5 Facts on Modern Day Pirates

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April 12 marks four years since U.S. Navy SEAL snipers killed three pirates in a daring operation off the coast of Somalia. The SEALs’ actions led to the rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama, which the pirates had hijacked several days earlier. That incident marked the first time pirates had seized an American-flagged vessel since the early 19th century. Many people probably recall the spectacular conclusion to that incident, but most probably haven’t thought at all about pirates in the years since. Yet piracy remains a major concern. Piracy is on the rise in some regions, pirates are growing bolder in asking for much larger ransoms, and some analysts are concerned about a possible link between these modern-day outlaws and al-Qaeda. Here’s a look at modern piracy and what the U.S. and other nations are doing to combat the problem.


5. Somali Pirates Have Been Targeted, But Remain a Threat

The U.S. and other nations stepped up anti-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden in 2009.

The USS Farragut destroys a suspected pirate skiff in the Gulf of Aden in 2010; U.S. Navy/Cassandra Thompson

The Horn of Africa region has been plagued by chaos and violence for decades. In recent years, those problems have spilled out into the adjacent Gulf of Aden, home to some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. This is hundreds of thousands of square miles of ungoverned space ripe for nefarious activity. Pirates attacked 163 ships off Somali in 2009, resulting in the formation of a 25-nation naval force that includes the U.S., South Korea, Singapore, Turkey and New Zealand. Security has improved, but the waters are still treacherous; in one 2011 incident, pirates captured four Americans sailing on a yacht in the area. As U.S. Navy vessels trailed the kidnappers and their victims, the pirates murdered the hostages before they could be rescued. Overall, however, the increased naval presence in the region has had an effect; in 2012, only 35 ships were attacked there, according to Piracy-Law.com.


4. U.S. Worries a New Wave of Piracy in West Africa Is Funding Terrorism

A new wave of piracy on Africa's west coast concerns U.S. officials.

A U.S. Navy crew approaches a suspected pirate vessel in 2011; U.S. Navy

Over the last 10 years the Gulf of Guinea on Africa’s oil-rich west coast has experienced its own upsurge in piracy. For the most part, these attacks have not been about kidnappings and ransom, but precious cargo. These pirates steal oil from tankers in the gulf and sell it on the black market at a considerable profit. With millions of dollars changing hands, American and West African officials want to prevent these profits from being funneled to terrorists linked to al-Qaeda. Countries such as Ghana, Congo and Nigeria are trying to get a handle on the deteriorating security situation and have recently requested help from the  U.S. through AFRICOM. Set up at the end of George W. Bush’s administration, AFRICOM is the Pentagon’s newest command and a sign of the growing security challenges in Africa.


3. Piracy is Growing More Lucrative Every Year

Pirates are collecting larger ransoms than they did just a few years ago.

Armed pirates display crewmen from the captured MV Faina in 2008; U.S. Navy/Jason R. Zalasky

Crime is not supposed to pay, but crime has paid quite well for impoverished Somali men willing to turn to piracy. A United Nations report reveals that ransoms have increased considerably in recent years. In 2008 the average payout for a ship and its crew was around $1 million, but today the price can go as high as $5 million. Even when the assortment of middlemen, clan leaders, militants and officials get their cut of the ransom, a pirate can make several thousand dollars from a single hijacking. In impoverished nations such as Somalia, that’s the equivalent of two or three years’ income.


2. Pirate Attacks Occurring in New Areas

Pirates are moving into new regions, including a lake on the U.S. border with Mexico.

The U.S. Coast Guard patrols Falcon Lake on the Mexican border after pirates killed an American citizen in 2010.

While most piracy still takes place off the coast of Africa and in Southeast Asia, other remote areas have seen an increase in activity:
• The dammed portion of the Rio Grande along the U.S.-Mexico border, known as Falcon Lake, has seen a number of piracy incidents in recent years. These pirates are mostly Mexican drug gang members protecting their turf, but in some cases, innocent civilians have been terrorized or killed in the process.
• Brazil’s Amazon River basin has long stretches of sparsely populated waterways that invite criminal activity. Gangs of armed men troll the region preying on riverboats filled with defenseless tourists and local passengers. A special taskforce has been created to combat this situation, but law enforcement officials admit that the limited resources cannot solve the problem.
• Ukrainian cargo ships have been reporting pirate attacks along the Romanian and Serbian parts of the River Danube, but the U.N. questions if the crimes amount to piracy, preferring to label them incidents of “river robbery.”


1. Many High- and Low-Tech Methods Being Used to Combat Pirates

Shipping companies and cruise lines are using many different strategies to defend against pirates.

Long Range Acoustic Devices have been used to repel pirates.

Many commercial cargo ships and even cruise ships have substantially increased security measures because of persistent pirate threats. One of the more high-tech weapons being used to defend against pirates is the Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD), a sonic weapon that can cause painful headaches and hearing damage in those targeted by the device. Another popular weapon, the fire hose, or the more lethal-sounding water cannon, can be powerful enough to help defeat a boarding party. The U.S. Air Force developed the most intriguing non-lethal weapon that can be used to defend a ship. The Dazzle Gun or Personnel Halting and Stimulation Response (PHaSR) indeed does look like something out of Star Trek and uses lasers to temporarily blind an enemy.

But since no defense system has proven 100 percent effective at repelling pirates, shipping companies continue exploring other options. Among the other defensive measures: a special foam that can be sprayed on a ship’s deck to make it as slippery as ice; a 9,000-volt wire fence that can be spread around the ship; Unmanned Aerial Vehicles that can be used for surveillance of possible pirate vessels; and heavily armed robot boats that can patrol up to 10 miles from the cargo ship and deter pirates before they strike. Of course, there’s a cost in defending these ships, but having a vessel seized by pirates could end up costing several million dollars in ransom and put employees’ lives at risk.


Written by

Mike Phelps earned a B.A. in history from the University of Connecticut and an M.A. in military history from Norwich University. He published a book about the War on Terror called A Short History of the Long War.