Let’s give a hand to the pirates aboard the MV Faina. Thanks to their efforts a seven-ship fleet under NATO is about the arrive in the Gulf of Aden, US warships are off the coast of Hobyo with mv Faina in their sights and a warship from Russia, which sold the vessel’s cargo of tanks to either Kenya or South Sudan should be keeping them company any time now, as well as forces from India, many of whose seafarers are being held by pirates.
Don’t get too excited, though. No rules of engagement have been agreed, they can’t figure out how to identify the pirates, whether they’re allowed to shoot or even arrest the pirates, what to do if they do grab them or how to find them, according to comments by the fleet commander, Admiral Mark Fitzgerald in a report from Reuters. The chances are that the fleet will do nothing more than escort ships carrying food aid. to replace the Canadian vessels whose service has expired.
For pirates, it will be business as usual, protected by inaction against the world’s mightiest seapowers on one of the world’s most critical trade routes bearing some 16,000 ships a year. The will to tackle them remains on hold.
Even though pirates have, under internal law, been regarded as ‘enemies of humanity’ for more than a century. Legal issues abound regarding jurisdiction. Recently, a Danish naval vessel had to release 10 pirates back into the wild because, under Danish law they could not be tried in Denmark. More vigorously, the French captured a number of pirates responsible for the seizure of a yacht flying the French flag and is to try them in Paris and more recently seized pirate boats and turned the crews over to Puntland authorities. Britain’s Royal Navy, it is understood, has instructions not to capture pirates.
Meanwhile, the US State Department’s favourite mercenary company, Blackwater, has its own private warship on standby in the hope of picking up some passing trade from shipping companies and a bunch of other private armed security companies, such as HollowPoint, are bouncing up and down in their seats crying “me too! Me too!”.
Ground truth revealing and worrying
On the principle of ‘know thy enemy’, a recent report from the Royal Institute of Foreign Affairs, known as Chatham House, Piracy In Somalia: Threatening Global Trade, Feeding Local Wars by Roger Middleton, makes revealing and worrying reading.
While Somalia has been a basket case for more than a decade it did briefly have a relatively stable government in Mogadishu during the last six months of 2006. Piracy then almost vanished. Says the report: “This indicates that a functioning government in Somalia is capable of controlling piracy”.
That government, however, was established by the Islamic Courts Union, commonly known as the Islamist insurgents, which seized control of the city from the ruling warlords . With their overthrow by the US-backed Transitional Federal Government of Somalia, piracy returned in full force.
There may be a reason for that. Most pirates originate in the Puntland region. Says Middleton: “The fact that the pirates originate from Puntland is significant as this is also the home region of President Abdullahi Yusuf (of the Transitional Federal Government). As one expert said, ‘money will go to Yusuf as a gesture of goodwill to a regional leader’ – So even if the higher echelons of Somali government and clan structure are not directly involved in organizing piracy, they probably do benefit. ”
One is entitled to wonder whether if such a government were to achieve stability there would be much impact on piracy.
Some of the money received for ransoms is also believed to be reaching Islamist Militants and being funnelled into their war efforts. Links between the Islamists and Al-Shaab, listed as a terrorist organisation by the US government, has raised concerns about ransoms paid to pirates reaching terrorists or the use of pirate by terrorists to create an incident leading to massive pollution and loss of lives.
With Mogadishu now reduced to little more than a pile of rubble by continuous conflict, pirates in need of a stable base have moved north to the Gulf of Aden since the end of 2007. Some 61 ships have been attacked or seized so far this year, a figure that rises day by day but which is, prehaps half of those that have actually been seized or attacked. Little attention has been paid to these ‘silent ships’ yet they do, in part, provide a rationale for the pirate’s activities, at least to the pirates themselves.
Spanish trawlers with West African crews habitually and illicitly reap the rich harvest of fish off the unprotected Somali coast. It is, literally, daylight robbery on a massive scale. They put nothing into the Somali economy, such as it is, but take a great deal from it.
A number of European companies have allegedly dumped toxic and nuclear waste in those same waters, polluting the fishing grounds and the beaches. Similar dumping along the Ivory Coast by Dutch company Trafigura led to at least 17 deaths and widespread health problems. Pirates aboard the m/v Faina claim that they want to use the ransom money to clean up the Somali coastline. It’s easy to dismiss such claims as merely an excuse to continue a very profitable business but the fact remains that complaints about illegal fishing and dumping of toxic waste have been ignored and while no government has condoned these activities none have taken an active stand against it.
One solution to that which could also make a dent in piracy would be to provide an internally mandated coast guard capability. Previous attempts to do so using private contractors have not only proved futile but provided pirates with the organisational skills to carry out attacks.
Private security firms have not performed well in Somalia. Earlier this year French security company Secopex signed a deal with President Yusuf to provide marine security for Somalia and a personal bodyguard for Yusuf. The $50-$200m needed for the contract remains unfound.
US security provider Topcat signed a $50-$55m contract with the TFG in 2005 to target pirate motherships. The US government stepped in and blocked the contract on the grounds that it would breach an arms embargo. Saudi firm Al-Habiibi also won a contract but couldn’t deploy its personnel.
Somali-Canadian Coastguard had a contract with the Puntland government from 2002 to 2005. It’s effectiveness came into question when three of its personnel were sentenced to ten years imprisonment for pirating a Thai fishing boat they claimed to have been protecting. SOMCAN trained about 400 personnel in coastguard duties.
Finally, the Puntland International Development Corporation subcontracted an anti-piracy programme to Hart Security in November 1999. After training Somali personnel Hart walked away from the contract in 2002 because it was unclear whether the then Puntland government had the authority to honor it.
The net result is a group of young men, trained in weapons handling and marine tactics, with time on their hands and Somali warlords and businessmen willing to fund a new career for them. These men have trained others, formed disciplined forces which even have a ‘manual of good conduct’, and now number in their thousands.
There is one potential upside – if the international community does get its act together to create a Somali coastguard they could have a ready-made pool of potential trained and experienced recruits.
An end to piracy would certainly be good news for Egypt. Although the head of the Suez Canal Authority, Captain Ahmed Fadl, has made expectedly anodyne comments on the influence of piracy on the canal’s fortunes there’s no denying that, as piracy has increased over the past few months revenues have started to fall. Over the past two months, according a report in Middle East Times income has fallen from $504.5m in August to $469.6m in September, with vessel throughput dropping from 1,993 to 1,872 in the same period.
Privately, the Egyptian government is concerned about the impact of piracy on its earnings from the canal, an important contributor to the country’s coffers.
Answering the unanswerable
In the face of a tenfold increase in insurance premiums and additional payments to seafarers, several companies are looking at the Cape Horn route, usually less economical. For now, competitiveness will keep companies using the canal but if bunker prices drop, then ’rounding the Horn’ might once more become common. Even without such a drop the potential is there for more companies to take the safer route, putting upward pressure on fuel and raw and manufactured goods.
In the meantime, seafarers are pretty much on their own. Some companies are now hiring armed guards for their vessels, certain countries always have done so for their own-flagged vessels, but for the majority of vessels, especially the smaller ones like the Danica White and the Svitzer Korsakov, that’s not likely to be a practical or economic solution.
In some case, flag states may be uncomfortable with private armies on their vessels.
Of late, there has been an increase in the aggression of pirates but they still prefer live hostages. Shooting at them may encourage them to change that policy.
Low manning levels, too, make it easier for the pirates. So-called safe-manning levels may not provide enough manpower to keep a proper watch in pirate-infested waters. This is an issue that flag-states need to address and which ship companies must address. Insurers, too, could put pressure on by making it a condition of cover for piracy that enough crew be aboard to ensure a continuous watch.
One recent survey has shown that almost all pirates attacks in this area occur during daylight hours. The one exception occurred at a full moonlight. That lesson is clear: As far as possible transit the area at night. Speed, not surprisingly, is another factor, the faster you go the less likely the pirates will find and catch you and, of course, you’ll be in the area of high risk for a shorter time.
Keeping a continuous watch on radar and AIS watch can provide an early indication of a potential threat. Unidentified targets that appear to be shadowing your vessel may be a sign of trouble as are vessels that don’t appear to match their AIS signature. While the small skiffs used by pirates may be lost in the sea clutter the mother ships from which they are launched may well be visible electronically.
An alert and obvious visual watch may not only give forewarning but also discourage an attack, pirates don’t like you to know they’re coming.
While large vessels with high freeboard are less prone to attack they are subject to potshots from time to time by pirates who, prehaps, are hopeful that the vessel will stop. It may be wise to put a fire team on standby if suspicious boats or ships are noted.
Report suspicious activity early. Ensure that appropriate crew members know the location of the Ship Security Alert System and how, when, to activate it, but do not rely entirely on it as a means to notify the appropriate authorities that an attack is in progress.
Consider anti-piracy drills to ensure that your crew know what to do, and what you will be doing, should there be an attack. In the past few months armed pirates have been successfully driven off by an appropriately drilled crew using hoses and the master manouvering the vessel to prevent boarding. Anti-piracy drills may also encourage lookouts to keep a sharp watch.
Early alert and appropriate manouveres can be effective. The International Maritime Bureau reported two such incidents in its current weekly piracy report for 14th-20th October. Offices aboard a VLCC noted the fast approach of three fast vessels on its radar, took evasive action and changed course. In the second instance the master of a bulk carrier increased speed and manoeuvred the ship to keep the pirates at bay.
Review the resources on your vessel, including the vessel itself, with regard to how a pirate attack can be deterred. Size, speed and manoeuverability count. One enterprising master put his tug into a high-speed spin until the attackers gave up and left.
Once pirates are aboard, there is little that can be done. One North Korean crew did maintain control of their vessel by occupying the engine room and steering compartments and keeping the vessel away from Somali waters while maintaining contact with a US Navy warship until a navy helicopter caused sufficient distraction for the crew to overpower the pirates, resulting in several deaths. It is unlikely that most crews will be sufficiently well-trained to do something similar and the potential loss of seafarer lives almost certainly outweighs the value of such heroics.
Life as a hostage is such a traumatic experience that some victims have not returned to sea and suffer the effects of trauma for years or months afterwards. The ‘iron man’ culture so often found aboard ships can make such detention particularly difficult to take and counselling needs to be offered to victims when released.
It is important, as a hostage, to bear in mind that Somali pirates have not, so far, sought to harm their hostages. Unlike political or religious terrorists, pirates, while threatening, have nothing to gain by harming those they hold to ransom.
On average, it takes 45 days to negotiate and pay a ransom. It will be a trying period, but a ransom will be paid.
Piracy along the Somali coast will be resolved when the problems of Somalia itself are resolved. Seafarers will continue to be victimised for a long time to come.
Somalia and Gulf of Aden