Chief correspondent Jason Jiang assesses the threat posed by the recent spate of piracy attacks off Somalia.
The recent hijacking of five vessels within a month by Somali pirates at the Horn of Africa has raised lots of concerns in the maritime industry, after almost five years without a major pirate attack in the region.
Is there a real threat of piracy returning to the horn of Africa? Professionals in the anti-piracy sector all agree that the risk is certainly there but it’s still to early to call whether we’re seeing a return to the dark, grim days of the start of decade where hundreds of seafarers were taken captive in east Africa.
Pottengal Mukundan, director of the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), which has been monitoring piracy activities since 1991, says the latest incidents demonstrate that the capacity and intent to attack merchant shipping still exists off Somalia, but he thinks it is too early to tell whether there is a threat to all types of commercial shipping in the area.
“The recent incident involving the brief hijacking of the coastal tanker off Somali is not typical of the kind of attacks previously associated with Somali hijackings. Meanwhil,e we would ask all vessels transiting in the area to remain vigilant, conduct risk assessments on every transit and follow recommendations on Best Management Practices (BMP4),” Mukundan says.
Phil Tinsley, the maritime security manager at BIMCO, agrees with Mukundan, and says there has never been any doubt that the threat of piracy from Somali pirate groups had never been totally eradicated. The tools, personnel and knowledge remain in place and it was only a matter of time before an opportunity arose.
Claude Berube, an instructor at the US Naval Academy and an expert on modern piracy and private maritime security companies, agrees. “We have to remember that piracy has been with us globally throughout history to varying degrees; it has always ebbed and flowed,” says Berube.
Berube reckons that in the case of threats off the Horn of Africa, smaller, more regional ships may be more vulnerable based on a variety of factors including the speed of the ship, the lack of defensive capability, and more dwell time in the case of fishing vessels. Larger ships are less likely to be as vulnerable to potential piracy attacks as they were a decade ago.
“Shipping companies adapted to the threats by employing Best Management Practices, having armed guards aboard, and the increased capability of individual navies and coalitions that learned how to find, deter or capture modern-day pirates off the Horn of Africa,” Berube says.
According to Tinsley, some of the recent piracy attacks were due to some extent that ships were transitting so close to the Somali shore line, had no armed guards, had not registered or reported to local watchdogs and was cutting the Socotra Gap – all in contravention of Best Management Practise guidance.
“There have been further reports of armed Somali groups heading to sea in the past few days and commercial ships are urged to take ship protection seriously and report accordingly,” Tinsley says.
Berube reckons a few recent attacks suggest that piracy continues to be a threat but mostly manageable on a larger scale. “The key will be to diminish the threat to those ships that are most vulnerable and that will require different resources and programs that provide stability ashore,” Berube says.
Dr Phillip Belcher, marine director at the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners (Intertanko), also believes that the pirates have never gone away they had simply been undertaking other criminal activities.
“There is certainly an intent to undertake pirate activity by those persons in Somalia. This is being enhanced by the release from prison of many of those jailed for pirate activities,” Belcher explains.
According to the Intertanko executive, the boats remain along with the firearms, the criminal networks and the ungoverned areas and the ability to move groups of armed men along the coast has been demonstrated many times.
Regarding the opportunity for the pirates, Belcher notes the reduction in naval forces in the area and arguably a certain level of complacency setting in among the global merchant fleet. However, the recent attacks will likely see owners, operators and managers bring a speedy refresher course on how to handle transiting of piracy-prone areas.
“The pirates are there, are capable and wish to hijack ships. The international community needs to maintain its stance to prevent and deter the pirates. And the shipping community should play its part in that by maintaining its vigilance,” Belcher says.