SOMALI PIRATES LAUNCH AUDACIOUS FIRST ATTACK OF 2014
Hot on the heels of the latest IMB annual report on piracy and maritime crime, heralding a welcome decrease in Somali piracy in 2013, we have the first confirmed piracy attack of 2014. In an audacious and determined attempt south of Salalah in the late hours of 17th January, a Mothership-enabled PAG attacked a transiting vessel with small arms fire.
On this occasion, the on board security team took appropriate action and repelled the attack with a graduated response, culminating in an exchange of fire when the pirates ignored the team’s initial deterrence and approached, firing their weapons at the ship. A robust response from the embarked team was eventually enough to encourage the pirate skiff to return to the safety of its dhow mother vessel, allowing the MV to continue safely on its transit.
This incident shows us that, despite the very clear decline in the scope and scale of Somali piracy, as evidenced by the IMB’s latest report and Dryad’s own figures, the threat remains a very real one. The numbers show us that there has been a clear reversal of fortune for Somali pirates in the last two years; the combined effects of proactive naval operations, compliance with anti-piracy BMP 4 measures and the embarkation of armed security guards have made life more difficult for these maritime criminals, but the problem is only broadly contained and is unlikely to be totally eradicated until a solution is found on the ground in Somalia.
In choke points and high traffic areas, such as the Gulf of Aden, naval forces generally provide an effective deterrent and are able to respond relatively quickly to incidents. Further afield, some of these forces have been deployed to apply pressure around the pirate havens, effectively blockading the shores and preventing long range forays into the sea lanes. The most recent example of this was when an EUNAVFOR frigate’s presence encouraged pirates to race back to shore, dropping equipment into the sea back off Eyl, Somalia, in Nov 2013. Beyond the shores, when incidents have taken place at range, naval forces have moved quickly to effectively disrupt Pirate Action Groups (PAG), albeit not immediately due to some of the ranges involved.
There is much ships can do to help themselves of course. Vessels that comply with BMP are far less likely to befall the misery of hijack than those that pay little attention to it. The implementation of effective anti-piracy measures, registration and communication with authorities like UKMTO and use of convoys and group transits has doubtless helped many vessels avoid hijack and transit safely through the HRA. Where consideration of the threat has led to the embarkation of armed guards, this has also been proved to be an effective anti-piracy measure.
Unpopular and controversial in the early days of deployment, professional armed guards have proved their effectiveness in supporting the shipping industry. With a powerful claim that no vessel has ever been hijacked with an armed security team on board, those that were initially sceptical on the prospect of having trained men and weapons embarked have more recently accepted that this particular ‘layer’ of defence has been a success story. Without armed guards, 2013 might not have been quite as bad a year as it was for Somali pirate gangs. With five merchant vessels and one fishing vessel attacked between the end of the SW Monsoon and year end, we could have seen a very different picture as we began 2014.
In each of the Somali pirate attacks above, four in the Somali Basin/Indian Ocean and two in the Gulf of Aden, embarked security teams were involved in deterring or repelling the attackers. Had these vessels not had armed teams on board, up to three of them could be under Somali pirate control to this day, providing new ships and crews for ransom and energising the Somali criminal cash flow, to say nothing of the morale boost for the pirates themselves following some very public and successful judicial outcomes in courts from the USA to Japan.
Of the attacks that did take place in late 2013, the most worrying were those in the Somali Basin/Indian Ocean. Here response times from coalition forces are necessarily extended, due to the significant distances that needed to be covered to render assistance. One PAG managed to conduct attacks on two separate ships on 6 and 9 Nov before NATO naval forces arrived to disrupt the group the day after the second attack. Fortunately, both ships attacked had the benefit of armed guards and were able to defend against the pirates who had desperately travelled many hundreds of miles into the Indian Ocean in nothing more than a skiff and a whaler for logistic support. Without this defence, the pirates may have taken control of at least one of these vessels.
You could be forgiven for thinking the text above to be a strong recommendation for the use of Private Maritime Security Companies (PMSC) as a panacea for all parts of the HRA, but you would be wrong. Armed security has its place in a layered defence approach to countering the pirate threat and in the foregoing examples, it appears to have been the right solution. These layers, from BMP measures to naval forces and armed security work in combination, just like medicine, to treat risk in different ways. Not all situations require the same medicine; there are plenty of areas within demonstrated Somali pirate reach where naval vessels do not routinely patrol, just as there are areas beyond the reach of these maritime criminals that do not require international naval forces or armed guards to protect shipping in transit. In many cases, good intelligence, for domain awareness, route planning and vessel monitoring alongside strict adherence to BMP anti-piracy measures and communication with organisations responsible for the reporting of emerging threats, such as UKMTO, the IMB and others, is all that is required to ensure a safe transit. Much will depend upon the risk appetite and company policy of the vessels concerned, but in every case success lies in the provision of a comprehensive risk assessment that considers the vulnerability of the individual vessel against the known threat and the environment. Only then can a decision be made on what active ingredients of the medicine are required to protect against the threat of piracy.
To end where we began, there is no doubt that the good guys in the HRA have had a good year and that success had eluded the bad guys. With reports of more naval disruptions than pirate attacks in 2013 and the recent publication of the IMB’s annual figures, it is clear that the tide has turned for those who seek financial gain from the misery of others. But the most recent night time attack on 17th Jan – the first of 2014 – in the shipping lanes to the east of the IRTC and beyond the immediate protection of naval forces, is the clearest reminder of Somali pirate intent and capability. They may have taken a beating in 2013, but this attack has shown that Somali pirates still have the knowledge, the determination and the logistic capability to mount attacks against vulnerable ships. On this particular occasion an armed team was there to defend the vessel from hijack and, one day later, naval forces located and disrupted the PAG. The next time, another vessel might not be so lucky. All those responsible for the safety and well-being of ships’ crews should, therefore, avoid complacency and consider carefully the layers of defence required to ensure safe passage for the men and women that regularly operate in these sometimes dangerous waters.