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The Return of Sophisticated Maritime Piracy to Southeast Asia

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What explains the recent (perhaps temporary) resurgence of sophisticated maritime pirate attacks in Southeast Asia in the face of strong regional counter-piracy efforts? Given Southeast Asian countries' relatively well-functioning institutions, political, economic, and conflict-related explanations for the return of piracy are incomplete. As an innovative extension to structural arguments on piracy incidence, we take an approach that focuses on adaptation by the pirates themselves, using incident-level data derived from the International Maritime Organization to track how sophisticated pirate organizations have changed what, where, and how they attack. In response to counter-piracy efforts that are designed to deny pirates the political space, time, and access to economic infrastructure they need to bring their operations to a profitable conclusion, pirates have adapted their attacks to minimize dependence on those factors. Within Southeast Asia, this adaptation varies by the type of pirate attack: ship and cargo seizures have shifted to attacks that move quickly, ignore the ship, and strip only cargo that can be sold profitably, while kidnappings involve taking hostages off ships to land bases in the small areas dominated by insurgent groups. The result is a concentration of ship and cargo seizures in western archipelagic Southeast Asia, and a concentration of kidnappings in areas near Abu Sayyaf Group strongholds.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: March 1, 2020

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