Everything you Need to Know About Modern Pirates

Few topics are as prone to misconceptions as modern pirates. Likely, when you think of pirates, your mind will drift back some centuries. Naturally, you’ll think of wooden sail ships making their way across the Caribbean, plundering government vessels, and causing havoc across coastal towns. Images of black flags with skulls and bones reign galore.

Yet, this image is mostly mistaken—at least when it comes to our times. We often think of pirates as a historical artifact when, in reality, they continue to roam the seas and threaten imports galore. In fact, they remain one of the most important threats to maritime cargo and, over the last 30 years, have resulted in almost 13,000 attacks on active vessels.

The main difference is that pirates are no longer fighting the government or hiding in abandoned islands. Modern pirates, instead, focus on attacking cargo ships either stealing some of their merchandise or taking over an entire vessel and charging ransom for it. So, it’s n o longer gold chests they are after but, rather, large shipping containers. But just how much do they impact trade world wide?

At Auba, we wanted to take a closer look at modern pirates and understand their true impact on maritime trade. To do this, we expanded an existing dataset published in the Journal of Open Humanities accounting for all pirate attacks between 1993 and 2020. We added data up to May 2024 using the official data from the International Chamber of Commerce which, every day, reports on any activity related to piracy worldwide. Together we were able to account and track basically every pirate attack from the last thirty years.

First, we found that, although piracy remains a large problem today, occurrences are steadily decreasing. In 2023, the ICC reported 194 attacks in total, down 5.3% from 2022 and 74% from 2022. As it turns out, we’ve seen a steady decrease in piracy since 2010.

Total Number of Pirate Attacks (1993-2023)

A line graph showing the number of pirate attacks per year between 1993 and 2023

(Data from the Journal of Open Humanities and the International Chamber of Commerce)

If we disaggregate these attacks further, we will also notice that, in reality, the large spikes in the late 2000s were mostly related with an increase in attempted attacks, while the number of successful boardings remained steady. So, modern pirate attacks have been on the fall or have remained at similar levels for more than a decade.

Total Number of Pirate Attacks by Type (1993-2023)

A stacked line graph showing the number of pirate attacks per year between 1993 and 2023 divided by the type of attack including boardings, hijacks, and attempted robberies.

(Data from the Journal of Open Humanities and the International Chamber of Commerce)

In our data gathering efforts, we also found the actual coordinates of all attacks recorded, allowing us to gain a geographical understanding as to where modern pirates tend to attack. The map below, shows all the attacks across time, with different colors to indicate if pirates successfully boarded a vessel, attempted to board, used fire weapons against a crew, and other categorizations:

Pirate Attacks by Category (1993-2024)

A world map showing points for every pirate attack between 1993 and 2024

(Data from the Journal of Open Humanities and the International Chamber of Commerce)

You might notice, from a first glance, that a vast majority of pirate attacks are concentrated amongst South East Asia, the Horn of Africa, and the Red Sea. Although the scattered nature of points close to the horn of Africa might suggest this is the most prominent area for pirates, once we actually count them, we find a different truth. As it turns out, 46.9% of all pirate attacks occurred in East Asia and the Pacific, followed by Sub-Saharan Africa with 21.2%. Latin America, for its part, accounted for just 10.3% of all piracy examined, the vast majority concentrated in the northern part of South America.

Regions Most Affected by Piracy (1993-2024)

A pie chart showing the regions of the world most affected by pirate attacks since 1994.

(Data from the Journal of Open Humanities and the International Chamber of Commerce)

Although, it is worth noting that piracy does tend to follow a pattern. The bulk of pirates would rather attack vessels once they enter international waters, where countries have no jurisdiction and thus complicate formal prosecution. As a result, we found that the average distance from shore almost always loomed around 22.2 km—the typical distance where international waters begin. Excluding a large hike in attacks around 2010, it is safe to say that most modern pirates lurk around areas close to international borders—and so, for our analysis, we often relate each attack to the closest country to its specific coordinates.

Average Distance from Shore of Pirate Attacks (1993-2020)

A line graph showing the average distance from shore at which pirate attacks took place between 1993 and 2020.

(Data from the Journal of Open Humanities and the International Chamber of Commerce)

If we were to look at specific countries, we once again find that Asia is dominant. More specifically, Indonesia reigns as the country with the most pirate attacks with 2,133 recorded over the last 30 years. It is followed closely by Malaysia—its neighboring country—with 775 attacks. Nigeria (557 attacks), Bangladesh (475), and Yemen (469) are next in line.

Countries by Number of Pirate Attacks between 1993 and 2024

A bar graph showing the number of pirate attacks by country between 1993 and 2024.

(Data from the Journal of Open Humanities and the International Chamber of Commerce)

The question that naturally arises is why would this occur? Why is modern piracy to heavily concentrated amongst these countries? 

An initial, and often popular theory, is that modern pirates are heavily skewed towards poorer nations amongst poor nations. That, at least in theory, is what you’d expect from seeing countries like Somalia, Yemen, and Bangladesh amongst the list, all of which have GDP per capitas of less than 2,700 USD a year

However, when we plotted the total piracy rates for these countries against their GDP per capita, we found little evidence of an effect. While the countries with the most pirate attacks recorded tend to be poor, there are a number of wealthier nations that have suffered greatly from pirate attacks. One example is Singapore, a wealthy island nation  neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia that has been victim of 29 pirate attacks despite its high GDP per capita of over $89,000. In fact, we did a simple linear regression and found no statistical evidence that poverty caused piracy.

Relationship Between GDP per Capita and Count of Pirate Attacks

A scatter plot showing the relationship between GDP per Capita and the number of pirate attacks with each point representing a country.

(Data from the Journal of Open Humanities and the International Chamber of Commerce)

  Instead, we found that the key indicator of piracy was not just the poverty from a nation but its proximity to crucial points for maritime trade. To do this, we took the above map of all pirate attacks and overlaid it with our Auba Map of choke points, where we found that a majority of global trade had to pass through 12 strategic points in the world. Through it, we noticed that the bulk of piracy attacks concentrated along six choke points in two areas. 

Pirate Attacks (1993-2024) with Auba Maritime Choke Points

(Data from Auba Research , the Journal of Open Humanities and the International Chamber of Commerce)

The first three were located along South East Asia and involved the Strait of Malacca, the Lombok Makassar Strait, and the South China Sea which, together, account for 27% of all trade in strategic choke points. The second three points were located in close proximity to the Red Sea, and include the Suez Canal, Strait of Hormuz, and Bab el-Mandeb Strait which, together, represent 14.4% of global maritime traffic. Not surprisingly, pirates concentrate along these six points that account for 41.4% of shipping.

Pirates, then, are not a phenomenon of the past. They remain fairly active and target the largest trade routes in the world.They are not limited to single countries, although they do tend to inhabit concise areas where trade is most common. Recently, they’ve slowly decreased in number, but they continue to attack over 100 vessels a year. As long as trade continues, these pirates are likely to continue their activities.