2017 In Review: Maritime Security in the Indian Ocean

2017 saw a range of maritime security incidents within the Indian Ocean HRA and the highest levels of piratical activity since 2012, including the successful boarding and hijacking of merchant vessels.

Between March and May, there were nine incidents of pirate activities off Puntland, Socotra and inner Somali basin which were linked with up to three Pirate Action Groups. The majority of this pirate activity has targeted vessels with ‘low’ freeboards and ‘slow’ speeds transiting close to the Somali shore, particularly through the Socotra Gap. It is thought that following the attack 12 NM from the Somali shore of the tanker MT Aris 13, which had a two meter freeboard, pirates gained confidence and started targeting larger ships operating further afield. MV OS-35 was boarded within the eastern IRTC, followed a week later by attacks on the commercial vessels MT Alheera, also in the IRTC and MT Costina in the Somali Basin. However, this quickly ceased following the response of EUNAVFOR and CMF vessels who managed to deter and detain some of those responsible.

Six months later, following the end of the southwest monsoon, pirates attacked the commercial vessel MV Ever Dynamic and approached the Spanish fishing vessel FV Galerna III over 300 NM from the Somali coast, at distances not seen since the attack on Torm Kansas in November 2013, before being arrested by EUNAVFOR vessel ITS Virginio Fasan.

No ransoms were paid for the crew of the hijacked vessels and on returning to shore, crews have been freed following intervention by Puntland and Galmudug security forces. Somali pirate operations are likely to remain focused within the Socotra Gap and areas close to the Puntland and Somali shore. Nevertheless, whilst EUNAVFOR and CMF have demonstrated a deterrent with the ability to capture vessels operating at distances far from shore, Dryad cannot rule out pirate groups operating within 400 NM from the Somali coast – more so when weather conditions are within limits for boarding. Dryad continues to advise all Masters to remain a MINIMUM of 400 NM off the east coast of Somalia and at least 100 NM east of the Socotra Gap area. Vessels considered more vulnerable (low freeboard, low speed and little physical protection) should consider increasing this distance from shore where practical.

There have been a number of incidents throughout the region which are unrelated to piracy and instead associated with illegal fishing and local pattern of life. In early October, the Puntland Maritime Police Force detained a dhow illegally fishing off Bossaso following a fire fight that left the Captain dead. In Socotra, local fishermen are acting as a de-facto Yemeni Coastguard, protecting fishing waters from international fishing traffic – as seen in the incident on 24 October when Iranian dhow FV Sameer was attacked 40 NM south of Socotra.

In southeastern Yemen, three vessels have been shot at by men in boats off Mukalla and Nishtun. These non-piracy related incidents were results of disputes ashore with local militia or port representatives. In the Bab al Mandeb in May, MV Muskie was attacked in an incident which was almost a carbon copy of a similar incident with MT Galicia Spirit in October 2016. Both attacks involved explosions onboard fast boats close to the vessels whilst they were underway. Although no group claimed responsibility for these attacks, Dryad assesses these to be linked to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) aligned groups, and certainly not linked to Somali based piracy.

In the Gulf of Oman there have been incidents reported by security teams claiming to be attacks by pirates on commercial shipping transiting the area. Upon closer investigations these alerts have been re-assessed as non-piracy related, and more probably related to fisherman aggressively protecting their valuable equipment. The threat of piracy in the Gulf of Oman is assessed as low, as pirate groups are unlikely to have the ability to operate at distances this far from Somalia.

The Gulf of Aden and western Arabian Sea are still assessed as areas at HIGH risk of piracy. Any vessel transiting outside of the patrolled IRTC, particularly if in closer proximity to the Somali coast, places itself at greater risk. Vessels transiting the area are advised to do so under the escort of the MSC HoA transit or National convoys.