of the former Red Sea traffic has been rerouted around the Cape of Good Hope.
The Houthis most recent attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea this week were against a commercial container vessel and a U.S.-owned bulker vessel carrying U.S. cargo. The Houthis have attacked commercial shipping a total of 39 times.