Somali pirates, the bane of freighters and tankers plying routes south
of the Arabian Peninsula, are adopting daring new tactics to counter the
effects of a multinational naval crackdown and better-protected
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In the first-ever attack on a vessel at anchor in
a country’s territorial waters, armed pirates hijacked the chemical
tanker Fairchem Bogey within sight the Omani port of Salaleh on August
20, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB). The armed
pirates boarded the ship, took its 21 crew hostage and put the vessel on
course for Somalia, according to the bureau’s Piracy Reporting Center.
this month, at least two freighters told the IMB that the largest ever
number of pirates working together had swarmed their vessels. The
Neptune came under attack August 7 off the coast of Eritrea by a dozen
skiffs each carrying five to eight pirates. The crew fought off the
pirate armada, but 11 days later a second, an unnamed bulk carrier was
nearly hijacked by a fleet of seven skiffs in the same area.
the one hand, it shows they’re desperate because it’s becoming more
difficult to hijack ships, but on the other hand it shows the strength
of the pirates. If you’re desperate to reach your goal and you face
increasing pressure, you become more innovative,” Jan Stockbruegger, who
studies piracy at the African Studies Center Lieden, told The Media
The pirates are working hard to keep ahead of growing international
efforts to protect shipping on the sea lanes south of the Arabian
Peninsula, the pirates’ main area of operations. A lot is at stake:
According to Oceans Beyond Piracy, initiative piracy globally costs $7
billion to $12 billion a year in added insurance premium, lost operating
time, ransom and other costs.
More than 60% of the attacks last year originated in Somalia, an African
country that has devolved into anarchy. Their hunting grounds are the
Gulf of Aden and Arabian Sea, where a large part of the world’s oil
passes as do imports of food and other critical goods to the countries
of the Gulf. As many as 24,000 vessels ply these waters every year.
A single hijacking, in this case of the MV Victoria, a German-owned bulk
carrier that was held for 73 days in 2009 until the owners paid some $2
million in ransom, cost its operators 3.2 million euros ($4.6 million).
For the pirates, hijacking is a hugely profitable enterprise.
Ransoms have increased to an average of $5.4 million in 2010 from just
$150,000 five years earlier. As of June 30, Somali pirates were holding
20 vessels and 420 crew, and demanding ransoms of millions of dollars
for their release.
Piracy profits have grown so much that it may well be the second-largest
generator of money in Somalia, bringing in over $200 million annually,
according to a paper, Trends in Piracy: A Global Problem with Somalia at
the Core, published last April by Roger Middleton, a researcher at
Chatham House. Only foreign remittances from Somalia’s Diaspora
community bring in more -- around $1 billion a year, he said.
Stockbruegger said the pirates have only rarely employed high
technology, such as global positioning systems (GPSs) to upgrade their
capabilities, but they have changed tactics – employing mother ships
that enable them to target ships farther away from their home base,
finding ways to break into the safe rooms ships have installed to
protect crews and even hiring professional negotiators to handle ransom
talks with ship owners.
The IMB said in a July report that ships are increasingly coming under
attack with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
“Five years ago, pirates were just as likely to brandish a knife as a
gun. This year guns were used in 160 attacks and knives in 35,” it said.
Stockbruegger, who is also co-editor of the Piracy Studies website,
added that swarming attacks increased the likelihood of violence since
pirates would be less hesitant to raid a ship carrying armed guards.
Some analysts said the pirates have begun onshore intelligence networks
made up of Somali expatriates, who advise them on what ships are coming
and going and what they are carrying. If such a network exists, it would
a boon for pirates who traditionally seize targets at random on the
high seas, not knowing the value of their prospective haul until they
have captured the vessel.
“It has been ongoing for last year or two. It started off more locally
in terms of ports on the Arabian peninsula and intelligence on the Gulf
of Aden and then it spread out to parts as far as [the Indian]
subcontinent,” Theodore Karasik, director for research and development
at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military, told The Media Line.
“Who are these people? Are they working for shipyards or are they
scouring the Internet?” he added. “It’s probably a combination of both.
There’s a certain amount intelligence gathering on land and via the
The pirates have to devise new tactics because they are encountering
more resistance from international naval forces and better defended
freighters and tankers. In the first half of the year, the IMB record
163 attacks, up from 100 the same period in 2010. But the pirates have
succeeded in capturing fewer ships, just 21 compared with 27 the same
time last year.
Cyrus Mody, manager at IMB, attributed this both to increased ship
hardening and to the actions of international naval forces to disrupt
pirate groups off the east coast of Africa.
“What we’ve seen so far this year is that there have more incidents but
their success rate has been nearly halved. Last year we had a success
rate of approximately one out of four vessels being hijacking; so far
this year, it’s one vessel out of eight,” Mody told The Media Line.
Mody said he doubted that pirates had developed land-based intelligence
networks, but he nevertheless maintained the Omani hijacking constituted
an escalation of their activities. “It does show that the pirates do
have the capability of going into another state’s waters and attacking a
vessel. This means vessels in such areas also have to remain alert of
small boats approaching,” he said.
At any given time, some 20 to 30 navy ships from a large number of
countries from as far afield as Europe and East Asia, are patrolling the
waters. But Mody said the pirates are threatening to extend their range
of operations, further stretching the defenders’ capabilities.
Furthermore, when the monsoon season ends during September the calmer
waters closer to India will let pirates with their small skiffs return,