The rapidly expanding business of Somali piracy

Ben Bailey

Attacks on commercial shipping across the northern Indian Ocean – from the Red Sea to the shores of India – are now an everyday occurrence. Somalia-based pirates are growing in wealth and confidence as they acquire evermore sophisticated vessels and weaponry. More concerted action is at last being taken against them but it still appears altogether inadequate to the challenge.

The pirates of the Indian Ocean are enjoying the spoils of another busy year. Their business is booming. In early May, pirates hijacked a 21,000-tonne palm oil tanker some 290 kilometres off the coast of Kenya. Armed with guns, grenades, ladders and terrifying determination, pirates seized control of the MV Gemini with 25 seafarers on board. The captured men joined the 500 other people being held hostage, any of whom are exposed on a daily basis to physical and mental torture. 

Reports from the UN’s International Maritime Organization tell of a 20 percent rise in the number of attacks for the first six months of 2011, which is not a good start to their attempts to orchestrate a suitable response. Its private sector counterpart, the International Maritime Bureau, reported 21 ships hijacked in the region during the first five months, with seven crew members killed. 

Piracy in this part of the world is very different from elsewhere, where boarders tend to smash and snatch what they can before escaping. In the Indian Ocean, there may be no skull and crossbones flags, yet the violence towards seafarers is just as fierce as in Blackbeard’s day. All of this has left the international community with a problem: how to combat this menace and protect a ship’s most important cargo, its crew. 

The pirates take huge chances for very lucrative prizes, especially the large crude oil tankers that have proved to be the most susceptible to piracy. Just one of these vessels can carry over 2 million barrels of oil – close to the UK’s daily consumption – and when fully laden it rides low in the water, which allows the pirates to get aboard more easily. These ships also travel much more slowly than other vessels and cannot outmanoeuvre the pirates’ high-powered skiffs. 

Exactly how much the pirates make in ransom payments can only be guessed at, but it is believed that sums of up to $10 million have been paid. And the game is constantly changing. Previously, hijacked ships would be moored off the coast until a ransom was paid. But when the pirates realised that the ocean-going vessels they were taking were better able to withstand rough monsoon weather, they began using them as bases from which to launch attacks. 

This tactic of using so called ‘mother-ships’ has increased their ability to strike much further away from their homeland than ever before. “We are working against an increasingly agile and flexible group and we have to try and be one step ahead,” said Wing Commander Paddy O’Kennedy, who speaks for the EU Naval Force Somalia (EU NAVFOR), which was set up to protect food shipments to Somalia as well as to tackle piracy. 

“Mother-ships have hostages on board and we have to find ways of threatening the pirates sufficiently without endangering the seafarers. So we might urge them to get rid of their skiffs and other paraphernalia in return for us backing away,” O’Kennedy added. 

In addition to EU NAVFOR, the Russians, Indians, South Koreans and Americans now have task forces operating in the region, but each has its own rules of engagement, and hence the maritime industry has been calling for a more joined-up approach. 

Earlier this year, I travelled to the port of Mombasa in Kenya as part of an investigative team for The Mission to Seafarers – an international charity that deals with crew welfare. During my visit, I met many mariners who told me how alone they feel while crossing these pirate-infested waters. Some said that they hadn’t seen any naval ships on their journey, while others pointed at the miles of barbed wire along the decks of their vessels and the dummy ‘lookouts’, which form part of the shipping industry’s guidelines for protection, and resignedly shrugged their shoulders. “We’re lucky we survived,” an Indian sailor told me on the dockside. Three weeks’ later, his luck nearly ran out as his vessel was attacked – only narrowly escaping the pirates’ high-powered skiffs. 

Few cruise ships now call at the coastal city of Mombasa because of the increasingly lawless waters in the region. “The risk is perceived as too great,” said Michael Sparrow, The Mission to Seafarers’ chaplain in Mombasa. “One cruise ship was attacked as it sailed from here, although mercifully it managed to escape.” 

The figures suggest that for every five ships attacked, one vessel is successfully taken. Attacks happen daily across 6.7 million square kilometres of water, making very few parts of the Indian Ocean – through which 40 percent of the world’s oil must pass – safe. Mariners are calling for better protection. “There’s a feeling that they are left on their own,” said Sparrow, who spends his days visiting the ships and counselling seafarers after their ordeal. “Every ship calling into Mombasa has to negotiate the high-risk areas; every seafarer lives with the terrible fear that their own ship will be next.” 

This has caused ship-owners to start re-routing vessels, which adds several weeks to a journey, increases costs, demands extra watches and piles on the stress, all of which can have a detrimental impact on the wellbeing of sailors, who already spend weeks at sea with no land in sight. Another option hotly debated is whether to employ armed guards to deter attack. But a decision like that remains uncharted waters for an industry that is still hopefully looking to governments to protect its commercial ventures. The insurance companies offer heavy discounts when armed guards are used, and the marine security industry claims that no merchant ship under their protection has ever been taken. 

Governments are reluctant to endorse the use of armed guards and are only just getting around to providing guidelines for the ship-owners wanting to do so. And while EU NAVFOR acknowledges that such deployments are happening, it believes that a landbased solution in Somalia is ultimately what is needed. “We’re not seeing Kenyan-based or Armenian-based pirates because those countries have sufficient police forces and deterrents,” said O’Kennedy. “Stability needs to reign in Somalia.” 

Michael Sparrow was quick to point out that such a solution could be ten years down the line and that the navies must tackle piracy without further delay. “They need to get on and deal with this as a separate issue because seafarers have this problem now,” he said. “If one presses the naval officers, they admit privately: ‘We could do more but the politicians don’t allow us to’.” Where does this leave the mariners? Still exposed, still vulnerable, and still made to feel that their vital work in keeping trade moving is unvalued. And yet without them, half the world would freeze and the other starve.

A classic naval role is to protect trade routes and keep them open. But this isn’t happening. And until an orchestrated response can be found, the shipping industry is left with a stark choice: to embark trained and authorised armed guards on the ships, to provide appropriate escort vessels, or to leave their crews at the mercy of the pirates.

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Ben Bailey is public affairs officer for The Mission to Seafarers.


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