Somali Pirates Background Material
Hijacking oil tankers and using captured merchant vessels with hostage crews as giant
motherships, Somali pirates grow bolder by the week, far outpacing a loosely coordinated global
Somali pirates seized their second oil tanker in two days on Wednesday, capturing a Greek
ship carrying Kuwaiti oil to the United States after taking an Italian oil vessel. “The piracy situation
is now spinning out of control,” said Joe Angelo, managing director of industry association
INTERTANKO. “If piracy in the Indian Ocean is left unabated, it will strangle... crucial shipping
lanes with the potential to severely disrupt oil flows to the U.S. and the rest of the world.”
Shippers say they may have to send ships around Africa at greater cost to minimise the
risk — but the growing area of pirate operations makes avoiding them altogether but impossible.
Attacks have been growing exponentially since 2007 as young Somalis in small skiffs with
AK-47s and rocket propelled grenades took to the water is to seek their fortunes.
Their first targets were local dhows and cargo ships, often UN World Food Programme ships
delivering food to stem the humanitarian crisis fed by Somalia’s ongoing instability.
But despite a growing presence from international navies, they have since pushed further
into the Indian Ocean, rendering the entire region a “war risk zone” in the eyes of insurers.
“The situation is only going to worsen,” says John Drake, a senior risk consultant for London-
based security firm AKE. “With rising ransoms, pirates are able to hire more men, bribe more
officials and wait longer periods to negotiate.”
The threat to key supply routes has prompted a host of powers including Russia, China,
India, Japan and others to send warships, working loosely alongside Western task forces
including those of the EU, NATO and United States.
Coordinated through a secure Internet chat room and meetings in Bahrain, they share
some information — but largely pursue their own strategies. China, Japan, Russia and others
concentrate mainly on running convoys to protect their own national shipping, albeit often
with other hangers on.
Western navies tend to string their ships along with the most heavily used shipping lanes,
aiming to get helicopters to any attacked ship within minutes. The EU force frequently has
ships tied up escorting WFP ships into Somali ports.
But that leaves precious few warships out in the wider Indian Ocean, now seen the area
of greatest risk. There, any ship coming under attack is much less likely to get military
support and pirates face much lower risk of interception.
The EU, other navies and insurers advise shipowners to sail fast and install basic protection
such as barbed wire to deter boarding or “citadels”, armoured panic rooms in which crew
can shelter from hijackers.
An increasing number of ships carry private security personnel, often armed and increasingly
engaging in firefights with pirates. Some firms have even floated the idea of providing their
own armed vessels escort to ships for cash.
Naval commanders had expected a falloff in attacks from December with monsoon waves
deterring the pirates of small boats. Instead, they found themselves facing a new surge with
pirates for the first time using hijacked merchant ships — including giant tankers — as
motherships to push further into the ocean and act as a launching pad for new attacks.
Naval officers and experts say the original crews are forced to sail the ships at gunpoint.
Any approach by foreign military aircraft or ships leads to the captured crews being paraded
on deck and threatened with execution if forces do not withdraw.
Navies in the region do occasionally intervene, particularly when their own flagged ships are
attacked. South Korean commandos retook a captured tanker last month days after her
hijacked, killing eight pirates.
Indian forcesalso took control of a fishing boat used as a pirate mothership close to the Indian coast.
But experts say storming moving ships is fraught with difficulty and danger, and some worry
over the legal complications. The ownership of many modern merchant ships is messy,
with many owned in one country, registered in another and crewed by a variety of nationalities.
They are also worried about escalating violence in what has so far been a largely bloodless
face-off. Pirates threatened last month to take some of the several hundred seamen held
prisoner onshore to act as hostages, threatening revenge against Korean seamen for the
killing of their colleagues.
Some suggest navies are secretly happy with the current situation, allowing them to justify their
existence in a time of tight budgets and also carve out a permanent presence on vital supply
lines at a time of heightening geopolitical rivalry.
Most agree the solution lies on the shore in stabilising anarchic Somalia and persuading
authorities in the quasi autonomous regions of Somaliland and Pultland to crack down on
their most profitable industry.
But with memories of previous interventions in Somalia and more recent Afghan and Iraqi
battles still raw, few have any appetite for onshore military action against what are effectively
semi-independent pirate towns.
“A concerted international effort to bolster organic development and growth in Somalia
may become a more and more attractive option for governments looking to tackle the issue
of piracy,” said AKE’s Drake. “The yearly cost of piracy... is already several billion dollars
and that current trend is only going to get worse.”
Source: National Post
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