As the NATO and EU NAVFOR operations Ocean Shield and Atalanta continue their work in the Gulf of Aden, Indian Ocean and Red Sea areas, one could easily be forgiven for thinking, well, that’s that. Tough luck, pirates, the world is on to you. Sadly, as anyone involved in international shipping knows, that is very far from the truth.
The fact is that the areas patrolled by the world’s navies are vast and the chance of early interdiction of a pirate skiff or mothership by a naval vessel is small. In the risk versus reward world of the pirate, it’s a virtual no-brainer.
Given that around seven percent1 of the world’s oil supplies and an estimated 22,000 vessels transit the Gulf of Aden (GoA) annually, it would be reasonable to expect that same transit route to be safe and free of incident, but the reality is far from it.
In early August 2011, the International Chamber of Commerce’s Commercial Crime Service reported that there had already been 22 successful hijackings by Somali pirates, while countless others have been approached, attacked and pursued by pirates in high speed skiffs, launched from nearby motherships.
As the methods employed by the world’s navies to combat them have become more sophisticated and organized, so the pirates have changed their tactics to suit, with the first six months of 2011 showing a dramatic rise in attacks over the same period for 2010; some 266 attacks on vessels in the period, compared with 196 for last year2.
This year’s monsoon season has been a stark reminder that pirates are highly motivated to capture their quarry. While normally shipping could breath a sigh of relief at the arrival of the summer monsoon, this year the IMB issued a statement warning seafarers of the continuing danger of pirate attack. The organization said that the movement of pirates to the GoA and Southern Red Sea (SRS) areas, due to monsoon conditions in the Indian Ocean were a, “cause for concern.” IMB Director, Captain Pottengal Mukundan, said: “It may be that these recent Indian Ocean incidents are a sign of desperation by pirates, or that there are many more pirate groups operating now than there were in 2010, particularly outside the Gulf of Aden.”
As a leading supplier of armed security personnel to the maritime community, Neptune Maritime Security continually has Vessel Protection Teams (VPTs) transiting both the IRTC and High Risk Area, and identified a potential trend in pirate tactics during the monsoons.
While July was a quiet month in the SRS region, with only a handful of minor reports, a string of what can only be termed ‘swarm’ attacks took place in August off the coast of Eritrea, possibly due to pirates moving up through Bab el-Mandeb, the ‘Gate of Tears,’ the strait that connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean. When the monsoons bring dangerous conditions to the open sea, pirates will retreat here to calmer waters.
It was here that large numbers of pirates were reported to be operating in ‘packs’ and attempting to swarm vessels in large numbers.
The first incident, on August 7, according to the report filed with the IMB’s Live Piracy Reporting Center3, saw 12 skiffs containing between five to eight pirates per skiff pursue and attack a bulk carrier approximately 20nm off the coast of Eritrea. As the skiffs approached to within 300m of the carrier, the Master ordered the armed security guards onboard to fire warning shots at the pirates’ skiffs. While this show of force saw the majority of pirate vessels break off their attack, two skiffs continued in their pursuit for some 30 minutes, returning fire at the armed guards until they, too, aborted their attack. If one believes the report – and there is no reason to doubt the legitimacy of reports filed with the IMB – then even underestimating the number of pirates to just 60 still leaves us with evidence of a worrying trend in pirate tactics.
Following an advisory notice issued by Neptune Maritime Security to both the media and other companies in the industry, we received news of a second ‘swarm’ attack4 on August 10. On this occasion, a Panama-flagged tanker, Golden Topstar, was pursued while underway at 13:08N-043:07E by pirates in 12 skiffs. The vessel evaded the attack by employing evasive maneuvers and firing flares. The site of the incident is just 6.5nm away from the attempted attack three days previously.
A third ‘swarm’ attack occurred5 on August 17. A bulk carrier underway, approximately 22nm off Assab, Eritrea, at 13:16N-043:01E, was approached by seven high speed boats, each containing three to five men, armed with automatic weapons. Again, the attack was repelled thanks to the employment of evasive maneuvers and an increase in speed by the vessel. This attempt occurred just 10.2nm away from the incident on August 10th.
Reports then emerged from the Iranian Navy, concerning a wave of attempted attacks on the bulk carrier ‘SAEI’ at the mouth of the SRS at Bab-el-Mandeb, although exact location information was not provided. According to the Iranian Navy report, the first attack saw four skiffs containing 20 pirates engage the vessel, the second wave featured eight skiffs with a force of 40 pirates and a third and final attempt was said to feature just two skiffs with just 12 pirates on board.
While some sources have questioned the credibility of these reports, the bulk of available data should at least raise concerns in the industry as to the changing and malleable nature of the tactics employed by pirates in the area. The IMB reports6 that (at the time of writing), since May 20, 14 vessels have been attacked in the Southern Red Sea.
Further east, pirates were also changing their MO, choosing to avoid the rough Arabian Seas in favour of daring raids near major shipping hubs.
The successful hijacking of the chemical tanker, Fairchem Bogey7, on August 20, illustrates how pirates have altered tactics in response to pressure from EU NAVFOR, the monsoon and better practice by vessels transiting the HRA. According to reports, the Fairchem Bogey, carrying a cargo of methanol, anchored 4-5 miles off the Omani port of Salalah. Ironically, the armed guards employed by the shipping company to watch over the vessel in transit had disembarked once the ship reached what was thought to be safe anchorage. Then, at approximately 0630 UTC, a group of pirates stealthily boarded the vessel and took its crew of 21 hostage. Did the pirates have someone on shore, advising them of the protection team’s departure, or was this just dumb luck? We may never know.
The attack caused concern not only due to its brazen nature, but also because Oman has a well resourced Coast Guard, who were on the scene within an hour. Unfortunately, by then it was too late, and they were warned off by the hijackers, who later sailed the vessel to Garacad and demanded a $10m dollar ransom for its release8.
The attack shows parallels to the hijacking of the cargo ship, Leopard, which was boarded off the Omani coast on January 12. The freighter had discharged its armed guards and was boarded shortly afterwards. Six crew members are still being held hostage by the pirates involved9. Since the hijacking of the Fairchem Bogey, there have been several other attempts made to attack vessels, which the Omani Coast Guard have rebuffed.
While attacks on vessels off Oman are hardly news, recent weeks have seen an increase in attempted hijackings in the region, which perhaps illustrates the increasing pressure pirate gangs have felt due to local weather conditions, the presence of naval vessels and more recently, the presence of armed security guards onboard vessels. According to EU NAVFOR, 90% of ships surviving a pirate attack in the Gulf of Aden this year have credited a security team for aiding their escape10.
As we reach the end of the monsoon season, international shipping can once again expect Somali pirates to strike out further into the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean in an attempt to make up for time lost due to the monsoon, utilising hijacked fishing boats and merchant vessels as mother ships. As Captain Keith Blount, Chief of Staff with EU NAVFOR told Reuters: “I think we are going to see a surge in piracy because we always have done at this time when the southwest monsoon abates and the seas become flatter.”
“Typically the pirates have a really good go in the autumn and winter,” he said on the sidelines of a shipping conference11.
The international battle against piracy continues its cat and mouse game, with no immediate end in sight for either the beleaguered shipping companies who have paid an estimated $95 million in ransoms this year alone, or the estimated 343 seafarers still being held hostage in Somalia12.
Neptune Maritime Security
(As published in the October 2011 edition of Maritime Reporter & Engineering News - www.marinelink.com)