Piracy: more than a maritime problem
The first quarter of 2011 was the worst on record with 77 attacks and hijackings having taken place. This is happening even with the presence of a multi-national task force patrolling the world’s maritime hot-spots. The areas where the greatest numbers of pirate attacks are occurring are the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. When combined, this covers such a large area it is proving impossible to police all of it effectively.
This is putting more of the responsibility on the shipping companies to provide their own protection. By the time an alarm has been raised by a ship’s captain that a pirate attack is imminent, there is every possibility that the pirates will have boarded the ship before the task force arrives at their location.
Normally the pirates have a window of between 15-20 minutes to board the ship after the alarm has been raised and before the arrival of the task force. If the pirates are on board the ship, there can be no engagement by the military, in case any of the crew are injured or killed during any armed exchange that takes place between the task force and the pirates. At this point the situation becomes the sole responsibility of the countries flagship and government.
Somali pirates currently hold about 30 vessels and over 700 hostages. The following are examples of incidents reported in one week in April 2011:
On 1 April on the Gulf of Aden, a chemical tanker was attacked after a skiff was launched from a suspicious fishing vessel. The pirates fired RPG and guns towards the tanker but aborted the attack after a security team returned fire.
Again on 1 April, off Somalia, a bulk carrier was attacked and boarded by armed pirates. The crew took shelter in citadel. Waiting for more information.
On 2 April in Yemen a skiff with three pirates came alongside a bulk carrier but moved away when a security team fired warning shots.
On 3 April in Tanzania two skiffs armed with RPG and guns attacked a bulk carrier, but aborted after the captain raised the alarm and increased speed. Also on 3 April, in Indonesia, robbers boarded a general cargo ship and stole the ship’s store while at anchor.
On 5 April in Indonesia five robbers came alongside and tried to board a chemical tanker, but aborted the attempt after crew members gathered on deck.
On 5 April on Socotra Island two skiffs attacked a tanker, the security team fired rocket flares but the skiffs kept approaching. Only when warning shots are fired did they finally move away.
The use of private security companies on board ships could now be an alternative that shipping companies find themselves resorting to. This presents its own problems as an armed response to the pirates by the security company on board could easily escalate the seriousness of the situation. This could result in a fire fight causing unacceptable injuries and fatalities to both the crew and members of the security team on board the ship.
Another direction being taken by ships’ owners is the investment in security equipment for use by the ships’ crews to protect themselves and the ship against attack. Long range hailing deterrents and on-board water cannons have been used in the past with some success. A more recent addition to equipment available for use by either the ships’ crews or a private security company is the shoulder-mounted laser defence dazzler (SMU100), built by Photonic Security Systems (PSS) which is capable of taking effect at 500 metres which is outside the 250-350 metres range of an AK47 or RPG, allowing effective protection in a non-lethal manner.
Photonic’s managing director Paul Kerr said: “PSS recognised a gap in BMP3/BMP4. It was our aim to build an effective non-lethal defence system that was capable of neutralising a threat at a safe distance. The SMU100 was designed for use by security teams on board. At 500 meters it paints its target with a wide scanning laser making the ship too uncomfortable to look at.
“We believe properly equipped and trained security personnel are the keys to safe passage as they allow the crew to go about their normal duties, leaving the security of the ship to the specialists.”
A growing problem
The problem of piracy is growing on a day-by-day basis. It is no longer limited to the Somali and Nigerian coastal waters. Attacks are now happening on a more regular basis in the Indian Ocean, the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea. A worrying factor is the increase in the use of intimidation and unnecessary violence by the pirates against ships’ crews. There is also a noticeable increase in the amount of ransom being demanded by the hijackers. A recent ransom of US $9.5m was paid for the Samho Dream and US$2.5m for the release of a Syrian owned and Togo-flagged ship hijacked earlier this year.
There are also reports that the Somali government recently seized two aircraft with over US $3million dollars on board, believed to be a ransom payment intended for the pirates who were holding the Chinese owned cargo ship Yuan Xiang, which was seized last November along with 29 of its crew members.
The rewards for the Somali pirates are now reaching tens of millions of dollars through seizing tankers, dry bulk carriers and general cargo ships in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden, even with the presence of foreign navies patrolling these high risk areas. These areas patrolled by the task force are now being expanded to include locations where attacks are becoming more frequent.
Following an agreement by the International Bargaining Forum (IBF), made up of the ITF and Joint Negotiating Group (JNG) it was decided that as from 1 April 2011 an extended zone of risk has been added to the designated high risk area in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean. The IBF agreed vessels transiting the zone should adopt increased security measures which should include appropriate personnel or systems to reduce vulnerability.
The cost of piracy to shipping is now estimated globally to be between US$7b and US$12b per year to the industry. There is also now a difficulty of finding crews that are willing to transit the high risk areas, a problem that will have to be addressed by the shipping companies perhaps by paying a larger bonus to crews who are willing to transit high risk areas. Together, these complications could, along with the continuing increase in the number of pirate attacks, create a situation where a blockade of the danger zone could be inevitable, creating a no-go area in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean for shipping.
If this happened, it would mean all of the ships that normally use these routes would have to transit around the Horn of Africa. This additional distance would add extra days on to their voyages and greatly increase all of their transport costs, raising the cost of fuel for the ships to a much higher level than it is at present, the consequences of this would have a knock on effect on the world’s delicate economies, as the world’s trades and industries would pass the extra expenses charged by the operators on to the consumer.
Approximately 7.5 per cent of world trade uses the Suez Canal. It would also have a direct effect on 40 per cent of the world’s seaborne oil shipments which equates to 20 per cent of the world’s entire oil shipments. Geographically, the Straits of Hormuz lead to the Arabian Sea, through which an average of 17 million barrels is transported every day. Any disruption to this vital supply to the world’s trade could have a disastrous effect on the global economy.
A lucrative business
Evidence is now showing that Somali pirates are now better trained and more organised than they have been in the past. This could be an indication that terrorist organisations have probably infiltrated into what has become a very lucrative business. Meaning that the pirates/terrorists are not only looking for the rewards of piracy to satisfy their own needs but are now helping to finance their related terrorist organisations, creating a much greater and better coordinated problem for the authorities to deal with.
It is thought that Al-Qaeda may be training these gangs of pirates in camps in secluded areas of Sudan and Somalia into a militia, increasing the Al-Qaeda presence in the area by using converted young members of the local population to greatly boost their numbers. Now that the gap between terrorism and piracy is narrowing, plus a growing availability of terrorists with local knowledge, it is becoming more obvious that the international community will have to provide both Sudan and Somalia with the same level of assistance that is given to other vulnerable countries in their war against terrorism.
In order to achieve this, the level of support to these nations would have to be more than just a military presence. Education, basic humanitarian needs, hospitals are all as important if not more so than a military solution. Without these countries having properly elected and nationally trusted governments, any help will be shortlived, meaning any solution will be a long way off allowing terrorism to get an even stronger foothold in the African continent.