Somali Pirates Widen Their Net

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Abductions of tourists from Kenyan holiday resorts have drawn renewed attention to the problem posed by Somali pirates. While pirates' attempts at hijacking ships in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean have increased, their success rate is declining, thanks to interventions by naval task forces and self-help measures by the shipping industry. Now, however, the pirates are venturing further afield and turning their attention to different targets.

In September, a British woman was abducted by boat and her husband killed at a coastal resort in Kiwayu, close to Kenya's border with Somalia. In October, a disabled French woman was kidnapped from a northern Kenyan island, and died in captivity in Somalia. It is unclear whether the abductors were pirate gangs or other criminal groups, although reports from the Harardhere area suggest the British woman, Judith Tebbutt, is being held by pirates.

The targeting of Kenyan resorts is not the only new tactic, as Somali-based groups have also increased their ransom demands - from an average $500,000 in 2005 to $5.4 million in 2010 - and used captured merchant vessels as 'mother ships' to broaden their range as far as 1,000 nautical miles (nm) off the East African coast towards the Maldives and as far south as the Mozambique Channel. In 2011, they hijacked a vessel anchored just 3nm off Oman and stayed more active during the summer (June-August) monsoon season by focusing attention north in the Red Sea.

Safer sailing
According to the International Maritime Bureau, attempted piracy attacks worldwide reached record levels for the first nine months of 2011. Of the 352 in that period, 199 were carried out in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean by groups based in Somalia, compared with 126 in the same period last year. However, the number of successful hijackings of ships fell to 24 from 35. According to EU Naval Force Somalia, the European Union's counter-piracy mission, only nine vessels are being held in Somalia, with an estimated 246 hostages; the IMB estimates that 13 vessels are held with 249 hostages.

The reduced success rate is partly due to increased awareness by international shipping companies. Shipping lines are increasingly adopting 'best management practices' developed in collaboration with multinational naval forces and non-governmental organisations. These guidelines outline measures to deter and ward off attacks.

Ships transiting the highest-risk area (bounded by Suez and the Strait of Hormuz to the north, 10°S and 78°E) are advised to register with the Maritime Security Centre for the Horn of Africa operated by EUNAVFOR; to report to the Dubai-based UK Maritime Trade Operations office, which remains the primary point of contact for merchant vessels in the Gulf region; and to implement ship-protection measures. EUNAVFOR also suggests transiting vessels group together and travel at night, when attacks are less frequent, allowing EU forces to 'sanitise' the intended route beforehand.

Ship-protection measures suggested by EUNAVFOR include high freeboards (the height of a ship's deck above the water level; greater than 8m is considered adequate to make boarding more difficult) and the placing of barbed wire around the ship. Captains are advised to sail at a minimum speed of 18 knots; to steer a straight course to maximise speed during pirates' approach; and, if boarding is attempted, to make minor alterations to the helm to make it more difficult for the pirates. Electrified fences, water sprays, steam and foam are all suggested ways to repel boarders. More creative procedures include the use of mannequins to give the impression of permanent lookouts and greater crew numbers.

Various navies remain deployed off the coast of Somalia and in the Indian Ocean, including the international deployments of Operation Atalanta of EUNAVFOR, Operation Ocean Shield of NATO and the US-led Combined Task Force 151 as well as independent deployments from countries such as China, Japan, India, Iran and Russia. While such forces have been extremely active in counter-piracy efforts, the area of ocean to be patrolled, more than one million sq km, makes it an impossible task to monitor all shipping and prevent all possible attacks. As a result, the shipping industry is turning to private security firms to fill the gap.

The Maersk Alabama was an early example: after she was hijacked in 2009, her owners stationed armed guards on board (although Maersk Line did not employ armed guards as a matter of course on other vessels). However, a major change has occurred this year, especially after shipowners' association the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) changed its stance, acknowledging that: 'In view of the current crisis in the Indian Ocean ship operators must be able to retain all possible options available to deter attacks and defend their crews against piracy.' Some shipping lines were already quietly arming their vessels, but became much more open about it afterwards, including China's largest shipping company COSCO and Bahamian-registered Clipper Ferries/Ro-Ro.

The tide of government opinion also seems to be turning, with Norway, Italy, India and Britain all recently issuing guidelines or passing legislation to allow armed guards on merchant vessels under their flags. Germany and Cyprus are contemplating the same, while the major flags of convenience, Panama, Liberia and the Marshall Islands, do not oppose the practice.

Captain Keith Blount, EUNAVFOR chief of staff, said in September that the force was 'completely agnostic' about the use of armed guards. However, there are some worries - including among crews - that the presence of armed guards on board may lead to more violence.

Further, there are logistical difficulties in embarking armed personnel. While Indian Ocean countries such as Sri Lanka, Djibouti, Oman, Seychelles, Mauritius and Madagascar have drawn up regulations for the landing of armed guards and storage of weapons at their ports, some ports do not allow or place strict regulations on armed guards on board when a vessel docks there. In South Africa, crew have been arrested for firearms violations even when the presence of armed guards was declared by the master. Egypt briefly banned vessels carrying armed security from the Suez Canal, and now requires a declaration of weapons aboard.

Nevertheless, no vessel carrying armed guards has yet been hijacked, and for many shipowners this is the clinching argument. Peter Cook, a spokesman for the Security Association for the Maritime Industry, earlier estimated that 20% of shipping companies operating in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden would hire armed guards by the end of 2012.

Pirates' new tactics
One constituency that will not be able to take advantage of these relaxed restrictions on the use of armed guards is private yachts and tourists in coastal resorts. This remains a concern as the recent European kidnappings suggest these softer targets may be becoming increasingly attractive to pirates.

Hostages are potentially useful to pirates not only because of their potential monetary value (albeit lower than the ransoms that can be commanded for a ship), but also because they are far easier to capture and move than a tanker. Beyond the European hostages taken from Kenya in October, a South African yacht, Choizil, was captured off the coast of Tanzania in November 2010. Two South Africans are still in captivity, and according to Colonel John Steed, until recently the head of the UN's counter-piracy unit, they are being held by al-Shabaab, the Somali Islamist militia group. Conversely, American and Danish aid workers captured recently in the town of Galkayo were in the hands of pirates, who have demanded a $10m ransom for them.

This highlights another trend: a growing synergy between the pirate gangs and al-Shabaab, who still control much of central and southern Somalia. Although they remain very different groups with separate aims - one purely commercial, the other political/ideological - overlaps occur in their interests and activities. The crippling famine in Somalia and al-Shabaab's withdrawal from its strongholds in the capital, Mogadishu, in August, have created a funding shortage for the group, which they have been trying to fill by taking a percentage of pirates' ransom money. In February, Reuters reported al-Shabaab seized several pirate leaders in Haradhere and forced them to agree to hand over 20% of future ransoms. An investigation by the news agency found large payments going to al-Shabaab's 'marine office' after lucrative ransoms were handed over for released ships. Pirates' growing use of the insurgent-controlled port of Kismayo has allowed for taxation and limited cooperation between the groups.

Pirates have also begun to view hostages as political bargaining tools. When the Panama-flagged MT Asphalt Venture was released from hijack in April 2011, eight of her 15 crew members were freed. The remaining seven crew members, all Indian citizens, will not be released until Somali pirates held in Indian custody are freed, the pirate group leader has said. Large numbers of international crew members are Indian, and a total of 46 are being held hostage by Somali pirates.

Gulf of Guinea
Meanwhile, piracy off the West African coast is emerging as a separate threat. Here the modus operandi is quite different. Eight tankers were hijacked - and another 30 attacks thwarted - in the eight months to September 2011. All eight vessels and their crews were released, usually within 72 hours. However in each instance their cargo had been stolen and at least part of their fuel siphoned off; the Cypriot-flagged Mattheos 1, hijacked off Benin in September 2011, is a case in point.

Holding ships for ransom is less common in the Gulf of Guinea because, even with the limited numbers of constabulary forces in the region, it is harder to dock a ship for several weeks while negotiating. At the same time, 'bunkering' (or theft) from pipelines is common in this oil-rich part of the world, and there is a ready market for illegally obtained oil products.

The region has many of the same attributes as Somalia: largely ungoverned maritime space, poor coastal communities and nearby shipping lanes with lucrative cargo. The Nigerian coast guard, the largest in the region, is unable to prevent attacks in its own territorial waters by domestic insurgents and criminals. And where it has been able to stymie pirate activity, this has only pushed the problem into poorly patrolled waters, particularly off Benin to the west. The insurance industry's Joint War Committee in London added the waters of Benin north of 3°N to its list of areas susceptible to 'hull war, strikes, terrorism and related perils' on 1 August. The Nigerian risk zone was extended to 200 nm offshore, suggesting that, as off the East African coast, pirates in the Gulf of Guinea are attacking increasingly further out to sea.

Unlike Somalia, however, West African states have functioning governments and these have reacted to the problem. In August, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and President Boni Yayi of Benin launched joint naval patrols, which were expanded into a six-month maritime security initiative dubbed Operation Prosperity in late September. Patrols involve seven Nigerian vessels, most likely NNS Nwamba (a Balsam-class offshore patrol craft), two Lurssen 57 coastal patrol craft and four Defender-class fast patrol boats. Benin is dedicating its only two patrol boats.

However, it is unlikely that this modest Task Group 11.1 will be sufficient to end piracy in the region, and international reaction has thus far been muted. The UN Security Council noted its concern on 30 August and suggested greater international attention, but this has not eventuated. The US has donated the coast guard cutter Chase to the Nigerian navy following decommissioning. AFRICOM, the US operational command for the region, has for some time been carrying out a programme of capacity building in West African states. But these moves are far short of a concerted international response to the Gulf of Guinea problem.

Solutions on shore
Recent developments attest to pirates' persistence and adaptability. Coordinated and substantial counter-piracy efforts off East Africa have diminished their success, but not curtailed their willingness to attack. The potential rewards of piracy remain great, the targets numerous and the risks relatively small, especially in the absence of effective government and alternative revenue-earning opportunities.

There has long been agreement that the only long-term solution to piracy involves action on shore - in bringing pirates to justice and redressing the conditions of poverty and lawlessness in which they thrive. For this reason, renewed efforts are being made to help track down pirates' bases and assets, and to support countries such as Kenya, the Seychelles and Mauritius where legal action to convict and imprison pirates is proving more successful.

However, growing ties between the pirates and al-Shabaab could make the situation more intractable. Kenya relies heavily on tourism, and after the recent assaults on its holiday resorts it sent more than 1,600 troops into Somalia and threatened air assaults. Two explosions in Nairobi and warnings of larger terrorist attacks followed, showing that the cycle of violence in and off the coast of Somalia continues.

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