Anti-Piracy Lessons from the Seychelles

Seychelles VBSS

Trainees of the Seychelles Coast Guard didn’t expect to be baptized by fire when they left Victoria harbor that morning. Yet there they stood (or ducked for cover) on the deck as 7.62×39-mm cartridges from the pirates’ AK-47s whizzed over their heads. Seychellois commandoes reacted with the sang-froid that comes from experience. They quickly turned the guns of their Trinkat-class patrol vessel on the pirates in the fishing trawler they had forcibly seized only hours before. The pirates didn’t have a chance; they dropped their weapons and surrendered.

The pirates of Somalia have returned, and small states in the region may hold the key to stopping them. Eight major piracy incidents have taken place since December 2023 and have kept the navies operating in the region busy on top of the intensifying threat posed to shipping by Houthi forces in the Red Sea. Five of these pirate attacks were successfully stopped or averted by military forces. They include a number of rescues by the powerful Indian Navy. But the Seychelles Coast Guard — the naval force of a small island state located off the Horn of Africa, strategically close to the home of notorious pirates — also played a starring role when it rescued the aforementioned fishing trawler that had been captured by Somali pirates in January of this year.

The success of the Seychelles Coast Guard shows how regional states, however tiny, can play an outsized role not only in countering piracy but also in maritime security in general. By taking quick and sharp action against malicious actors, small states can make a major contribution to regional maritime security. To stop the ominous return of piracy and address other maritime crimes like illegal fishing, smuggling, and pollution crimes across the world’s oceans, the contributions of small states will be crucial. Drawing on the Seychelles example, small states should overcome the sea blindness that pervades in many governments, recognize the sustainable development benefits from the blue economy, and understand security at sea as a political priority, while making efficient use of external security assistance.



How the Coast Guard Stopped Pirates

On Jan. 27, 2024, three armed Somali pirates attacked, boarded, and took control of the Sri Lankan fishing trawler Lorenzo Putha 4 and its six-man crew in the waters just outside the Seychelles exclusive economic zone — 800 kilometers away from Somalia’s shore.

To get that far out at sea, pirates use so-called motherships, such as fishing trawlers, from which they launch attacks with smaller skiffs. According to piracy watchdogs, the three pirates were part of a larger group operating in the region.

An alert was quickly raised by the European Union’s Maritime Security Centre Horn of Africa via its Mercury information sharing network that connects navies in the region. Air surveillance was launched to track the vessel.

According to conversations we had in March with government officials, including the Seychelles Coast Guard, the pirates ordered the captain of the fishing trawler to sail straight to Somalia. But the captain tricked his captors. Recognizing the pirates’ lack of navigational knowledge, he sailed toward Seychelles, likely (and correctly) surmising that the Seychelles military would respond to suspicious vessels in their waters.

In the meantime, the Combined Maritime Forces — a maritime security partnership led by the United States that assists in coordinating naval operations in the region — facilitated an agreement between Sri Lanka and Seychelles. As the captain of the hijacked trawler had surmised, Seychelles did have a military vessel in the vicinity. The SCGS Topaz immediately altered its course and pursued the pirates.

Gunfire at Sea

As it approached, the pirates opened fire on the Seychellois vessel, a Trinkat-class fast attack craft gifted to Seychelles by India in 2005. As a Coast Guard official told us in early March, for some of the sailors, the proximity to live fire came as a shock. Many of the crew had never encountered live action since the Topaz had set sail on a training mission. Yet years of practice paid off, and the vessel also happened to have a team of Seychelles special forces onboard.

The special forces unit returned fire and the pirates quickly surrendered to the Topaz, which had seen a medium refit in Visakhapatnam in 2017 that kitted the vessel with updated navigation, communications, and more powerful weaponry. According to Major Hans Radegonde, the head of the Seychelles Coast Guard, “We approached the boat with caution and discovered three Somali pirates on board. Despite their resistance and gunfire directed at us, it took us six minutes to gain control of the situation.”

The pirates were arrested, and the fishing crew was safe and brought into Victoria harbor on the main island of Mahe. All evidence was subsequently collected, and the pirates were transferred to the prison at Montagne Posee, where they await transfer for prosecution in Sri Lanka.

A Role Model for the Region and Beyond

Our experience in Seychelles and the western Indian Ocean region in general leads us to conclude that Seychelles now represents a noteworthy role model for other regional states. It proves that a small state with limited capacity can make a difference if it is well trained, acts in a professional manner, and is willing to shoulder the responsibility of such missions. It also shows the importance of information sharing and how well coordination in the western Indian Ocean can work if there is the will to act together.

After a decade of international capacity building assistance, the supporting architecture is certainly there. As the case shows, for coordination, regional states can draw on the European Union’s Mercury system and the Combined Maritime Forces partnership. And there is also the Regional Center for Operational Coordination. Based in the old Coast Guard facility close to the Seychelles capital Victoria, it has been active since 2019.

This center is owned by the region: It works under the auspices of the Indian Ocean Commission and is based on an agreement of seven regional states. While not activated to recapture the hijacked Sri Lankan fishing trawler, the Regional Center for Operational Coordination organizes regular operations. As was confirmed in our March visit, the center has a record of successful operations countering smuggling and illegal fishing.

These structures provide resources, information, and tools for coordination. But the anti-piracy operation of the Seychelles in freeing the hijacked Lorenzo Putha 4 shows that other factors are equally essential: preparedness and a willingness to act.

Although the Seychelles Defense Forces have limited capabilities compared to other regional states, such as Kenya, they were prepared and trained to intercept a vessel and took immediate action. This demonstrates that regional small states can defend regional waters against predatory actors. They do not necessarily need big gunboats from foreign navies. What would regional maritime security look like if bigger states followed suit?

Why Other Countries Should Follow

Seychelles, unfortunately, continues to be an outlier in a region where not all countries work together, have professional navies or coast guards, or shoulder the responsibility of confronting bad actors. This is because many states underestimate their reliance on the sea and the potential wealth it can generate. Consequently, securing the sea is not always a political priority, and the foreign security assistance that is on offer is underutilized in bolstering maritime security forces.

This means that most acts of piracy, drug smuggling, and illegal fishing go unpunished. It’s not just nonstate actors in Somalia or the Houthi in Yemen. It’s also relatively powerful states like Iran that have increasingly caused security headaches — from armed attacks on shipping, narcotics trade, weapons smuggling, or illicit fishing — for Seychelles and other regional neighbors.

Kenya, which is Somalia’s neighbor, has a relatively sizable navy and coast guard, yet has not been visible in responding to the return of piracy or other crimes. Additional members of the Regional Center for Operational Coordination structure — Comoros, Mauritius, and Madagascar — are small island states, with capacities resembling those of Seychelles. But they seem unready or undecided when it comes to taking decisive action against maritime criminals. As an official from the Indian Ocean Commission confirmed to us, these countries have contributed too little to regional operations.

This means that the countries, and the western Indian region overall, continue to be dependent on the willingness of foreign navies — from China, Europe, Japan, India, and the United States — to patrol and surveil their waters and fight crimes. If other regional countries do not step up their game and follow the Seychellois role model, addressing maritime crimes like piracy will remain the preserve of foreign navies for the near future along with the resulting risks implied by such militarization.

What International Support Is Still Required?

If other states like Kenya and Mauritius step up their game along with Seychelles, they can begin to stamp out piracy in their waters. But the problem is much bigger than piracy from Somalia. Western Indian Ocean states also need support because many of the region’s troubles, as noted, increasingly originate in Iran. Seychelles and other small states do not possess the diplomatic weight or tools to call upon Iran to help end such trouble. They can, however, potentially act as neutral venues for diplomatic action that would involve small regional states as well as larger powers.

The power of small states may be limited, but that does not mean that they cannot take action to address the challenges facing them. Seychelles has demonstrated this. It is time for others to follow suit.




Christian Bueger is professor of international relations at the University of Copenhagen and the author of Understanding Maritime Security (Oxford University Press, with Tim Edmunds). He regularly visits the western Indian Ocean region.

Ryan Adeline is a research fellow at the James R. Mancham Peace and Diplomacy Research Institute, University of Seychelles, and former diplomat at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Tourism of the Republic of Seychelles.

Brendon J. Cannon is assistant professor of international security at Khalifa University and the editor of Indo-Pacific Strategies (Routledge, with Kei Hakata). 

Image: Petty Officer 2nd Class Daniel Charest