Defining Piracy and Acts of Violence and Aggression.

Defining piracy seems at first glance to be a simple process but for the sake of intelligence gathering a more precise definition is needed especially when the information received could lead to the deployment of special operations groups to an area where in fact there has not been a properly defined recordable incident, leaving dangerous areas without adequate cover. The problem, of course, is one of the master’s experience and recent knowledge and analysis.

It is easy to make a mistake and to believe, and consequently, report an ‘incident’ when in fact the observed action was not what it first appeared to be. Large numbers of legitimate fishing vessels operate in the Southern Red Sea and many of these fishing vessels approach merchant ships either to improve their fishing or to warn ships away from their nets.

Keeping up to date with local intelligence is the best way to avoid unnecessary panic. Knowledge, as they say, dispels fear. Knowing that in the northern Somali Basin the preferred mother ships are usually local dhows and that in the southern Somali Basin the use of 8 metre whalers are used does give the master a definite advantage. Obviously these are not hard and fast rules and that is exactly why quantified and qualified regular information is needed to inform the intelligence services, such as United Kingdom Marine Trade Operations (UK MTO) who in turn will publish Best Management Practices (BMP) ensuring that everyone can benefit and contribute to everyone’s safety.
Piracy Definitions are set out in BMP 4 and in essence defining what is a Piracy attack and what is deemed to be a suspicious activity:

‘A piracy attack may include, (but is not limited to), actions such as the following:

• The use of violence against the ship or its personnel, or any attempt to use violence.
• Attempt(s) to board the vessel where the Master suspects the persons are pirates.
• An actual boarding whether successful in gaining control of the vessel or not.
• Attempts to overcome the Ship Protection Measures by the use of ladders, grappling hooks or weapons deliberately used against or at the vessel.Pirate Attack – is where a vessel has been subjected to an aggressive approach by a pirate craft, AND weapons have been discharged.Hijack – is where pirates having boarded and taken control of a vessel against the crews will.

Illegal Boarding – is where pirates have boarded a vessel but HAVE NOT taken control. Command remains with the Master. An obvious example of this is the Citadel scenario.

Suspicious or Aggressive Approach – includes action taken by another craft which may be deemed suspicious if any of the following occur (the list is not exhaustive):

• A definite course alteration towards the craft associated with a rapid increase in speed, by the suspected craft, which cannot be accounted for as normal activity in the circumstances prevailing in the area.
• Small craft sailing on the same course and speed for an uncommon period and distance, not in keeping with normal fishing, or other circumstances prevailing in the area.
• Sudden changes in course towards the vessel and aggressive behaviour.

Guidance Note:

In helping to evaluate suspicious activity, the following may be of assistance to determine the nature of a suspect vessel:
• The number of crew on board relative to its size.
• The Closest Point of Approach (CPA).
• The existence of unusual and non-fishing equipment, e.g. ladders, climbing hooks or large amounts of fuel on board.
• If the craft is armed in excess of the level commonly experienced in the area.
• If weapons are fired in the air.’

For the sake of completeness the following UK MTO advice is recommended:

‘Prudent and timely application of BMP can make the important difference of being approached, attacked, or being pirated. If any incident occurs, Masters are requested to report immediately to UKMTO via telephone and provide the details of the incident. This will ensure the information is provided to other ships in the area for their awareness and vigilance. If Masters are safely able to take pictures and/or video of the suspicious activity, please provide these via email to UKMTO (, the NATO Shipping Centre ( and MSCHOA (’


‘Vessels are strongly encouraged to report any suspicious sightings or aggressive approaches to UKMTO via telephone (+971 505 523 215). This will allow maximum opportunity for appropriate advice and assistance. Vessels are asked to follow this up with an email report and any photographs available as soon as possible after the incident.’

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