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date: 22 September 2023

Maritime Piracy and Foreign Policylocked

Maritime Piracy and Foreign Policylocked

  • Brandon C. Prins, Brandon C. PrinsDepartment of Political Science, The University of Tennessee Knoxville
  • Aaron Gold, Aaron GoldSewanee University
  • Anup PhayalAnup PhayalUniversity of North Carolina Wilmington
  •  and Ursula DaxeckerUrsula DaxeckerDepartment of Political Science, University of Amsterdam


With Somali-based piracy in the Greater Gulf of Aden no longer a significant threat to commercial shipping, and great power competition, along with the COVID-19 pandemic, driving media attention, maritime piracy no longer remains the salient global security concern it was a decade ago. The number of attacks attributable to Somali-based pirates dropped dramatically between 2011 and 2015 and has remained low ever since. In the first 6 months of 2021, only five incidents were reported in the Greater Gulf of Aden, and none of the attacks were successful or definitively involved Somali perpetrators. The boundaries of the High-Risk Area in the Indian Ocean have been reduced significantly since 2011, and small, private maritime security firms have begun to go out of business as demand for armed guards on ships has diminished. But recent increases off the coast of West Africa and in the Singapore Straits confirm that the threat has not been entirely eliminated. Previous surges in sea crime led Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand to initiate coordinated patrols in the Malacca and Singapore Straits. The dramatic increase over the past 3 years in armed robbery on ships off of the Riau Islands in the east-bound lane of the Traffic Separation Scheme has produced calls from local authorities, as well as the Information Sharing Center at ReCAAP, for increased surveillance, coordination, and enforcement. While the international community mounted a significant counterpiracy response to attacks in the Greater Gulf of Aden beginning in 2009 and shipping companies started to implement protective measures to safeguard their transports, piracy endures because the conditions driving it persist. Successful attacks against ships produce sizable payoffs, and the risk of capture remains low in most places. Further, the continued presence of fragile governments, corrupt elites, joblessness, and illegal foreign fishing ensures that pirates will continue to pose a threat to marine traffic. Recognizing the enduring hazard of sea piracy, the International Maritime Organization Assembly in December 2021 called for a decade-long commitment to capacity building so that governments would have the tools to suppress organized criminal violence and protect seafarers.

Current research efforts focus on the subnational drivers of pirate attacks. While structural (country-level) indicators of poverty and institutional fragility correlate with piracy, local conditions on land proximate to anchorages and shipping lanes where incidents occur provide additional leverage in explaining where pirates locate and why piracy endures. Existing research also suggests piracy is connected to armed insurgency. As rebels seek resources to help fund their antistate or separatist campaigns, piracy, like gemstones, oil, and narcotics, can serve as a means to pay fighters and purchase weapons. Spatially and temporally disaggregated analyses as well as the synthesis of research on civil war, organized crime, and maritime piracy will open up new lines of inquiry into the relationship between rebel fighters, transnational crime, and state capacity. Not only do we observe connections between trafficking, piracy, and illegal fishing, but interstate rivalry and resource competition enables maritime crime by impeding coordinated government efforts to apprehend sea criminals.


  • Contentious Politics and Political Violence
  • World Politics

Updated in this version

The abstract, figures, and references have all been revised and updated to reflect the latest developments. Additional material on IUU fishing was also added.

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