Where do pirates go? Where governments are less effective.
Ursula Daxecker, University of Amsterdam
Brandon Prins, University of Tennessee-Knoxville
The rise and fall of Somali piracy and increasing attacks on oil tankers off Nigeria’s coast has led to increased attention to maritime piracy among journalists and academics. This interest in piracy has produced a number of useful findings supported in case studies and statistical analyses. For example, governments with low state capacity struggle to police coastlines, combat crime, and thus experience more piracy. Poor economic conditions, such as a lack of legal labor market opportunities or a decline in fisheries production have also been linked to increases in piracy. In addition, favorable geography, including long coastlines or proximity to shipping routes, contributes to an environment attractive for prospective pirates.
These findings helps us understand why some countries or regions are particularly prone to piracy, but neglect the question of where pirates locate to plan and carry out attacks. Experts note that pirates need sanctuaries on land to operate, but we lack a theoretically informed understanding of how pirates choose locations for organizing attacks. In an article forthcoming in International Interactions, we argue that pirates as strategic, criminal actors weigh the potential gains from successful attacks against the risk of capture when choosing locations. Distance from government power centers or difficult coastal terrain should help reduce the risk of capture and thus influence the calculus of pirate organizations. Indonesian “island pirates,” for example, carry out attacks from areas separated from administrative and economic centers by sea or long roads (Frecon 2014). As shown in the map of piracy incidents in Indonesia below, piracy incidents cluster at significant distance from Jakarta.
Data Source: International Maritime Bureau
Similar dynamics regarding location have been emphasized for insurgent groups and terrorist cells, where research has shown that conflicts tend to occur in peripheral regions, particularly in more capable states. If pirates consider government strength as we have outlined, it follows that the location of pirate organizations and attacks should be a function of state capacity. As state capacity increases, pirate attacks should be located further away from centers of government power such as state capitals, whereas pirate attacks may occur in close proximity to government power centers in very weak states. We examine this expectation using geocoded data on piracy incidents from the International Maritime Bureau from 1996-2013. Our results show that increases in state capacity result in greater average capital-piracy distances. These findings present a first attempt to systematically explain piracy location. They additionally complement case study accounts noting pirates’ tendency to hide in remote areas.