Back to the nuts and bolts of how piracy and counter-piracy works…

While underway, pirates are known to begin probing commercial ships as they pass around the Horn of Africa. The vast majority of probes and attacks are at night, although pirates are also known to hide in the fog during they day. The maritime security contractor on shift at night monitors the Automatic Identification System, or AIS, radar on the ship, and when he gets a blip on the screen he begins looking for pirates, usually in stolen fishing vessels, with his binoculars. In high winds, the older AIS systems will get feedback as they may read whitecaps out in the ocean, giving off false signatures and making it difficult for contractors to discern real threats.


AIS was originally developed for aircraft flying in and out of San Diego to help them avoid mid-air collisions during thick cloud cover. The system worked well enough with airplanes that the harbor started making use of it as well, and then the International Maritime Organization was lobbied to make it mandatory for all vessels over a certain size.

The AIS is essentially a line-of-site VHS receiver and transmitter that has an electronic display chart, about the size of an iPad, mounted in the bridge, which shows ships in the area and lists their heading, speed, and callsign. It will display this information to other vessels even when turned off, so the bad guys have to completely disable their AIS to remain undetected.


All ships in international waters are supposed to have their AIS beacon activated, which acts as a sort of IFF system for commercial shipping routes, and provides some basic information to the captains of each ship. When you get a radar reading that displays no AIS beacon, then you know something is amiss. Security contractors will then attempt to hail the vessel on the radio and ask them to turn on their AIS beacon. If no one answers, then you’ve got yourself a pirate.

At this point the contractor on shift will call up his buddies who are sleeping or watching movies below deck to take up a defensive posture. When dealing with Somalian pirates, this is where the stand off ends nine times out of ten. When the pirates begin probing, the contractors flash their AR-15 rifles to show that the ship they are fixing to board is armed. The Somalians will break off at this point and look for a softer target.

The reality of piracy is that it is an economic system, and the pirates are known to be more or less professional about it at this point. The modern world sends fishing vessels into Somalian waters to rape them of sea life. With no real central government, Somalia cannot defend itself from commercial overfishing. The pirates thus see their actions as a simple tax on the West for using their waters. Once captured, they want to ransom off the boat and their prisoners with as little violence as possible.

If the pirates find a ship that is unprotected, they will then attempt to board. The stolen fishing vessel will loiter about four miles behind the tanker ship, where there is a blind spot with the AIS system. They will then launch several skiffs, smaller rubber boats, that the pirates will actually board from. When a tanker is filled with oil the ship sits low in the water, which makes it even easier for them to board, usually with an aluminum ladder with hooks attached which go over the railing.

During a boarding, or attempted boarding, the captain of the ship and his crew will lock themselves in the Citadel, a safe room near the bridge of the ship. The captain can even pilot the ship from inside some of these safe rooms, where he and the crew will remain until the coast is clear. As mentioned previously, the pirates will peel off upon seeing weapons on board or getting some warning shots. Rarely do full blown firefights happen.

The official word is that piracy is on the downswing off the coast of Africa, while others are far more skeptical. While the official numbers from the Office of Naval Intelligence on Somalian piracy report that 51 vessels were hijacked in 2010, 27 in 2011, 7 in 2012, and 0 in 2013, it seems short sighted to claim that piracy is over in the Gulf of Aden and around the Horn of Africa. As long as the root causes of piracy, namely extreme poverty and illegal fishing in Somalian territorial waters, persist, there will always be a market for pirates to ply their trade with.

Meanwhile, a new front for piracy and counter-piracy is opening up in West Africa. While the Somalian pirates are largely seen as amateurs who display lackadaisical tactics, the Nigerian pirates come to the trade with a background as trained fighters in various civil wars. Rather than just using AK-47s, their gun boats roll out with DShK heavy machine guns, with gunners who know how to operate them. The line between pirate and rogue sailor blurs further as Naval ships from Togo and Nigeria are also known to partake in the spoils. Another key difference is that the Somalians found their main income in ransoming off the crew and their ship, while the West Africans are primarily concerned with looting the cargo hold.

The Nigerian situation is also different in that most of that action is in STS, or Ship to Ship, transfers in which a small ship pulls up alongside a larger ship to pump oil out of it’s hold, and then continue on to their final destination on the coast or even up the Niger river to deliver the goods. This makes for much shorter trips for those doing maritime security and, as dodgy as this sounds and is, this is where the contractors are usually unarmed, due to Nigerian laws.

Another maritime choke point is the Malacca Straights between Singapore and Indonesia. Pirates in this region board ships, but are mostly concerned with breaking into the captain’s safe rather than ransoming off the ship and its crew, often times more like a maritime stickup than anything. But piracy does exist in this area. The straights are so narrow that pirates have in the past been able to run a cable across them while staying low in dugout canoes. Stealing tugboats is also a popular pastime in this area. As always, piracy intersects with other forms of crime as well.

Inside the hidden world of Maritime Security

Read Next: Inside the hidden world of Maritime Security

When the Somalian pirates hijack and ransom a ship, it is all done in international waters. Around the Malacca Straights, ships that get stolen have to be docked somewhere. These types of operations are controlled by crime syndicates, with the host nation not just turning a blind eye, but probably with skin in the game as an active participant.

In the South China Sea, things get more interesting as the Chinese Navy has been known to conduct boarding operations, a military-sounding term that conceals their true activities, namely, stealing stuff. The Chinese sailors have been caught in the past boarding ships and making off with their loot, usually electronics for re-sale on the mainland.

The future of the maritime security industry is anything but certain. Wages are slipping, many of the maritime security companies have gone bankrupt and many more will follow in 2013. The shipping industry itself is in turmoil, with many companies already operating in the red. Just as the Somalian pirates see their activities as a tax for using their waters, Maersk now charges a piracy surcharge to clients whenever they have to go through high-risk waters.

Maritime security will always exist to some extent, but it is not stable work and is not a viable career choice for young men leaving the military and looking for steady work. At some point, the shipping industry and insurance companies will have to find some sort of equilibrium with security contractors, but the market will be fragile into the foreseeable future.

As many contractors will tell you, their job is not nearly as cool, sexy, or exciting as many are led to believe. This is true for maritime security contractors as well. Kevin Doherty, the owner of Nexus Consulting reports that in the course of about 450 transits, his contractors have fired warning shots at pirates twice. That’s it. Otherwise you are staring at the big blue ocean for days on end.