At its peak, piracy in East Africa prompted NATO, the European Naval Force and U.S. Combined Maritime Forces to create an international coalition. Dubbed "Operation Ocean Shield" by NATO, the effort dramatically curbed attacks on the high seas, with not a single ship having been captured by pirates off the Horn of Africa between 2012 and 2016.
However, MAST's Norwood said the rise in attacks could be seen as pirates "dipping their toe in the water once more."
A NATO official told CNBC via email: "Given the complete lack of attacks during [2012-2016], Allies agreed that the mission had achieved its military objectives — but that the Alliance would keep a close eye on developments." Should the need arise, however, allies could restart counter-piracy patrols, he added.
According to the U.S. Navy, certain vessels have been able to fend off attacks themselves, or at least hold off attackers until naval forces arrived on scene. Still, MAST data show that of 48 instances of piracy in the first quarter of 2017, 36 were either boardings or outright hijackings.
Piracy in the South China Sea
For pirates, trade ships remain to be an attractive target in Asian waters as well: In this year alone, MAST reported 17 maritime crime incidents across Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia. About $40 billion worth of cargo passes through the area annually, with at least $700 million in Indonesian coal exports going to the Philippines.
According to MAST, commercial vessels may already be rerouting around these islands, and any escalation of tensions in the area — such as China's territorial dispute in the South China Sea — could disrupt trade and give pirates a new opening in the Far East.
"It is clear is that the maritime environment is linked to global events and not immune to crime and terrorism in their many forms," Northwood said.