The Big Piracy Threat isn’t in Somalia, it’s in Indonesia

By:  Anthony J. Riddle,  Lynx Global Intelligence


Somali piracy is back in the media after a five-year hiatus. Some may quickly assume that the Gulf of Aden along the Somali coast is once again the hotspot of piracy. This assumption is not the case. Somalian piracy is likely to remain the least prolific of all the piracy danger zones.[1] Conversely, South East Asia maintains the highest numbers of attacks, the most dollar amount of cargo seized, and nearly three times more seafarers affected as the next closest zone.[2] Despite the data, it has received the least amount of attention by the international media, shipping companies, and great navies. South East Asia should be, based on the likelihood of attacks to shipping vessels, the focus of piracy operations rather than the African continent. The United Nations’ International Maritime Bureau’s (IMB) figures demonstrate that South East Asia accountedfor 55 percent of the world’s 54 piracy and armed robbery incidents since the start of 2015.”[3]

Terrorism and piracy near the African continent lead to increased insurance premiums and create the perception that Africa is the greatest center of piracy attacks. The West Africa based terrorist group Boko Haram operates out of Nigeria and increases the insurance assessments for the Gulf of Guinea. All the while the East African terror group, Al-Shabaab, is currently in Somalia, which inflates insurance premiums for East Africa. These terrorist organizations have a history of using vessel born improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs), which justifies their inclusion in the insurance assessments for maritime shipping companies.

These increased premiums in turn motivate shipping companies to invest heavily in fixed counter measures, additional fuel expenditures to expedite transit through high premium zones, and hiring Maritime Security (MarSec) teams to safeguard their vessels. MarSec teams represent the largest cost to companies in the fight against piracy. The international focus on African piracy rather than South East Asian piracy comes from the increased insurance assessments of a combined threat instead of the sole probability of piracy attacks in Africa.

Both the United States and United Nations use a legal definition for piracy that does not include acts within state controlled waters which complicates response efforts. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) defines piracy as acts conducted only “on the high seas”[4] as does the United States.[5] The boundary for the high seas begins after 200 nautical miles from shore which legally excludes piracy attacks conducted within this range. The Strait of Malacca is only 1.5 nautical miles wide at its narrowest point which means it does not meet this definition.[6] Shipping vessels are therefore alone in defending themselves against pirate attacks there unless the companies can negotiate for regional assistance. It is the responsibility of the private shipping companies to coordinate the legal ability to use deadly force from each of the various South East Asian states that control portions of this trade route.[1] The IMO, however, does not officially support the use of force by private MarSec teams responding to pirate attacks.[2]

Piracy attacks generally center on three major types: hijacking for ransom, hijacking for cargo theft, and crew robbery. Robbery is an attack of convenience and has a relatively low monetary payoff compared to the other attack types. Hijacking for kidnapping and cargo theft promise the highest returns on investment but require greater initial capital and some level of sophistication in planning to execute. For example, the long range off shore piracy attacks from Somalia require an initial investment in the operation of nearly $30,000 USD.[3]

The Strait of Malacca, on the other hand, is the both target rich and is a geographically enclosed area which creates a strategic chokepoint for piracy and therefore does not require similar up front costs.[4] The Strait of Malacca on average has 120,000 ships transit through this route a year, one third of the world’s commercial ships,[5] and “between 70% and 80% of all the oil imported by China and Japan…”[6] Approximately 15.2 million of the total 87 million barrels of oil produced in 2011 passed through the Strait of Malacca which is “nearly 19 times the amount that passed through the Panama Canal and four times more than the volume through the Suez Canal over the same period.”[7] Additionally, Singapore is the largest hub for “bunkering” stolen oil, or mixing the stolen goods with legitimate oil cargo, and is closely located to the South East Asian piracy area of operations (AOR) for swift cargo offload. China’s “go out” policy is a fundamental component of the country’s ability to secure the energy from abroad and it is projected that 51% of all oil coming from the Middle East while transit through South East Asia giving pirate teams sustained and varied targets to choose from.[8]

The South East Asia piracy presents an increasingly complex threat to transiting vessels because Indonesia’s prolific cyber crime. In 2013 Indonesia surpassed China as the leading source of malicious traffic and the Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo stated that the number of cases of cyber attacks increased by 389 percent from 2014 to 2015.[9] It is predicated that the capabilities of Indonesian cyber criminals will become increasingly sophisticated as the country continue to become fully modernized by 2025; as stated in their current master plan MP3EI.[10]

In light of the fact that Indonesia is already a center for both cyber crime and piracy, it is likely that this combined threat will become a greater issue for international commerce as shipping vessels continue to modernize. The IMO, for example, will require all crews from large ships to integrate an electronic control system that reads electronic charts, gives piracy updates, and is remotely accessible through satellite link.[1] This electronic integration makes the vessels vulnerable to cyber attack. The electronic control systems control critical systems of the vessel such as steering and engine functions.

Rear Admiral Thomas of the United States Coast Guard speaking during an open forum in 2015 said, “Every ship built has software that manages its engines; and that software is [now] updated while the vessel is underway from the beach, and the Master doesn’t even know that the software is being updated.”[2] This critical vulnerability will allow Indonesian pirates to utilize cyber attacks to prepare a targeted vessel for a physical attack. Pirates are now not only be able to infiltrate shipboard systems to locate and track targets but also can completely shut down the vessel’s navigation and communications prior to engagement. The remotely accessible upgrades to these supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) navigation systems are vulnerable to Distributed Denial of Services (DDOS) or scripted malware like the recently discovered BrickBot, which renders a computer system inoperable.[3] Further compounding this issue is the public dissemination of the NSA’s cache of windows exploits and ready to use malware scripts allowing technologically modest piracy groups to use the same advanced intrusion methods of a developed country’s premiere intelligence agency.[4] In this regard, Southeast Asia is emerging as the most advanced threat to maritime trade in a way that the African continent will be unable to match for years to come.










[8] July 2011 – Piracy Briefing Powerpoint presentation Final.ppt