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Piracy: Skulls, Cross-Bones and Letterhead

You can’t fight piracy on the high seas with naval power and clever security solutions alone, you can only shift the balance temporarily. Today’s pirates are all about modernization, and they advance with the rest of the world, with their own public relations team, constantly advancing technology, floating headquarters, evolving “business” strategies and, yes, even their own letterhead.

Pirate attacks on the high seas may have declined slightly this year, but last year brought in some $160 million in hijacking and ransom revenues, and pirates will adapt quickly to improved security efforts.

According to the Piracy Monitoring Group, 2011 saw a total of 237 incidents, up from 219 in 2010, most of which took place off the coast of Somalia, the Arabian Sea, the Southern Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. In 2011, a total of 470 crew members were taken hostage, eight of them killed and three injured. At the same time, hostage numbers for 2010 were higher, with 1,016 taken, eight killed and 13 injured. The attack success rate, however, declined from 2010 to 2012 by about 43%, according to the Monitoring Group. The International Maritime Bureau reports 70 pirate attacks in Somalia in 2012, including 13 successful hijackings as of late July and a total of 212 hostages taken.

The decline in successful attacks is largely attributed to improved security measures in the shipping industry and increased naval cooperation among affected nations. How are the pirates adapting? Nicely.

Most significantly, pirates have begun to take hostages on land to boost their ransom in-take. On land, they have access to various networks of “consultants” and “negotiators”, who work both sides of the game, making the stakes more lucrative. This practice has opened up an entirely new business for “negotiators” and private contractors, which have no desire to see a drop in piracy as long as business is booming and no one can regulate it effectively.

Taking a page from the mafia, the pirates are now also introducing a form of “insurance” against attack—a new business that dubiously merges with those offering “negotiating” and “consulting” in the event of pirate attacks.

The pirates also have their own land-based militia which is supported, however indirectly, by officials and elite in Puntland, as well as their own counter-intelligence network that monitors vessels, cargoes and security systems at ports across the Middle East and North Africa. Advance targeting of vessels is thus bolstered by solid intelligence-gathering.

In terms of strategy and organization, the implementation of “mother ships” about a year ago has strengthened pirate operations exponentially, allowing them to launch attacks further from shore and thus expand their reach. Mother ships are large command-point vessels issuing instructions and enabling the small, fast skiffs used by the pirates to board and hijack a ship to return to a closer home base and refuel and regroup.

Public relations is also a new, if not fully developed, attribute of modern high seas piracy.

The pirates’ PR machine is fairly sophisticated, with the most recent adoption of paperwork in the form of an introduction package that starts off with a form letter for victims.

The letter itself introduces the hijackers and explains how the next steps will unfold and what the company must do to get its ship and crew back. One such recent letter circulating through the media is from “Jamal’s Pirate Action Group”, bearing a cliché skull-and-crossbones and sword logo. It is flippant in that it congratulates the owner of the ship for being chosen for a hijacking. The letter is signed by the pirate commander, who closes with “best regards”, and even comes with an official stamp. 

Is this effective? Well, yes. It lends the appearance of toning down the threat and adding a sense of “business” to the hijacking process, which ship owners are inclined to pay up under less intense conditions rather than let the situation evolve into a violent crisis.

The pirates also excel at playing to public sentiment and by ensuring that piracy on the high seas always contains an element of the romantic. They understand the value of entertainment.

By. Jen Alic of Oilprice.com




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Leave a comment
  • Hans Nieder on September 02 2012 said:
    Ms. Alic, fabulous promotional work for the ransom industry!

    I can not wait for the IPO's of these new agencies on the Somalia Stock Exchange...I can't wait for the King's ransom...

    Shipjacking, has now become a "business"....

    The real solution is that of the Russians, who resolve all matter on the high seas...

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