Sea Transportation: Patient Pirates Persist

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November 6, 2021: The piracy threat off Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden still exists and shipping companies were recently warned that while no large ships have been captured since 2013, the threat still exists. The criminal gangs and militias in northern Somalia that carried out most of the successful hijackings between 2009 and 2012 are still operational and monitoring this situation. These groups either abandoned the piracy business or cut way back on such activities. The gangs switched to smuggling drugs, guns or people from Somalia to Yemen.

During the years when many ships were being captured, the gangs developed ways to monitor ship activity using information available on the Internet. One of the useful items of information the gangs still monitor is the degree to which large vessels still hire armed guards for the 1,500-kilometer passage though offshore pirate territory. Many of these larger ships no longer train and drill the crews on how to spot pirates and then handle them if they get aboard. While insurance companies still provide a discount for ships that hire the armed guards, that does not cover the high cost of these four-man armed security teams. Security companies send out boats with the four-man teams who board large ships and then another boat takes them off at the end of the 7-10 days the guards are needed. This system works but it is expensive and a hassle for the ships.

Fewer nations still contribute ships and aircraft to the anti-piracy patrol. There are still enough warships to monitor radio traffic and they report that they still occasionally pick up Somali chatter regarding potential pirate targets. These days the only ships taken are fishing trawlers and dhows (small wooden coastal freighters) that have no ransom value but can be looted or taken for use as pirate mother ships.

In other words, the pirate threat is not gone, it’s just waiting for opportunities to return. Somalia is still the only place in the world where pirates can take a large ship and anchor it off a small coastal town controlled by pirates. With no threats from local authorities, the pirates threaten to murder hostages, especially the ones taken ashore, if the anti-piracy patrol attempts to take back the ship. This lack of any Somali coast guard or government control of the entire coast is why Somalia is the only region threatened by pirates and where armed guards are allowed on large commercial ships. In the other pirate hotspots (Nigeria/Gulf of Guinea, the Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and Indonesia and parts of the Caribbean) local police, navies and coast guard keep the pirates under control and forbid armed guards on ships. The main risk outside Somali waters is nighttime raids by local pirates who rob the crew of valuables and the ships of anything portable. Some pirates in Nigeria will take a few of the crew and hold them for ransom. This is not common because most of the time local security force locate the kidnappers and free their hostages. These robberies are possible because in most of these other areas a lot of large ships have to anchor off a busy major and await their turn to dock for loading or unloading cargo. No large ships linger off the Somali coast. The Somali pirates have captured no large ships since 2012, when 14 were taken. In 2011 28 were taken, in 2010 there were 47 grabbed and 2009 had 46 hijacked. Each of these ships yielded, on average, several million dollars. That kind of money attracted a lot more people to the business.

By 2014 pirate activity off Somalia and in the Indian Ocean been reduced to levels not seen since 2006. In 2013 only nine ships were even attacked. The collapse of the Somali pirate threat in only three years was no accident. It was all a matter of organization, international cooperation and innovation. It all began back in 2009 when 80 seafaring nations formed, with the help of a UN resolution, the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia. The most visible aspect of the Contact Group was the organization of an anti-piracy patrol. This came to consist of over two dozen warships and several dozen manned and unmanned aircraft, as well as support from space satellites and major intelligence and police agencies.

To help with the problem-solving the Contact Group formed five Working Groups to develop new solutions to the problems encountered. Working Group 1 handled coordination of naval forces and information sharing. This was essential for the creation of the anti-piracy patrol. Working Group 2 looked into legal and judicial issues, which were particularly crucial because international piracy laws had been changed after World War II making it very difficult to punish pirates. In the past you could just kill them, a rule observed for thousands of years. Working Group 3 worked with the shipping industry to encourage anti-piracy measures and ensure that all ships entering dangerous waters were aware of the dangers they faced. This became a key effort in making ships more difficult for the pirates to catch and capture. Working Group 4 handled public relations in general and sought to make sure the public got an accurate picture of the pirate danger. This countered the tendency of the international media to try and characterize the pirates as misunderstood victims. Working Group 5 handled tracking and disrupting the criminal and legitimate organizations that supported the pirates and helped them handle the huge ransoms they were obtaining until quite recently. This played a major role in destroying the infrastructure of agents and other paid supporters the pirates had outside Somalia.

As the Working Groups came up with more and more solutions, the pirates found themselves with fewer and fewer options and opportunities. The most visible result for the pirates was that ships became more difficult to catch and board. That was because between 2004 and 2009 more and more merchant ships trained their crews to deal with pirates. This involved basic stuff like paying attention to Contact Group bulletins on piracy off Somalia and posting more lookouts when in waters designated as “pirate infested.” The most valuable ships carried armed guards who fired back at approaching pirates and that has always driven the pirates away. The pirates eventually began operating as far east as the coast of India and ships that did not pay attention to Contact Group bulletins sometimes found themselves under pirate attack where they didn’t expect it. This was handled with expanded patrols, especially using manned aircraft and UAVs. The naval and air patrols became more efficient and effective, and there was more and more cooperation between the ships from dozens of nations contributing to the patrol.

One of the more unnerving tactics was monitoring the pirate ports and following ships that left. UAVs or ships would observe these vessels and once they were in international waters (22 kilometers from the Somali coast) board and search any suspected of being pirates. If weapons and boarding equipment was found, the pirates were disarmed, taken back to Somalia and left on a beach. Their boat was sunk at sea, along with their weapons and tools. Documents found on the boat were passed on to intelligence specialists. This degree of scrutiny was more than the pirates could handle. The pirates needed cash to keep operating as each multi-million-dollar ransom quickly disappeared into the pockets of the pirates and their financiers and suppliers. Few of the pirate leaders wanted to invest their newly acquired wealth in keeping the level of activity where it had been until 2012, when it became clear that capturing more ships was frustratingly difficult and eventually nearly impossible. At that point the financing of the pirate gangs disappeared and most of the pirate gangs went back to smuggling people and goods to Yemen or what many of the pirates originally did; fishing.

Life was not difficult just for the pirates, but also for their financial advisors and suppliers of cash, supplies and information. Eventually the pirates found there were few people they could trust or rely on and the once lucrative pirate “industry” in northern Somali collapsed. Currently the pirates are not holding any ships or sailors they can get a ransom for.

Some merchant ships still observe the “2009 rules” to avoid pirate attack. They put on extra lookouts, especially at night, and often transit the 1,500-kilometer-long Gulf of Aden at high speed, even though this costs them thousands of dollars in additional fuel. The pirates seek the slower moving, apparently unwary, ships, and go after them before they can speed up enough to get away. The international anti-piracy patrol offers convoy protection, but many ships don't want to halt and wait for a convoy to form. Ships that decide to proceed on their own take additional precautions. The convoy system is no longer used.

Some nations ordered their merchant ship crews to take extreme measures. An example of this was the experience of a Chinese cargo ship, the Zhenhua 4. In late 2008 this ship was boarded by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden. The resolute crew retreated to their living quarters and called for help. As the pirates came aboard, the crew fought back with fire bombs and fire hoses, and refused to come out of the living quarters. The pirates fired at the crew, and were apparently perplexed at what to do. Meanwhile, a nearby Malaysian warship dispatched a helicopter, which shot at the pirates and caused them to flee in their speedboats. The crew of the Zhenhua 4 patched up the bullet holes and resumed their voyage.

The resistance on the Zhenhua 4 was no accident. The captain had worked out a drill to resist boarders, and had the crew rehearse it ten days before they were attacked. Moreover, the Chinese were aware that, on October 30th, 2007, a North Korean merchant ship, the Dai Hong Dan, was boarded by pirates off the coast of Somalia. The North Koreans managed to get off a distress message. The ship was in international waters, 108 kilometers off the coast, unloading sugar to smaller boats. This offshore unloading arrangement was supposed to protect the North Koreans from pirates. The pirates were actually armed guards hired to protect the crew from real pirates during this unloading operation. The North Koreans fought back, killed some of the pirates, and lost some crew members, but regained control of their ship.

The Internet proved an invaluable tool for ships planning for the Aden run. Everyone knows of the measures used by the Zhenhua 4 and the North Koreans, but there are many more ideas that did not get much coverage in the mass media. For example, crews learned to make more use of the fire hoses, and collect large objects (sheets of metal, junked furniture and empty boxes) to be heaved overboard onto the pirate boats. Poles were fabricated for pushing away ladders pirates often use to get aboard. The captains and crew members on the Internet exchange techniques for training crews, and preparing "repel boarders" drills. Sailors that have been aboard captured ships, and spent months in captivity, relate what that experience was like, and let other sailors know what to expect. This encourages the merchant ship sailors to pay closer attention to the drills and techniques to be used to avoid capture in the first place. Captains pay particular attention to the use of speed and maneuvering successfully used to avoid approaching pirate speedboats. This may not always enable the ships to escape, but it does provide time for the crew to get ready to repel the pirates attempting to board.

As of 2020 more merchant ships are reducing these security precautions, so shipping companies were warned that the pirates are definitely observing all this and waiting for an opportunity for another multi-million-dollar payday.

 


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