In March 2017, for the first time in five years, a merchant ship – an oil tanker – was successfully hijacked by Somali pirates, with its crew of Sri Lankan seafarers taken hostage for ransom (although they were released very quickly following a swift intervention by the authorities in Puntland). 

It is still too early to tell if this signals the start of a major resurgence of the piracy that occurred in the Indian Ocean between 2007 and 2012, when over 4.000 seafarers were taken hostage in the most appalling conditions. However this incident underlines the vital importance of ships and their crews remaining vigilant and to continue applying the latest version of industry Best Management Practices (BMP4) which has played such an important part in the prevention of successful attacks. 

The reduction in Somali pirate attacks has largely been attributed to the combined success of self-protective measures taken by shipping companies, including BMP4, the continued use of private maritime security companies, and the protection that has been provided by military assets in the region. But the future maintenance of current levels of military protection against piracy has become problematic due to competing pressures on navies as a result of the political situation in the Middle East and elsewhere, as well as the need to respond to the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. 

The mandate for the EU counter piracy operation, Operation Atalanta, has been extended until the end of 2018. But its future thereafter remains uncertain. ICS, along with other industry partners, is in discussion with EUNAVFOR about the transition planning for 2019 onwards, including what elements of the operation might be maintained, and what could be passed over to others such as the NATO Combined Military Force (CMF) and other independent military deployers including China, India, Japan and Russia.

At the moment ICS is keen to see the continuation of the Maritime Security Centre – Horn of Africa (MSCHOA) operated by EUNAVFOR, possibly with an expanded role. ICS is also exploring the possibility of a contingency EU force that could be called upon quickly in the event of sudden resurgence in pirate activity. 

Elsewhere in the world, piracy and armed robbery continue to be a major threat to shipping, with the ICC International Maritime Bureau recording some 191 incidents in 2016, many of them serious, with many others probably going unrecorded. 

Disturbingly, maritime kidnappings showed a threefold increase on 2015, with 62 people held for ransom in 15 separate incidents. Just over half were captured off West Africa, while 28 were kidnapped from tugs, barges, fishing boats and – more recently – from merchant ships, around Malaysia and Indonesia. Recent kidnappings in the Sulu Sea between east Malaysia and the Philippines, including several brutal murders of fishermen and a yachtsman in early 2017, are a particularly serious concern.

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