Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Somali president resigns

The president of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia, Abdullahi Yusef Ahmed, yesterday resigned his post as the leader of the internationally-recognized entity that is supposed to govern the country. He led the TFG for the last four years, through a period in which Somalia spiraled ever lower into anarchy and lawlessness. Crime - including piracy - has grown immensely; internal strife with African Union forces and various militias has increased; and the humanitarian crises facing the people have reached dramatic proportions.

Abdullahi Yusef Ahmed (AFP photo)

Whether Yusef's departure will lead to any measurable or immediate solutions to the problems facing Somalia remains to be seen, though some in neighbouring Ethiopia feel his departure could be a good sign (see here).

A quiet week

It's been a quiet week in terms of reported pirate attacks around the globe, though this should not be taken as a sign of any goodwill being shown by maritime criminals towards mariners. The International Maritime Bureau's Piracy Reporting Centre lists only four incidents on their website for the period 23-29 December 2008:
  • Off Johor, Malaysia, on December 26 six armed robbers boarded an offshore support vessel at 0340 Local time and stole ship’s stores and properties. Authorities informed who later boarded for investigation.
  • Mid-stream Saigon River, Vietnam, on December 25, an AB stationed on forecastle deck heard some noises at 0030 LT and he immediately conducted a search. Two robbers were seen escaping. Upon investigation store padlocks were found broken. Nothing stolen.
  • In the Gulf of Aden (14:13.7N, 050:51.5E) on December 25, at 1614 UTC, a bulk carrier underway was chased and fired upon by a pirate boat. The vessel sent a distress message which was relayed by a passing ship to the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre for assistance. The IMB Piracy Reporting Centre immediately contacted the authorities for assistance. A warship and a helicopter was sent to assist the crew and the vessel. Seeing the naval helicopter approaching the pirate boat aborted and moved away. One crew member onboard the bulk carrier was injured on his leg from a bullet fired by the pirates. The injured crew was airlifted to a warship for medical treatment. Rest of the crew safe. Vessel proceeding to destination port
  • And at 0340 LT on December 22 in the Chittagong anchorage (Bangladesh), a duty oiler onboard a tanker spotted armed robbers near the engine store area. The alarm was raised, crew alerted and authorities contacted. Robbers escaped with stolen engine spares.
This makes for one of the calmest periods in quite some time, but the reality is that it may just be a period in which pirate gangs are regrouping, rearming and relaxing before the New Year calls them back to work. Or, in the case of Somali pirates, they are busy negotiating ransom demands for the various vessels and crews currently being held hostage in that part of the world.

Yesterday, Kenyan piracy expert Andrew Mwangura told me that he's received information about the current fate of two of these vessels, Turkish ships seized at the end of October and beginning of November:

"Talks for the release of two Turkish ships - MV Neslihan and MT Karagöl - taken hostage in the Gulf of Aden has concluded and now debates continue on how the ransom will be delivered. If an agreement is reached, the 34 crew members of the ill-fated vessels will be set free in January next year. All 34 crew men are said to be in good health and high spirit."

(A Turkish news outlet, Today's Zaman, reports that a lawyer for one of the vessels's owners, that of the Karagöl, confirmed negotiations with the pirates are wrapping up.)

Mwangura went on to detail what he's heard about the means by which the ransom will be delivered, saying, "It has been made known that the two ships have been brought to the Eyl port and ransom bargaining has come to an end, while now delivery methods are being deliberated. There are two methods which have been approved by the pirates. The gunmen are demanding the money be dropped by air from a helicopter or plane in a balloon that will not sink, or for the ransom to be delivered by ship. At the moment the delivery from the air is the most probable method to be used."

This is the way it really does happen.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Merry Christmas

To all my friends, colleagues and readers I wish the warmest for the holidays. We've a white Christmas here in the true north strong and free, so my thoughts go those working in frigid seas. I've been there myself and offer some photos as proof. In particular, my thoughts go out to the crew of the Paul R. Tregertha. Meanwhile, I'm offline for a bit. Merry Christmas to all.

USCGC Mackinaw and CCGS Samuel Risley breaking ice in Whitefish Bay

Somali piracy in detail

As a journalist, it's often difficult to keep up with the flow of information emanating from various sources about the piracy situation off the Horn of Africa. I receive notes from sources around the world on a daily basis and maintain contacts in a variety of places, but sometimes things can just be missed. Case in point: The UN's Monitoring Group for Somalia unveiled a report on the current situation in East Africa that offers the most comprehensive look at what's going on there. The report was released December 10, yet few have noticed it - myself included. It's only thanks to the diligence of my colleague EagleSpeak that I'm writing about it. The entire report can be downloaded as a PDF here (it's the report dated 10 December 2008).

This is a phenomenal assessment of piracy off Somalia and among the more interesting parts of the report are the descriptions of how the money flows. The Monitoring Group clarifies who is paid, and how, in a manner that harkens backs several hundred years. Really.

"Ransom payments are now commonly delivered directly to the pirates on board the captured ship. Accounts of the distribution formula vary, but a source close to the Eyl network informed the Monitoring Group that the breakdown is typically as follows:

Typical distribution of ransom payments:
- Maritime militia 30 per cent Distributed equally between all members,although the first pirate to board a ship receives a double share or a vehicle.
- Pirates who fight other pirates must pay a fine. Compensation is paid to the family of any pirate killed during the operation.
- Ground militia 10 per cent.
- Local community 10 per cent (Elders, local officials, visitors, and for hospitality for guests and associates of the pirate).
- Financier 20 per cent The financier usually shares his earnings with other financiers and political allies.
- Sponsor 30 per cent

There's more, much more, in the report that is worth reading.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Pirates and peacekeepers

Image taken by unnamed member of the crew of the Zhenhua 4,
showing two of the Somali pirates who tried to hijack the vessel (CCTV)

Yesterday saw a dramatic incident in the Gulf of Aden, during which a Chinese vessel was boarded by at least seven pirates pirates. But rather than surrender to the attackers, the crew of the Zhenhua 4 barricaded themselves inside their vessel and used whatever they could find to fend off the pirates during the five-hour ordeal.

Captain Peng Weiyuan told China Central Television that, "Nine pirates armed with rocket launchers and heavy machine guns overtook our ship with speedboats and boarded the vessel. The 30 crew members onboard the ship locked themselves inside their living quarters, using fire hydrants and firebombs to prevent the attackers from entering. We also radioed the situation to the piracy reporting center in Malaysia. The crew members were all so brave during the ordeal that the bandits failed to take over our ship."

Crewman from Zhenhua 4 prepares Molotov cocktails (CCTV)

While the Chinese mariners defended themselves, naval forces in the area sent response teams, including two helicopters and a warship. The aircraft buzzed the Zhenhua 4 and fired on the pirates, forced the boarders to flee. There are more photos like the ones posted above, taken by the Chinese crew, posted on the CCTV website.

Coincidentally, the Chinese government announced it is preparing to send a small naval force to the Horn of Africa to assist in the anti-piracy efforts. A couple of destroyers and a supply/support ship are expected to depart from their homeport on Hainan Island sometime around December 25, for a three month deployment.

Meanwhile, there has been an interesting twist in the way the United States government feels Somalia's lawlessness should be addressed: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that her government feels that UN peacekeepers should be sent to the country, going so far as to say Washington will be pushing the Security Council to authorize such an action before the year ends.

The only problem is that the UN feels that a stabilization force - not blue helmets - should be sent in first. This is, after all, only logical as there is no peace to be kept in Somalia. Only after law and order has been restored should a multinational peacekeeping force take over.

One idea put forth by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is to increase the size of the African Union forces already in place in the region. Last month, he told the Security Council that a highly skilled force of about 10,000 troops is required to stabilize Somalia, after which a UN peacekeeping force of 22,500 should be deployed to Somalia. Ban apparantly contacted 50 countries to see if anyone was interested in volunteering their soldiers for such a force, but only one or two responded positively.

After all the years Washington and the UN have criticized each others political/military ideas, it seems a bit odd to hear the Secretary-General advocate peace enforcers while Rice trumpets peacekeepers.

EU Naval Force (Horn of Africa) website

I've added a permanent link (at right, under General Piracy) to the new website devoted to the Maritime Security Center (Horn of Africa) set up by the European Union's Naval Force. It's a well-organized site, worth visiting.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The continuing trials of anti-piracy advocate Andrew Mwangura

As I reported back in early October, the head of the East African Seafarers Assistance Program, Andrew Mwangura, was arrested by Kenyan authorities in the port city of Mombasa in the wake of the hijacking of the MV Faina. Mwangura had nothing to do with the seizure of the vessel; he is a labour activist who has been one of the most vigorous voices speaking out about the plight of mariners taken hostage by pirates off East Africa. Indeed, Mwangura had been requested by family members of the seafarers aboard the MV Faina to help in securing the safe release of the hostages.

At the time of his arrest, he was charged with "making alarming statements to foreign media touching on the security of the country".

Mwangura today provided me with more details about what transpired over two months ago, saying that he was, "[A]rrested outside the Kenya Television Network studio in Mombasa at around 21h00 local time on 1 October, 2008, and detained for five days at the police cells at Central Police Station and for two nights at the Shimo La Tewa maximum security prison, Mombasa. As per the laws of the Republic of Kenya I can be held for up to 24 hours, but I was detained for a total of 9 days, contrary to the laws of Kenya."

Since his arrest, Mwangura has endured a series of court appearances in Mombasa, none of which have resolved his case in any measurable manner. Last Thursday, December 11, he again appeared before a magistrate for a hearing, only to see it adjourned until February 4 of next year because the prosecution witnesses were absent.

Mwangura's frustrations are evident as he tells me, "I have always received phone calls from Kenyan and Somali officials trying to muzzle me in my efforts to secure the lives and well-being of seafarers taken hostage in Somalia. I strongly believe that my arrest without having done anything unlawful and without any proven charges is an affront by various players, who try to further cover up on the unfolding saga of the Ukrainian arms shipment, which was intercepted by Somali Pirates and whose crew from three nations could face a bitter end in case the still escalating stand-off is not resolved peacefully."

The suppression of piracy off the Horn of Africa - and elsewhere - requires not just the efforts of the United Nations, naval forces, governments and the shipping industry, it also requires individuals with comprehensive local knowledge of the situation and the willingness to speak out when mariners' lives are in peril, people just like Andrew Mwangura. Support him.

UN supports more robust anti-piracy measures for Somalia

The Security Council today passed a resolution authorizing the use of land-based measures to combat piracy off the Horn of Africa. Unanimously adopted after a three and a half hour meeting in New York, resolution 1851 (2008) states, in part, that "States and regional organizations cooperating in the fight against piracy and armed robbery at sea off Somalia’s coast - for which prior notification had been provided by Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government to the Secretary-General - could undertake all necessary measures “appropriate in Somalia”, to interdict those using Somali territory to plan, facilitate or undertake such acts."

On the surface, this says that military forces could be deployed ashore in order to engage pirates and their supporters in the various havens from which they have been mounting attacks on shipping (including the reported hijacking of two more vessels today, a tugboat and a cargo ship). However, resolution 1851 (2008), like previous pronouncements, does not allow for unilateral actions by foreign powers into Somalia's sovereign territory. Instead, the internationally-recognized governing structure, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), must still give permission for any actions in the country.

However, sources tell me that the TFG may be much more willing to now allow military operations, as they face increasing pressure from the international community to do something about the problem of regional piracy. But the TFG's power base in Somalia is currently tenuous, at best, in the face of other governing entities, insurgent groups and criminal gangs who hold sway over large parts of the country. If the use of foreign military forces against pirate gangs becomes a mere means to prop up the TFG, the long-term solution to the problem will linger.

As the resolution also states, "The need to address the root of the piracy problem - namely the poverty and lawlessness that had plagued Somalia for decades - and to not look at it through the prism of international trade alone was also emphasized." While many in the international community do, in fact, worry about the impact of Somali piracy on seaborne trade, the UN is emphasizing the regional security issues that engender maritime crime. Both are important.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Piracy & terrorism & the New York Times

John S. Burnett, another journalist who has written about modern-day piracy, penned a piece in Friday's New York Times that's worth a look. Like myself, Burnett has sailed the waters off East Africa and knows what it's like to be in pirate seas. As I've written here before, and will expand upon in my upcoming book, the western reaches of the Indian Ocean are both beautiful and dangerous to mariners.

Burnett adds his voice to mine and many others who feel that unless the situation on shore is addressed, Somali pirates will never be suppressed. His op-ed was followed by a piece by Douglas R. Burgess, Jr., entitled "Piracy is Terrorism". It provides his perspectives on how we should label pirates today, working from the old 'hostis humani generis definition': enemies of all mankind.

I do take small exceptions to some of what Burgess writes: Somalia does have a recognized government (the Transitional Federal Government), and maritime fiends are codified in law as either pirates (on the high seas) or maritime criminals (within sovereign waters). But his overall perspectives are otherwise spot on.

Piracy is a form of terrorism. But it is also something worse: It is the longest running, low-level armed conflict in human history. It has been carried out for thousands of years against a unique community with its own codes of conduct, language, mores and customs.


Saturday, December 6, 2008

UN Security Council addresses Somali piracy. Sort of.

Last Tuesday, the Security Council of the United Nations unanimously adopted a resolution extending the ability for foreign powers to continue anti-piracy operations in the seas of the Horn of Africa for the next year. Resolution 1846 (2008) sets out that States and regional organizations may use "all necessary means" to fight the pirates, what looks on first glance as being a response from the world body to recent events.

Indeed, this has led some - such as the Associated Press and The Economic Times - to report that the resolution allows naval vessels to enter sovereign Somali waters in order to apprehend pirates or end hostage-takings, something that many have been advocating for some time. Unfortunately, Resolution 1846 (2008) does not grant such ability.

While expressing concerns about the way piracy has grown off Somalia, fueled by escalating ransoms paid, the Security Council actually makes clear that foreign naval vessels may only enter the territorial waters of Somalia once they have received permission from the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), the internationally-recognized entity considered that nation's government.

Fundamentally, the Resolution allows for nations to continue patrolling the high seas of the Indian Ocean off East Africa without facing sanctions or other legal actions; it highlights the need to safeguard the delivery of humanitarian aid by sea; and it does allow for entry within the 12 nautical mile limit - but only by assuming the TFG grants authority to do so.

The situation in that part of East Africa remains hamstrung by political and legal niceties being mouthed in the face of rampant lawlessness. The Resolution begins by "Reaffirming [the Security Council's] respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, political independence and unity of Somalia." Yet this is a nation, to use the term loosely, that is anything but sovereign, integrated or unified. So is the UN's resolution just more hot air?

Well, yes and no. It's easy to be an armchair critic and bash the UN for its inability to come up with something more forceful here than a resolution that appears weak. And this resolution is unlikely to scare the pirates too much. There's nothing set out in it about how to really deal with piracy off Somalia, though that could be a good thing inasmuch as it leaves interpretation open to various nations. (See also a look at the legalities of this in Eaglespeaks's recent commentary.)

Nevertheless, this forgets that the UN and its various units - such as the World Food Programme - do much more to help the people of Somalia than we are aware of. Their main concern is to feed, clothe and care for millions of people, so it's that bit about safeguarding the delivery of humanitarian aid that's important.

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, Military.com 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.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Kenya's Response To Somali Piracy

In a disturbing development to recent events in the waters off Somalia, the Kenyan government has arrested prominent seafarers' advocate Andrew Mwangura in the port city of Mombasa, charging him with remarks he made about the recent hijacking of the MV Faina, the vessel transporting tanks, munitions and other weapons. Mwangura has been one of the most vocal opponents of piracy in East Africa, using his local connections to help publicize the plight of mariners attacked and held hostage by pirates in that region.

According to the Kenyan newspaper, The Standard, Mwangura was arrrested Wednesday evening outside their Mombasa office, police taking him away in a convoy of six vehicles. The government claims he made alarming and false statements about the Faina incident, specifically by saying that the military cargo was destined for southern Sudan. This appears to have embarrassed the government in Nairobi, who said the tanks and other material were intended for the Kenyan military. According to The International Herald Tribune, Kenyan officials say "he has fallen for pirates' propaganda", implying Mwangura has become a puppet voice for the Somali gangs.

As someone who knows Mwangura well and has seen his tireless work on behalf of mariners in East Africa, the actions of the Kenyan authorities appear to be an attempt to stifle investigations into the real destination for the cargo. Unfortunately, these efforts may be too late, for another Kenyan media outlet, The Daily Nation, is already reporting that "Impeccable sources in Kenya’s military confided that the tanks and other arms — including anti-aircraft guns and rocket propelled grenades — were going to Mombasa only to be off-loaded and sent on to Juba, the South Sudan capital.".

Mwangura is expected to be held for several more days while police continue their investigations.
Andrew Mwangura

Friday, September 19, 2008

The business of piracy

Mary Harper, a BBC Africa analyst, has written a good piece about the economic impact of piracy in the Somali port of Eyl. Well worth reading.

While in East Africa last year, I was told of the typical ransom sums that Somali pirates receive from hijacking vessels and holding them, and their crews, hostage: A freighter carrying UN food aid garners about $100-150,000 (US). A small container ship can net $750,000. A fishing trawler with a full catch in her holds is worth anywhere from $800,000 to $1.2 million. Ransoms have been as high as $2.5 million. And they have been paid. It's a big business, and a most of that money ends up in the hands of Somali warlords.

For a behind-the-scenes look at how shipowners negotiate with the pirates, check out German journalist Sebastian Rosener's short piece in Bild.

Positive strides in dealing with Somali pirates

To some, this is International Talk Like A Pirate Day, a lighthearted parody of a holiday that is likely being celebrated in bars by a lot of people murmuring "Yarrr" while drinking rum. Perhaps some of those revelers will pause for a moment to remember that piracy remains a very real and very serious problem for thousands of people across the globe, and that the last few weeks have seen some dramatic incidents unfold, including the death of at least one suspected pirate and the arrests of several more.

Yesterday saw the Canadian frigate HMCS Ville de Québec arrive in the port of Mogadishu, Somalia, escorting the freighter Golina which was carrying aid for the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). The reason for the frigate's journey from Mombasa, Kenya, was to deter pirates from targeting the merchant vessel, and the warship's ability to enter Somali waters marks another small step in addressing the issue of combating the menace of sea robbers.

HMCS Ville de Québec and WFP-chartered freighter Golina (AFP photo)

In the last few years, the shaky entity that is internationally recognized to be the government of Somalia has refused to allow foreign warships to enter its sovereign waters. This has allowed Somali pirates to lurk inside the twelve mile limit of territorial waters, essentially thumbing their noses at warships. Though there are at least eleven vessels, and their crews, currently being held hostage by Somali gangs, this week has seen signs of a more robust effort by the international community when it comes to piracy, at least off the Horn of Africa: First there was the raid by French commandos, then the crew of the Danish frigate Absalon was reported to have captured ten pirate suspects at sea and, finally, the Ville de Québec was allowed to escort the Golina to the pier. What happens in the next few weeks could prove crucial in showing Somali pirates that the West will not allow their attacks to go unanswered.

Agence France-Presse (AFP) has a short piece on the arrival of HMCS Ville de Québec in Somali waters, here.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Western naval forces engage Somali pirates

Earlier today, France sent its military forces into action against Somali pirates, dispatching a team of 30 commandos to free two French nationals being held hostage. One Somali pirate was reported killed and six others captured by the commandos, who rescued Bernadette and Jean-Yves Delanne. The couple had been sailing from Australia to France when their sailboat was attacked on September 2 in the Gulf of Aden, off Somalia’s northern coast.

This marks the second time French forces have engaged Somali pirates, the first incident being in response to the hijacking of the luxury cruiser Le Ponant in April. At that time, the French captured six pirates alleged to have been participants in the commandeering of the cruise vessel, taking the Somalis to France where they currently await trial on a variety of charges. The gang that was holding the Delanne couple apparently demanded the release of their pirate brethren from French prison, as well as a ransom of $1.4 million.

On Sunday, another French vessel – a tuna boat – came under rocket fire by pirates while sailing some 400 nautical miles off the Somali coast, in the Indian Ocean. Whether the attack on the fishing boat was related to the capture of the Delannes is not known. But it should be noted that the issue of illegal fishing and over fishing of stocks off Somalia has been the cause of previous pirate incidents.

Meanwhile, the Canadian commander of the Combined Task Force 150 (CTF 150) had to deploy his own flagship in response to a distress call from another vessel facing pirate attack, just a week ago. The destroyer HMCS Iroquois responded to a Mayday and, with the help of an American naval helicopter, managed to scare off the pirates. Mark MacKinnon of the Globe & Mail has a good piece on the incident and some background on why Canada is currently involved in battling pirates a world away from home.

This more robust response by foreign powers to the problem plaguing the waters off the Horn of Africa is welcomed by many mariners who sail in the region. Skeptics might look at the French actions as being somewhat narrow-minded, focused on the plight of their own citizens, but any increased force protection there can only benefit seafarers from other nations.

Still, there is a definite risk that a two-tiered system of categorizing the victims of piracy is developing. For instance, while those 30 French commandos managed to rescue the Delannes earlier today, a large number of mariners remain hostages of Somali pirates. According to an Amnesty International press release from just last week, 130 crew members are in the custody of various gangs. Yes, they count 130 people being held hostage by Somali pirates. The chances that military forces will free any of them is, unfortunately, slim.

However, if an international consensus can be achieved to regard equally all mariners preyed upon and captured by pirates off the Horn of Africa, then a turning point may come in addressing this situation. It’s not very likely to occur this year, but we may be seeing the start of something new. With luck, things could be dramatically different in a year’s time.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

T'is the season

That is, the piracy season off the Horn of Africa. The last week has seen seven attacks on vessels sailing in the Gulf of Aden, continuing a pattern that has developed over the course of the last few years in that region at this time of the year. The reason for this that the monsoons have ended, making the seas calmer for the small boats the pirate gangs in the area use to prey on passing vessels.

Of the seven attacks recorded by the International Maritime Board's Piracy Reporting Centre (PRC) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, five proved unsuccessful. But 25 crew aboard a merchant vessel were robbed by pirates on 3 September. A day earlier, a yacht was hijacked; the IMB has no further information on that incident.

Even the unsuccessful attacks should still be noted with concern, as the pirates appear to have set their sights on larger commercial ships, trying to board a general cargo vessel, two bulk carriers and a couple of tankers. Two of those attacks saw the pirates open fire on their prey with weapons while trying to board the ships.

To give you some idea of how audacious pirates are in that region, one of the attacks centered on a Bahamian-flagged tanker, the Front Voyager. As reported yesterday in the Norwegian media outlet Aftenposten, the 155,100 DWT, Suezmax tanker's crew noticed a small boat approaching their vessel (after having been dispatched from a nearby mothership, according to the PRC). As it neared the Front Voyager, the pirates opened fire with machine guns, damaging the tanker. Coalition naval elements in the area were immediately contacted by the tanker's Master, and the Danish warship Absalon was able to send over a helicopter to scare off the attackers.

Front Voyager

For more on the Absalon, a command and support warship (photo below), see here and here.

Monday, September 1, 2008

A better excuse for no recent postings

Northern Ontario in late summer. Everyone needs to get away once in a while.
More soon...

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Canadian navy encounters pirates off Somalia

As reported earlier, the Canadian frigate HMCS Ville de Québec was dispatched to take up station off the northeast coast of Africa, tasked with providing security assistance to vessels carrying United Nations humanitarian relief to Somalia. Their deployment is beginning to prove anything but routine.

Three days ago, the frigate and he crew were in the Kenyan port of Mombasa preparing to leave for Somalia with the merchant vessel MV Abdul Rahman and its cargo of food aid. The frigate's captain, Commander Chris Dickinson met with local officials to discuss the journey and the threats that loomed not far away.

Cmdr Chris Dickinson meeting with Kenyan officials aboard HMCS Ville de Québec, August 18
(source: DND)

MV Abdul Rahman (r.) loading cargo in Mombasa, August 18 (source: DND)

The need to safeguard the delivery of humanitarian aid to Somali by sea has been discussed here frequently. Merchant vessels provide the most efficient means of moving tonnes of food aid between Somalia and Mombasa, which is the key port for storing UN assistance. The problem, of course is that this humanitarian aid has to be delivered through waters that have become the most dangerous as a result of piracy. And the last few days have shown that the threat is as prevalent as ever.

Since the beginning of the week, Somali pirates have managed to hijack four merchant ships, operated by firms from Malaysia, Iran, Japan and Germany. Prior to making port in Mombasa, HMCS Ville de Québec saw at least two of the hijacked vessels on her radar while sailing south from the Red Sea (having sailed over the Atlantic, across the Mediterranean and through the Suez Canal from her home port of Halifax). In an interview with Chris Lambie of the Halifax Chronicle-Herald made prior to heading to Somalia with the Abdul Rahman, Cmdr. Dickinson said that "On our radar...we had two vessels that we knew had been taken by pirates." He added that, "So the threat is real. It’s almost eerie coming down that coast and seeing a radar contact with a name on it...and knowing that those vessels are held by pirates."

With the threat assessment as high as the current temperature in that region (35 degrees Celsius with enough humidity to make it seem closer to 50 degrees), the crew of the Canadian warship knows the next few weeks will not be easy as they make runs up and down the East African coast. But the stakes are high for the Somali people, something each of the Canadian sailors is aware of. Perhaps it was put best by 22 year-old Ordinary Seaman
Matthew Bergmann, who told Lambie that, "Just one ship is enough to feed a million people. If you can do that in one sail, that’s awesome."

HMCS Ville de Québec (top) with MV Abdul Rahman (Source: DND)
Note how heavily laden the freighter is, with seas washing over her starboard quarter.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Canada and piracy

After a very long absence caused by various travels and more work on my new book about piracy, yours truly has returned. Many thanks to those who have written me and I hope to be able to update you on some of what I've been privy to these last few months.

By sheer coincidence, I'm back on the same day that the Canadian government has announced the dispatching of a naval frigate to the waters off the Horn of Africa, in order to help safeguard the delivery of United Nations food aid to Somalia, aid which has been targeted by pirates in recent years.

The Canadian Navy will be sending the HMCS Ville de Québec to the region because, in the words of Canadian Defence Minister Peter MacKay, "Food supplies are urgently needed in Somalia but deteriorating security has made delivery difficult by land and sea."

HMCS Ville de Québec (DND photo)

MacKay went on to add that, "Canada is stepping up to the plate by tasking Ville de Québec with the role of escorting World Food Programme ships to ensure their safe arrival at designated ports."

Canada is a major contributor to the UN World Food Programme, so the threat of pirate attacks on vessels carrying that aid represents a clear security issue. About a year ago I interviewed Rear-Admiral Dean McFadden, then commander of Canada's Maritime Forces Atlantic and Joint Task Force Atlantic about the issue of piracy and he was unequivocal in his views on the issue:

"Why should Canadians be concerned about piracy? Because it truly does affect all of us, even if we think otherwise. When aid that has been donated by the people of Canada is intercepted by pirates in, say, Somalia, that's an issue. That aid is vital to the lives of people in the region and if they go hungry, if they become angry, if instability is allowed to continue as a result of those actions, it will become something important here.

"As the make-up of the population in Canada changes, as more people arrive from areas of the world where piracy exists, those immigrants will have an impact on government policy - by taking part in our democratic process and making their voices heard and asking that we do something about these maritime criminals. So what has been an external issue will become a domestic issue."

HMCS Ville de Québec is expected to spend about a month in the region before returning to her homeport of Halifax. On May 2 of this year, RAdm McFadden was replaced as commander of Canada's Atlantic Fleet by Rear-Admiral P.A. Maddison.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Asian inter-governmental piracy information

It's got a cumbersome name and lies well below the public's knowledge, but the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) has developed a site that offers information on recent events in the region that compliments sources such as the IMB and ONI. Well worth a look here.

Somali pirates attack supertanker, hijack fishing vessel

A mere week after the hijacking the French cruise vessel Le Ponant, pirate attacks have resumed off the Somali coast. Early Monday morning, the Japanese tanker Takayama was sailing in the Gulf of Aden when it was approached by several small boats. Shots were fired at the VLCC, including what appears to be at least one rocket-propelled grenade, with the tanker sustaining some damage. The 332-metre long ship, with a crew of 23, was able to avoid being boarded by the pirates. The ship was en route to Saudi Arabia in ballast - it was not carrying any cargo. It's reported that a German frigate responded to the tanker's Mayday call, though the pirates had left the area by the time it was able to arrive. The tanker's owners, NYK Line, have posted a brief note about the incident here.

Takayama (photo: NYK Line)

The day before, a Spanish fishing vessel was hijacked while working the waters off the Horn of Africa. The Playa de Bakio was reported to have been fishing for tuna about 250 miles out when she was boarded by pirates armed with heavy weapons. The ship and its crew of 26 are supposed to be heading for the Somali port of Gaan, and Spain has dispatched a warship to the region in response. According to media reports, the fishing vessel's captain, Amadeo Alvarez, was able to tell Spanish national radio, "I am the captain of the boat...We are all well and there is no problem, for the moment there is no problem." Capt. Alvarez was then interrupted by someone claiming to be a member of a 'Somalia militia' who said the incident could be resolved if their demands were met. Those demands? In the words of the pirate spokesman: "It's a question of money."

Playa de Bakio may have been fishing illegally, though this is a bit difficult to ascertain when you are dealing with a 'failed state' like Somalia. Dozens of European and Asian fishing vessels work the waters of Somalia each year, many of which pay fees to warlords to assure their safety. It's possible that this Spanish boat's owners opted to forgo the payments - de facto bribes - and increase their profit margin. Regardless, the issue of overfishing in the waters off the Horn of Africa may soon become an international issue as more attention is paid to acts of piracy in the region.

There is also a report that a third vessel was attacked over the weekend, a cargo ship that had left Dubai sometime earlier, but information on this incident remains sketchy.

Attacking a ship like the Takayama, a vessel that is a thousand feet long, may seem ludicrous to some, but it's not so much the size of the vessel that's important to the pirates. It's how many crew members they will have to overwhelm. Two dozen mariners can quickly be subdued, as the crew of Playa de Bakio discovered.

See also recent postings about both incidents on Eaglespeak's blog.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Canadian Navy assumes leadership role in Arabian Sea

The navy destroyer HMCS Iroquois departed from Halifax yesterday (Saturday, April 19) on the first leg of a six-month deployment that will see Canada assume command of Combined Task Force 150 (CTF150) in the Arabian Sea. After meeting up with the frigate HMCS Calgary and the supply vessel HMCS Protecteur in the Caribbean, the trio of warships will head for the waters off the Horn of Africa, where piracy has been making headlines of late.

CTF150 will be commanded by Commodore Bob Davidson and comprise the Canadian contingent as well as seven other warships from the United States, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Denmark and Pakistan, about 2,500 personnel in all. Along with responding to any potential acts of piracy in the area, the task force provides support to coalition forces - on land, at sea and in the air - that are dealing with security and anti-terrorism issues, as well as working with regional allies.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Malaccan Strait piracy eliminated in 2007?

Earlier this week, the deputy chief of the Royal Malaysian Air Force, Lt-Gen Bashir Abu Bakar, said that the Strait of Malacca was pirate-free last year. According to the general, joint efforts by Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia to patrol the Strait with maritime elements and aircraft has been effective in a dramatic decline in pirate incidents in those waters.

"From January to late December 2007, we recorded zero percent pirate attacks in the Malacca Straits and also recorded a reduction in pirate attacks in the waterways of Sabah and Sarawak (on Borneo Island)," he told Bernama. "Maritime and air patrols carried out with Indonesia and Singapore through the 'Eyes in the Sky' programme introduced two years ago have worked in reducing acts of violence and robbery in the straits," he added.

However, I would caution that even the IMB's office in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur recorded two pirate incidents in the Strait last year, so one can not really say 'zero'. And, it should be noted, not all attacks - actual or attempted - are reported.

As well, my own research last year along the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia revealed a striking number of attacks on fishing villages, with the thefts of boats and motors and intimidation of local fishermen being rampant. While these do not garner the attention that comes from attacks on commercial vessels, they still constitute a security issue in the region that has yet to be fully addressed. One can hope that having effectively dealt with pirate assaults on merchant vessels, the authorities will now turn their attention to the remaining criminal elements operating throughout the Strait.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Great Lakes photo essay

Recently returned from a couple of weeks sailing with the crew of the M/V Paul R. Tregurtha, longest vessel on the Great Lakes, as she set out on the first voyage of the new shipping season. Headed out of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, bound for Duluth/Superior and then St. Clair (near Detroit). Conditions on the lakes were somewhat extreme, with two and three feet of ice stopping the Tregurtha dead in her tracks several times, until icebreakers could arrive to assist. Cold, icy, tough work for the crew, and a reminder that working on the Great Lakes is no pleasure cruise. Some images from the trip:

The ice-strengthened bow of the Tregurtha

Entering Lake Michigan from Sturgeon Bay

Capt. Timothy Dayton and helmsman Mark Salgy

Icebreaking tug Erika Kobasic clearing a lead

Ice track aft of Tregurtha, Lake Michigan

Second Mate Steve Nevin, entering Poe Lock upbound, Sault Ste Marie

First Mate Daniel Culligan

Clearing deck ice, Lake Superior

Inside No. 2 hold

Deckhand Daniel Prevost and Second Mate Steve Nevin, leaving Duluth/Superior

Capt. Timothy Dayton and Chief Engineer Lorne Warczinsky

USCGC Mackinaw and CCGS Samuel Risley clearing tracks in Whitefish Bay

Sunset on Lake Superior

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Stepping over the line

Friday’s resolution of the Le Ponant incident, which saw the French cruise vessel and her crew of 30 freed after spending a week in the captivity of Somali pirates, provides some intriguing glimpses into what happens when maritime criminals step “over the line” and force a powerful nation to react.

Over the last five years, the waters off Somalia have been the scene of hundreds – yes, hundreds – of piracy incidents, ranging from attacks on small fishing boats to the hijacking of container ships, tankers and vessels carrying United Nations food aid. Mariners have been kidnapped, ransomed, assaulted and murdered by Somali pirates and Le Ponant is not even the first cruise vessel to be attacked by them: some may remember the Seabourn Spirit incident back in November 2005 while the liner was sailing some 180 kilometres off the African coast and was fired upon by men armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades.

So why did this incident receive so much attention from government and military officials, leading to its swift end? Well, it’s not just because Le Ponant is a French vessel with a mostly French crew, though these were factors. But other European nations have had their vessels and/or crews attacked and seized by Somali pirates, and did not react in the same manner (consider the cases of the Russian sea tug Svitzer Korsakov or the Danish container ship Danica White, neither of which saw naval forces being put on alert by Moscow or Copenhagen).

A more important reason this hijacking ended so quickly is that the Somali pirates targeted a cruise boat. There were no passengers aboard Le Ponant at the time she was assaulted, but the mere possibility that civilians could have been kidnapped by those pirates altered things. It doesn’t matter that professional mariners – who are also “civilians” – have been enduring far more frequent and vicious attacks by Somali pirates (among others); this is considered another of the risks that comes with making your life on the seas. The international community has put up with pirate attacks on fishing boats, merchant vessels and even pleasure boaters sailing through the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. They were not going to allow the Somali gangs to expand their operations to include Westerners on vacation.

However, it is also likely that the warlords in Somalia who control the pirates who seized Le Ponant also realized things had gone too far with last week’s incident. Piracy is a lucrative business enterprise in the Horn of Africa, netting warlords tens of millions of dollars in annual income. As Agence France-Press reported, the owners of the luxury yacht may have paid as much as $2 million in ransom, though the pirates and their warlord masters likely received considerably less. So, in a bizarre way, it is in the best interests of the pirate gangs to refrain from attacks that will force nations like France to react with force.

One potential scenario that may have developed last week is that French assets communicated this to the Somalis and the warlords in charge of the situation opted to end the hostage-taking quickly. They may have even “allowed” the commandos to capture the six pirates currently in French possession, so that these individuals could be tried in a Western court and assuaged public opinion that something is being done to combat the problem. Certainly the six pirates captured cannot be considered the masterminds behind the operation, and it’s not likely we will see the warlords brought to justice anytime soon.

By offering up a half dozen, token individuals to French authorities and releasing Le Ponant and her crew, the Somali gangs may be hoping that things will quiet down in the region, at least with regard to active anti-piracy operations by naval forces. Expect attacks to decrease in the region for a short period, before resuming again. How naval forces react to the next major pirate action in the region will be a telling indication of whether the Somali gangs really have anything to fear from the West.

As a sidebar note, the crew of Le Ponant was taken aboard the French frigate Jean Bart upon being freed. Whether by coincidence or on purpose, the frigate is named for a famous figure in French naval history: Jean Bart was a naval officer and privateer who operated from the port of Dunkirk in the late seventeenth century. Yes, the Jean Bart is named for someone who engaged in state-sanctioned piracy.

Monstersandcritics.com has some interesting photos of the crew of Le Ponant after being freed.