Friday, November 28, 2008

Somali Islamic Courts Union responds to issue of piracy

In today's online edition of the London-based, Arabic newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, a spokesman for the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) in Mogadishu is interviewed about the piracy situation in Somalia. Sheikh Abdul Raheem Isa Ado says the Islamic forces are warning pirates to effectively cease and desist, just as ICU did when they briefly held power in Somalia in 2006. Of note to Somalia-watchers is that Abdul Raheem also says that there are no disputes between the ICU and al Shabaab, the Islamist organization holding sway over parts of southern Somalia.

Assessing recent pirate incidents off the Horn of Africa

With the capture of another vessel off the Horn of Africa earlier today - the 97th this year - pirates in that region are making it even more difficult to combat the problem. The Liberian-flagged product tanker MT Biscaglia was reported hijacked in the Gulf of Aden, and the vessel is now under the control of Somali pirates, who also hold the tanker's crew of 27 Indian and Bangladeshi mariners.

Undated photo of product tanker MT Biscaglia saling in unknown waters; note fire hoses deployed as anti-piracy measures (photo: Daily Mail/AFP/Getty Images)

Since the hijacking of the MV Faina on September 25, international attention has been more and more focused on the problems created by pirates operating off East Africa, reaching a crescendo, of sorts, with the seizure of the Saudi supertanker Sirius Star last week. This has led to many to wonder whether the time has come for a robust and forceful response to this threat, and among the most common ideas put forth are:
  • Should international governments dispatch their navies to take up station in those waters?
  • Should those warships be allowed to engage pirate vessels, destroying them, arresting suspects, even killing those who resist?
  • Should vessels just avoid the waters off the Horn of Africa and the Suez Canal, taking the longer journey around the Cape of Good Hope?
  • Is it time to arm civilians seafarers, or place guards on their ships to protect against attacks?
They sound like good ideas, but it may come as a surprise to many to discover that each and every one of these is currently being tried, yet piracy continues unabated off Somalia. For instance, it is reported that there are presently at least 14 foreign warships patrolling those seas, representing the navies of the United States, Russia, India, the United Kingdom, Denmark, France, Germany, Pakistan, Turkey, Italy and Greece, and it's expected that these will be augmented by more warships shortly. So there is already a presence in the region, though it hasn't necessarily prevented that many pirate incidents.

Some of those warships have, indeed, engaged in actions against suspected pirate vessels, including the French sending commandos to rescue hostages being held, the British sending forces who killed several pirates, and the Indian navy destroying a vessel believed being used by pirates. Pirates have been arrested by the US Navy and deposited ashore in Mombasa, Kenya, where the Somali men were later tried, convicted and remain imprisoned. So there is a very robust degree of activity going on from the naval end of things. However, since the Indian navy's recent actions turned out to be tragically wrong, there may be some hesitancy before weapons are next brought to bear on a suspected pirate boat.

As to avoiding the region entirely, this was exactly what the Sirius Star was doing when she was abducted, albeit on a route that is often taken by supertankers of her size (avoiding the confines of the Suez Canal). But the further away from the main shipping routes, the more isolated and potentially vulnerable a vessel becomes. The route through the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea is relatively confined, which could make it easier to protect vessels if a more organized naval protection force could be assembled.

The idea of arming mariners remains controversial for a variety of reasons, not the least for fear it will make attackers more likely to fire their own weapons while boarding and seizing ships. For instance, one might assume that the Ukrainian and Russian crew of the Faina knew a little about how to handle small and long arms, having probably done their compulsory military service at home. But even with a cargo full of weapons and munitions, they opted not to fight back against the Somali pirates who overwhelmed the civilian crew.

Finally, we get to the idea of placing guards aboard merchant vessels. This is an expensive proposition - costing at least $10,000 for a short trip, though one could easily expend much more than that on a private escort boat (such as Blackwater Marine's McArthur). It also opens things up to an even greater disparity between wealthy and poor seafarers, where Third World mariners become the ransom fodder of pirates.

Most importantly, though, security guards are no guarantee that pirate attacks can be foiled, as the hijacking of the MT Biscaglia shows. It turns out there were three guards aboard the tanker who were employees of Anti-Piracy Maritime Security Solutions (APMSS), a UK-based firm hired to defend the Biscaglia. For reasons still unknown, the guards were unable to thwart the attack and the men (two British, one Irish) ended up jumping overboard. They were later rescued by a German naval warship.

(As reported in the Times Online today, APMSS head Nick Davis discounts any suggestion that his men ran away, saying that, "They had no option...As far as I'm concerned they deserve a medal." One should be extremely cautious about making critical comments regarding this incident without having a complete picture of the events that transpired, something that may not develop until the Biscaglia and her crew are freed. It's possible that some of the hostages might feel better about their current situation had the security guards still been there. Hopefully there will be some among the tanker's crew who will show leadership in the face of an extreme situation and provide hope for their fellow prisoners, as it is clear that these mariners are on their own for the time being.)

To sum up, sending vessels the long way around Africa hasn't deterred pirates. Placing security personnel aboard merchant ships hasn't stopped pirates. Deploying over a dozen warships from a variety of nations hasn't prevented attacks. And using armed force has only resulted in the deaths of innocent seafarers.

All of this should be a signal that the current efforts to deal with Somali piracy are failing and that it's time to look at other solutions. Chief among these will be thinking long and hard about addressing the situation ashore, from where these pirates gain their support. And how international efforts are coordinated to suppress Somali piracy will become a litmus test for how we react to the next threat posed by pirates, such as in the waters off West Africa.

Three private security guards being rescued from the Gulf of Aden after
fleeing the hijacked tanker MT Biscaglia (photo: Daily Mail/AFP/Getty Images)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Hijacked supertanker Sirius Star's position identified

Britain's Guardian newspaper paid to have a satellite pass over the waters off Somalia where the pirate-hijacked supertanker Sirius Star was believed to be anchored and found the vessel. The tanker's position is given as latitude 4.595 N, longitude 48.085 E. A low rez image is below.

Supertanker Sirius Star visible to the extreme right (GeoEye/Guardian image)

In related news, is reporting that the negotiations with the pirates holding the supertanker are now being carried out by an American businesswoman, Michele Lynn Ballarin. Ballarin's Virginia-based firm makes body armor and provides executive protection services and she has extensive experience with Somalia, forging connections fostered through years of travel there.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

NPR's "To the Point" radio show talks about piracy

You can listen to an excellent panel discussion about piracy from yesterday's episode of To The Point, the current affairs show hosted by Warren Olney on NPR, by following this link (downloadable as a podcast, too.). The original show aired Tuesday, November 25, 2008.

Guest hosted by Sara Terry, the panel consisted of Chatham House African expert Roger Middleton, American maritime lawyer Mark Tempest, shipping industry organization Intertanko's deputy managing director Joe Angelo, International Transport Workers' Federation general secretary David Cockroft, and yours truly offering a little bit of input as a journalist who's been investigating piracy the last few years. It was an interesting panel and you'll hear some excellent analyses from the other guests.

Indian Navy sinks the wrong vessel

It has now been confirmed by the IMB's Piracy Reporting Centre that the vessel sunk last week by an Indian warship was not a pirate mothership but, rather, a fishing boat that had been hijacked by pirates. The Thai-owned fishing boat, Ekawat Nava 5, had been commandeered early on November 18 and the crew had been tied up by their captors, according to the shipowner. Later that same day, the Indian Navy Ship Tabar encountered the Ekawat Nava 5 and ordered the fishing boat to stop for an inspection. The pirates are reported to have threatened the warship, leaving the Indians no choice but to fire on what they believed was a mothership, eventually destroying the vessel. But with the rescue of a crewman from the fishing boat day ago, after six days adrift, the real story has come to light, with tragic consequences. Fourteen of his crewmates remains missing.

Photo of Ekawat Nava 5 exploding, Nov. 18, 2008 (Indian Navy photo)

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Hijacked supertanker's ransom announced

It is now being reported that the Somali pirates holding the Saudi supertanker Sirius Star are demanding a ransom of $25 million (US). That's a surprisingly small sum for a vessel and cargo valued at a quarter billion dollars, and a likely sign that the pirates want to be paid quickly and release the tanker.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Piracy and the Law

In the last 24 hours, two more vessels were hijacked off East Africa and a pirate ship was blown out of the waters. Interesting developments as we watch the ongoing situation off Somalia in the wake of the seizures of the supertanker MV Sirius Star this past weekend and the freighter transporting T-72 battle tanks, the MV Faina, two months ago.

The hijacking of a Greek bulk carrier yesterday shows there is no respite in the current pirate campaign against mariners. A Thai fishing was also reported to have been attacked, and is now in the hands of Somali pirates. No doubt the anger is growing in commercial, governmental and security establishments to do something about the crisis (for that it what has become), and we are already hearing of upcoming deployments of warships from participants eager to augment the naval vessels already in the area.

Some wonder if these naval forces may take a more pro-active role - such as sending Special Forces teams to board hijacked vessels and free them - however this is an unlikely scenario. The question is: If naval forces were to board the Sirius Star and rescue her crew, would these same forces be used to free every other ship held by pirates? Or would it only be the largest and most valuable merchant ships that are considered worthy of rescue? When France sent commandos to Somalia to deal with pirates - twice, I might add - their activities were limited to dealing with French vessels, not those of any other nation. It's an important question to address, for the Sirius Star and her crew should not be considered more important than that Thai fishing boat and its crew.

Meanwhile, I'd like to point readers to an excellent piece written at the EagleSpeak blog that talks about the legal aspects of modern day piracy. It's well worth a look.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Somalia: How big can you go?

Somali pirates have seized their largest prey to date, a 318,000 dwt supertanker. The MV Sirius Star was sailing about 420 nautical miles southeast of Mombasa, Kenya, on Sunday when a group of armed men boarded her and seized control of the immense vessel and took hostage its crew of 25. The vessel was reported to be sailing with a full load of 2 million barrels of crude, bound from the Middle East to the United States. The tanker was taking the long route around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, avoiding the more dangerous pirate haunts in the Gulf of Aden.

This marks another note-worthy incident by pirates in that part of the world, for a number of reasons: First, the size of the Sirius Star is notable, with the seizure making this one for the record books. At 330-metres (1080 feet), the tanker is among the longest vessels plying the world’s oceans, the same size as a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. The tanker – a very large crude carrier (VLCC) – is operated by Vela International Marine, the shipping arm of the state-owned firm Saudi Aramco, and has a multinational crew hailing from Great Britain, Croatia, Poland, the Philippines and Saudi Arabia. Given the tanker’s size, the pirates who took control would have to rely on the professional mariners aboard the Sirius Star to operate the vessel. And there is no harbour in Somalia that can accommodate a VLCC like this, nor are their any refineries in the country able to process the crude. (It is reported by new agencies like AFP that the Sirius Star is headed towards the pirate stronghold of Eyl.)

The fact that the vessel was hijacked so far south, in an area where there had previously been little activity by Somali pirates, points to a new theatre of operations for maritime criminals. Coming on the heels of several other attacks in the last week, the seizure of the Sirius Star occurred in waters where there is little in the way of an international naval presence; the majority of warships are patrolling the waters around the Horn of Africa. This enlarges the area that will now be considered dangerous due to piracy, and should attacks continue in this region it will require the deployment of additional naval forces to properly address the situation.

Finally, taking control of an oil tanker represents an attempt to increase dramatically the ransom demands. The crude oil is reported to have a value of $100 million; the vessel is newly built – it made it maiden voyage from a South Korean shipyard in March of this year – and has a book value that will be in excess of $100 million. Expect to hear ransom demands that are higher than those being asked for the MV Faina and her cargo of Soviet tanks.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Somali pirates seize fishing boat in Kenyan waters

Andrew Mwangura of the East African Seafarers Assistance Programme says that a Chinese fishing boat, the Tianyu No. 8, was hijacked around 2100 local time Thursday evening. He tells me that, "The location is not yet known, but it is believed that it was [hijacked] within Kenyan territorial waters." The crew of 24 is believed to be unharmed and the vessel is now in Somali waters.

Prior to hijacking the Tianyu No. 8, the same pirate gang is believed to have attacked the Russian-operated container vessel Kapitan Maslov as it was sailing off Pemba Island (Tanzania). in that incident, Mwangura says that the boxship, "Managed to escape with minor damages and is expected to dock in Mombasa port this evening."

In related news, Lloyd's List today reports that another pirate attack was repulsed in the Gulf of Aden by a vessel armed with a magnetic acoustic device. The unnamed vessel was sailing about 18 miles off the Yemeni coast when approached by suspicious boats, forcing the ship to take evasive manoeuvres. A three-man team of security guards aboard the vessel deployed the device to drive the pirates away. The guards are ex-special forces personnel hired to provide additional security in the waters of this region, and it's almost certain that their numbers will increase over the next few months as ship owners worry about the costs of doing business off East Africa.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Somalia: How low can you go?

The ongoing situation regarding the freighter MV Faina remains unclear. The Faina is the vessel hijacked by Somali pirates on September 25, along with her crew and a cargo that includes 33 T-72 battle tanks. Her captain died shortly after the ship was seized, possibly suffering a heart attack, and the freighter continues to be anchored near the Somali coast, boxed in by foreign naval vessels from the United States and Russia.

But while that situation remains at an impasse, pirates have not let up in their attacks on merchant ships plying the waters off the Horn of Africa, targeting a number of vessels in the last week. This led to joint British-Russian efforts to assist a Danish vessel, the MV Powerful, which was assaulted yesterday by pirates presumably intent on hijacking the ship. In response, two helicopters were deployed from the Royal Navy frigate HMS Cumberland and the Russian frigate Neustrashimy, while British boat teams were also dispatched. The end reuslt was that two of the would-be attackers were killed by British commandos, the first instance of the Royal Navy engaging pirates in quite some time.

Meanwhile, the situation in Somalia itself continues to deteriorate. As reported by Time Magazine, aid workers are being killed ashore, government officials are being killed, civilians are being killed and even Italian nuns are being abducted. As the article by Alex Perry points out, 8 UN staffers and 24 aid workers have died in Somalia this year. there is no idea how many Somalis have perished in the anarchy that reigns there.

But just one under-reported event gives you some idea of how the downward spiral in Somalia is continuing: A 13-year old girl is reported to have been stoned to death by Islamic extremists on October 27 in the southern part of the country. Her crime? Having commited "adultery" after being gang-raped. That incident allegedly involves the al-Shabaab (Arabic For Youth) gang, who have been linked to incidents of piracy off Somalia, including the taking of the MV Faina.

The connection between sea-based piracy and land-based tyranny should not be forgotten in this part of the world. Expect things to get worse.