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Transnational Organized Crime and Security 101: Organized Crime at Sea



Transnational Organized Crime (TOC) continues to be an issue near the top of the international agenda. While crime has always been an issue, criminal organizations have developed increasingly sophisticated methods. Such international crime can be a threat to the peace and stability of even the most developed countries. The newest technologies have many such crimes even less restricted by borders. The Transnational Organized Crime and Security 101 series aims to analyze the different forms of organized crime and the mode of operation of different organized groups. This series will further explore the similarities and differences between Transnational Organized Criminal groups.


The Transnational Organized Crime and Security 101 series is divided into the following six chapters:

4. Transnational Organized Crime and Security 101: Organized Crime at Sea

5. Transnational Organized Crime and Security 101: Human Trafficking and Smuggling in Africa and Europe

6. Transnational Organized Crime and Security 101: Organized Crime in Eastern Europe and Balkans


Transnational Organized Crime and Security 101: Organized Crime at Sea

Piracy is defined as "an act of boarding or attempting to board any vessel with the apparent intent to commit theft or any other crime, and with the intent or capacity to use force in furtherance of that act" by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) (van der Meijden, 2008). The IMB definition is not concerned with a formal legal definition, but it is quite practical in terms of effectively registering pirate attacks (van der Meijden, 2008). According to international law, any illegal acts of violence or detention committed within the territorial waters of a state are not considered piracy (van der Meijden, 2008). Piracy differs from simple hijacking in two ways: first, an act of piracy necessitates the involvement of two vessels in the incident; second, an act of piracy necessitates the crime being committed for private – rather than political – reasons (Shane & Lieberman, 2009).

Maritime Security is a broad and sometimes nebulous concept. It has grown into a large task involving many entities from the international, public, and private sectors with the goals of preserving sea freedom, facilitating and defending commerce, and maintaining good maritime governance (Feldt et al., 2013). Transnational forces and irregular challenges remain the primary threats today, particularly in the maritime domain (Feldt et al., 2013). International organizations have attempted to reduce, eliminate, or otherwise control maritime security threats. This includes international organizations like the International Maritime Organization (IMO), public agencies/organizations like law enforcement and naval forces, private industry like shipping companies, ports, privately contracted armed security personnel and entities from all nations working together to achieve maritime security. Safety regulations, such as the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS Code), shipping protection practices and naval patrols are also included (Feldt et al., 2013). Piracy on the high seas has existed since ancient times, with a resurgence in recent decades. For much of the last decade, the main focus has been on piracy in the waters off the Horn of Africa, which is almost entirely carried out by Somali pirates. Piracy has also been highlighted in the West African Gulf of Guinea and South East Asia (van der Meijden, 2008). 

Figure 1: Philippine Maritime Police patrol along the southern Mindanao coast in March of 2015.

Maritime Piracy in Somalia

By the middle of the 1990s, there were so many foreign fishing boats in Somalian waters that local fishermen were forced to leave, which led to their bankruptcy and a greater sense of insecurity. Somali fishermen then started attacking those ships on small boats with crude weapons, demanding payment, and enacting their brand of "justice" (Szuma, 2015). They quickly recognized the potential and true worth of the crews of these vessels. By 2008 this model had a story attached to it, which helped local communities accept Somalian piracy. This "grand narrative" portrays pirates as defenders of Somalian waters against intruders who not only fish, but also dump toxic waste (Szuma, 2015). As a result, piracy was portrayed as "the performance of quasi-state functions, and as orderly and rule-based." Due to hyperinflation, the realization of a profitable business model – like hijacking for ransom – , a lack of law enforcement, and a process known as the "grand narrative," contemporary Somalian piracy has emerged (Szuma, 2015).

Pirates travel aboard small, primitive skiffs of 20 to 60 feet, made of wood or fiberglass, and powered by two powerful outboard motors that can produce up to 80 horsepower (Daniela, 2010). A typical crew would consist of 10 to 15 armed pirates traveling in three skiffs equipped with automatic AK-47 assault guns, automatic rocket-propelled grenades, knives, satellite phones, and GPS (Baniela, 2010). The Somali piracy growth tendencies are correlated with economic crises and weak legal security frameworks. Somalia is a recent instance with a well-deserved reputation as a failed state (Baniela, 2010). The state lost control of its coastal waterways with the fall of the Siad Barre regime in the early 1990s by clan-based warlords, and the intermittent first stage of Somali piracy started. The general populace has experienced significant economic and social challenges since the Ethiopian invasion in December 2006 (the Ethiopian military withdrew in January 2009), which has forced the majority of them to turn to piracy because they have no other means of revenue but crime (Baniela, 2010).

Figure 2: A Somali Pirate with a gun

Maritime piracy in the Gulf of Guinea

Attacks by pirates in the Gulf of Guinea are typically launched from Nigeria to rob a ship and its crew of cargo, equipment, or valuables (Fattah, 2017). Crew-member kidnapping occurs, however less frequently than in the Indian Ocean, and as a result, levels of violence are high since pirates in the Gulf of Guinea are less concerned with protecting hostages (Fattah, 2017). In the Gulf of Guinea, piracy is caused by numerous circumstances such as poor legal and judicial systems, suitable geographic conditions, conflict and chaos, underfunded law enforcement, insufficient security, tolerant political contexts, cultural acceptance, and the prospect of reward. More specifically, oil growth in Nigeria and the resulting economic, social, and environmental circumstances in the Niger Delta are intimately linked to maritime piracy (Fattah, 2017). The population of this region relies heavily on oil revenue, yet owing to government perversion and greed, with only a small portion of the income makes it to the locals. Many people turn to piracy as a source of income due to unemployment and a lack of economic prospects (Fattah, 2017).

Shipping companies find it difficult to match stable demand with the mounting expenses of obtaining safe passage and port cooperation in the Gulf of Guinea, putting the security of Europe's maritime industry in jeopardy (Barrios, 2013). The protection provided by state or regional authorities within territorial waters is also insufficient: there are few coastguard services, and both civilian and military authorities patrol infrequently. Additionally, officials may lack the training or equipment necessary for onboarding operations, making them seriously vulnerable to the pirates when not paid off. One example of this is the Niger Delta area. Because they cooperate with the criminal networks, state authorities are directly or indirectly to blame for the absence of the rule of law. These networks function parallel to – or as a part of – formal systems and have hierarchies and godfathers (Barrios, 2013). The Seafarers Union of Kenya's General Secretary, Andrew Mwangura, has referred to them as "the enablers," or those who assist in planning, conceptualizing, and funding the attacks through mafia-like networks. Then, criminal activity is expanded to encompass the trafficking of drugs, oil, and money (Barrios, 2013).

Figure 3: A group of Nigerian Pirates

Maritime Piracy in Southeast Asia

In terms of piratical studies, Southeast Asia is regarded as a crucial region. Its rate of piracy is the second-highest. Only the continent of Africa has more crimes than were committed in Southeast Asia (Amri, 2013). The region's geographic location is crucial to global trade. Many sea lanes and straits are typically used for international transportation, primarily for commercial purposes. Southeast Asia is home to six of the top 25 busiest ports on earth, including Tanjung Priok (Indonesia), Tanjung Pelepas (Malaysia), Port Kelang (Malaysia), Singapore, Manila (Philippines), and Laem Chabang (Thailand) (Amri, 2013).

Countries like Japan have expressed concern about how to end the piracy problem. Their inability to resolve the problem prompted the international community to band together to combat piracy in Southeast Asian waters (Amri, 2013). The modern economy, politics, and social dynamics are only a few elements impacting piracy in Southeast Asia. The modern world and piracy were influenced by these elements, as well as by the diffusion of information and the growth of globalization (Amri, 2013). It is difficult to characterize piracy in Southeast Asia because it is different from piracy in other regions of the world. Its "religious, economic, and political ambitions" are independent (Amri, 2013). Nevertheless, these perceptions shifted following European colonialism and imperialism in the region in the 16th century (Amri, 2013).

Figure 4: Henry Brea and his pirating partner set sail on their speedboat in the dusk of the Malacca Strait in April of 2011.


Piracy is an act of boarding or attempting to board any vessel with the apparent intent to commit theft or any other crime, and with the plan or capacity to use force in furtherance of that act. The main focus has been on piracy in the waters off the Horn of Africa, which is almost entirely carried out by Somali pirates. Other regions raided by pirates include the Gulf of Guinea and Southeast Asia. With the second-highest rate of piracy, Southeast Asia is recognized as a crucial region.


Amri, A. (2013). Combating maritime piracy in Southeast Asia from international and regional legal perspectives: challenges and prospects.

Baniela, S. I. (2010). Piracy at Sea: Somalia an Area of Great Concern.

Barrios, C. (2013). Fighting piracy in the Gulf of Guinea Offshore and onshore.

Fattah, M. M. A. (2017). Piracy in Gulf of Guinea causes, efforts and solutions.

Feldt, L. F., Roell, Dr. P., & Thiele, R. D. (2013). Maritime Security – Perspectives for a Comprehensive Approach.

Shane, J. M., & Lieberman, C. A. (2009). Criminological Theories and the Problems of Modern Piracy.


van der Meijden, L. R. (2008). The Influence of Modern Piracy on Maritime Commercial Transport. https://Masterthesis Modern Piracy.pdf

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Edikan Victoria Inemeh-Etete

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