Complacency leads to spur in pirate attacks

Prior to the hijacking of the Aris 13 in March there had been no successful attempts since May 2012

A Somali pirate stands near a Taiwanese fishing vessel that washed up on shore after the pirates were paid a ransom and released the crew. A lull in piracy activity led to reduced security measures and complacency. Farah Abdi Warsameh / AP
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DUBAI // A reduction of shipboard security measures in recent years, coupled with vessels sailing too close to the Somali coast, has resulted in a new spike in pirate attacks. Now, anti-piracy groups are collaborating to prevent modern day pirates from again becoming a deadly force.

Until the UAE-managed tanker, Aris 13, was hijacked on March 13, there had been no successful piracy attempt on merchant ships since the crude oil tanker Smyrni was taken hostage in May 2012. It was this lull in piracy activity that had resulted in reduced security measures.

“We have tracked that owners have become more complacent through ships travelling at slower speeds through the high risk areas and ships are travelling closer to the Somali coast,” said Jon Huggins, director of advocacy group Oceans Beyond Piracy.

“The number of armed guards observed has remained steady for the last few years, but we have seen a decrease in the quality of teams and the number of team members. Industry standards call for four-man teams, but some vessels are using two-man teams.”

Patrols by international navies, the provision of armed guards on merchant ships, the fitting of water cannons and coils of barbed wire to deter pirate boardings, and increasing vessel speed in piracy-prone areas had previously deterred attacks, resulting in a five-year lull.

Nevertheless, pirates retained the capability to attack, and this re-emerged earlier this year.

Indeed, the three hijacking by Somali pirates in March prompted fresh warnings to shipowners to revisit security protocols.

“Pirate networks have access to skiffs, and weapons are increasingly becoming easier and cheaper due to the instability in Yemen. There are also ungoverned areas along the central Somali coast that can be used as potential safe-havens for pirate activities,” Mr Huggins said.

“We have observed that pirate networks remain organised and were involved in other maritime crimes during the lull in piracy. This included human and weapons trafficking.  There is also the continued issue of foreign fishing vessels operating close to the Somali coast that fuels resentment in local communities and provides moral justification for supporting piracy.”

This is happening at a time when many owners have stopped using armed guards, said Peter Cook, director of the consultancy, PCA Maritime. “The shipping industry has lowered its guard, and in some cases become complacent,” he said.

“Some are routing within view of the Somali coastline and many have stopped using armed guards to protect their ships. In light of the increased threat level, all ship owners, managers and operators should review their counter-piracy and ship security plans and decide what action to take in view of the new risk level.”

He said dangers could re-emerge “from the tip of the Horn of Africa, down to the area of Mogadishu. The coastline of around 660 nautical miles or 1,200km is ungoverned and therefore provides prospective pirates the opportunity to organise themselves without any form of hindrance."

To monitor pirate movement, an initiative called the "Community of Reporting" was launched by the International Maritime Bureau and the OBP.

Information about attacks, hijacking incidents, vessels being fired upon or approaches by pirates will be shared as part of the joint effort.

“Information sharing and co-operation between all stakeholders, private and public, will always be the key to safety and security,” said Cyrus Mody, IMB’s assistant director.

“We hope that it will give a more realistic outlook to the number of incidents in this region.”

In the three March hijackings, a tanker with eight men and two dhows with a total of 30 sailors were hijacked. All the crew were later released.

There have been several attacks in the region around Bab el-Mandeb in the Red sea, in areas off the coast of Oman, near the Yemen shoreline, and in the Gulf of Aden. These involve armed pirates in skiffs approaching and firing upon tankers and container ships, triggering security teams to return fire and the crew to retreat to a "citadel" or secure room for protection.

But in most cases, the raising of an alarm, assistance from nearby warships, increasing speed, taking evasive manoeuvres and the firing warning shots forced pirates to give up the chase, according to the IMB’s Piracy Reporting Centre.