Need & Oppurtunity – The Sparks That Ignite Piracy

John Konrad
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January 11, 2009

Last week we looked at the history of piracy and the similarities between today’s headlines in Somalia and those of the Barbary Coast (LINK). In that article we introduced the likely cause of piracy; need. Today we take a harder look at this subject and introduce another necessary element in the development of regional piracy; opportunity.


Piracy is a global problem that sparks when need meets opportunity. Poverty and political instability are problems in a high number of maritime nations but few there have either the need or opportunity to attempt acts of piracy.

The most basic need comes from the inability of one to provide food, clothing or shelter to those under an individual’s care. While needs of this type would provide the impetus for engaging in piracy, it’s often the case that people lacking in these areas also lack access to the basic tools needed to hijack or rob a ship.

Need as it’s perceived by a group of people contemplating piracy can also come from changes in or a dichotomy of wealth. An individual is more likely to be content with their life and the occurrence of tragedy if they have not experienced world advances in medicine, technology, etc. If, however, a group has experienced advances, regardless of how basic, and these are taken from them, the perception of need is magnified. Even if basic needs are being met and stability has be achieved a perception of need can occur when in close proximity to people experiencing “a better life”. Such is the case of residents of Indonesia along the Straight Of Malacca, as they live in close proximity to the wealthier countries of Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.

In the case of Somalia need comes from a radical change in the wealth of a group of people. Fishermen in the region were meeting their basic needs until foreign fishermen began competing with local fishermen. This problem was aggregated by a significant decrease in the stock of local fisheries which has been attributed to pollution from commercial shipping.


Need and desire alone do not lead to the start of piracy as success also requires opportunity. A convergence of events are required to provide the opportunity for piracy.

  1. Equipment. The first step in opportunity is having the basic equipment needed to commit an act of piracy (fast boats, basic communication technology, etc) but this is a low bar for entry.
  2. Political Instability. The second step is having either a lack of or the support of law enforcement. This, combined with a lack of judicial process creates the next step of opportunity.
  3. Suitable targets are required if a pirate is going to be successful. Not every ship is easy to hijack. Many are too fast for small vessels to catch and others have features like low freeboard that provide easy access to boarders.
  4. Information. It is suspected that piracy occurs most often in the Straight of Malacca because pirates are tipped off which ships departing Singapore have received deliveries of cash. In the case of Somalia, pirates first captured larger fishing boats and utilized the knowledge of the captured crew. Now they are believed to be using ransom money to buy equipment (AIS receivers, Internet access, etc) that facilitate the gathering of information.

Suitable Targets

Of the events of opportunity required to commit acts of piracy the most important is an abundance of suitable targets close enough to land to be accessed by small vessels. This occurs only in select areas of the world known as Choke Points. The following graph shows the choke points of the world oil supply:

world oil choke points


2008 Piracy Mapped

2008 Piracy Map

The red dots show successful attacks and the yellow dots show unsuccessful attempts. The two are loosely correlated by the sophistication of the pirates.

Political Instability

The following map showing political risk and poverty comes from The Economist:



The Hotspots

Of interest is the correlation between the choke points, piracy and political stability / poverty. To demonstrate this we have overlaid the three maps below:

Piracy, Choke Points and Political Stability Map


Combined Effect

The combination of these three maps clearly shows the correlation between opportunity (a high number of potential targets & lack of political stability), need and the resultant acts of piracy.

Of note: There is one discrepancy in these findings, Nigeria. This is because need and opportunity collide, not with the transportation of oil, but the exploration and production of this valuable commodity.


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