Friday, November 28, 2008

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)

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