Somali piracy threat always on the horizon

Four Thai seafarers have been held captive by Somali pirates for four years and nine months. Their plight is shared by 26 others, for whom no rescue missions have been launched or ransoms offered. Jonathan Gornall reports.

A pirate in north-east Somalia. Non-profit organisation Oceans Beyond Piracy says very little money has been spent on addressing the root causes of piracy in the Horn of Africa country. Mohamed Dahir / AFP
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The name Captain Phillips is familiar to millions around the world. He was the subject of the 2013 Tom Hanks film about an American cargo ship skipper who was freed by US Navy Seals after being taken captive by Somali pirates in 2009.

Almost no one, however, knows the names of 30 hostages who remain in captivity in Somalia, forgotten by the world.

Hostages for four years and nine months, four unnamed Thais from the fishing vessel Prantalay 12 seized 1,200 miles off the Somali coast on April 18, 2010 have spent longer in captivity than anyone who has been seized by the Somali pirates. Certainly longer than the four days endured by Richard Phillips, master of the Maersk Alabama.

Six of the Prantalay 12's crew members were reported to have died when their vessel capsized in a storm and beached in its pirate anchorage on July 14, 2011, leaving the survivors with no ship and little hope of being freed for ransom.

Similarly, the 26 anonymous Asian crew of the fishing vessel Naham 3, taken in the Indian Ocean on March 26, 2012, remain in captivity.

According to a report presented in October to the UN Security Council, these crewmen have been abandoned by ships’ owners and insurers who “have since become untraceable” or who are “unwilling or unable to resolve the crisis [while] the states of nationality of the crews lack sufficient capacity to respond”.

The vast majority of the 3,700 seafarers captured by Somali pirates since 2006 have been Asians, for whom there have been no dramatic rescue attempts worthy of retelling in a blockbuster Hollywood movie, and whose freedom has been obtained generally as a by-product of ransoms paid for the ships on which they served.

For the remaining 30 in captivity, “there have been no rescue attempts and no ransoms”, says Roy Paul, director of the London-based Maritime Piracy Human Response Programme, because “nobody cares, and who is going to pay for it? The families are poorer than the pirates”.

Without valuable ships to be bartered, the lives of ordinary seafarers held as hostages are all but worthless.

In October, the last seven remaining hostages from the bulk carrier Asphalt Venture were released, thanks to the persistence – and cash – of Mumbai ship owner OMCI, which had already paid a ransom for its vessel. They were the last seamen taken from container or freight ships to remain in captivity.

The Asphalt Venture was hijacked off Tanzania in September 2010. After a payment rumoured to be in the region of US$3.5 million (Dh12.85m), the ship and eight of its crew were released in April 2012. The remaining seven, all from India, finally went home in October, after the pirates were paid more money.

As far as the rest of the world is concerned, Somali piracy is already a thing of the past and attention is shifting to other regions. As piracy has faded east of Africa, for example, off the west coast it is flourishing.

This year there have been 36 attacks in the Gulf of Guinea off countries that include Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Gabon, and already there have been calls for the navies that have done so much to quell Somali piracy to transfer their operations across to central Africa’s Atlantic coast.

In its heyday in 2010, 207 ships were targeted by Somali piracy, and by January 2011 the pirates were holding 736 hostages and 32 vessels. For a time, it was a vastly profitable business. One Italian oil tanker, the Enrico Ievoli, seized off Oman in December 2011, is said to have attracted a ransom of $9 million.

Figures released recently by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), however, show that by last month there had been just 11 attacks this year – none successful.

The last ship to be taken by Somali pirates was the Smyrni, a Liberian-flagged tanker carrying 135,000 tonnes of crude oil that was seized on May 10, 2012.

Ten armed pirates in two fast-moving skiffs boarded the vessel in the Arabian Sea, about 250 nautical miles south-east of Ras Al Madrakah in Oman, taking the ship and its 26 crew members back to Somali waters.They were held for 10 months before a ransom was paid.

Inevitably, at the height of the problem ships sailing in and out of ports in the UAE were affected.

In June 2010 the Pakistani master of the UAE-flagged cargo ship QSM Dubai was shot dead in a gun battle between naval forces and pirates in the Gulf of Aden, and 2011 saw a spate of attacks on several ships and dhows en route to and from Dubai.

In stark contrast, such has been the decrease in piracy that last month the organisers of the Volvo Ocean Race announced that while in the 2011/12 race yachts were shipped to and from Sharjah for legs two and three, they were confident that the race fleet would be able to sail all the way from Cape Town to Abu Dhabi for the second leg of the race without the fear of attack.

But IMB warned this week that the Somali pirates had not gone away – they were just biding their time and waiting for ship owners to drop their guard, and for the various international navies patrolling their waters to sail away.

“The attacks have stopped because of a combination of factors,” says Cyrus Mody, the assistant director of IMB, which runs the international Piracy Reporting Centre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

“The biggest factor has been the presence of all the navies in the region, which have been extremely proactive, going out and interrogating vessels and, if there has been any suspicion that they could pose a potential threat, arresting the crews on suspicion of piracy.”

In December 2008 the European Union launched Operation Atalanta, forming the European Union Naval Force Somalia to tackle piracy off the Horn of Africa, a vital crossroads through which all seaborne trade to and from Europe and the Far East must flow.

This effort has been backed by naval missions from Nato and the 30-nation, US-led Combined Maritime Forces partnership, based in Bahrain.

About 21 EU member states and two non-EU countries contribute warships to Operation Atalanta, which in March last year was extended until December this year. Last month, the Council of Europe pledged to fund the operation until the end of 2016.

Equally important, says Mr Mody, has been the use of armed guards on board vessels. “We started seeing an increase in the use of private security from mid-2010, and since then vessels which have had an armed team on board have, to date, not been successfully hijacked.”

But the cost of Somali piracy has been breathtaking – and the ransoms paid have accounted for the least of it.

A report by the US-based non-profit organisation Oceans Beyond Piracy puts the cost to the global economy of Somali piracy, in 2012 alone, at between $5.7bn and $6.1bn, of which 29 per cent was accounted for by the cost of additional security equipment and guards on ships, and 19 per cent by military operations.

Unexpectedly, 27 per cent was down to increased fuel consumption, thanks to the higher speeds at which ships travelled through the region, while ransom payments were thought to have accounted for a mere 1 per cent of the economic burden.

Tellingly, the report noted that very little money was being spent on addressing the root causes of piracy in Somalia. “Lamentably,” it said, only 0.64 per cent of the cost of piracy had been spent on investing in long-term solutions, which suggested that “the international community has yet to move from treating the symptoms of piracy to treating its causes”.

As a result, “the gains are fragile and reversible, and if counter-piracy efforts are abandoned, there is the risk that maritime piracy might return to the crisis levels of 2010 and 2011”.

The IMB too warns that regardless of the cost, vigilance off the east coast of Africa must be maintained.

“One of our concerns is that despite this reduction in the number of incidents, which is of course a positive thing, the people who used to carry out these attacks are still very much there and still have the capacity,” says Mr Mody.

“The risk to them now of going out is quite high, because of the navy presence and the armed guards on board ship. Obviously, commercially it is an expensive affair to have armed teams on ships, but if owners do start to reduce security we may see attacks resuming.”

It would, fears the IMB, “take literally only one successful hijacking of a merchant vessel to rekindle the entire Somali piracy issue”.

It’s a fear also shared by the UN. In a report in October UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon welcomed the progress in tackling piracy off the coast of Somalia, but said the country’s continuing economic, governance and legal failings continued to provide “fertile ground for criminal networks”.

He remained concerned that “without the continued support provided by the international naval presence and the self-protection measures adopted by the shipping industry, large-scale piracy may return”.

But whatever the cost to the developed economies supporting the antipiracy efforts, the true cost remains the human one.

On June 6 this year the remaining 11 members of the crew of the MV Albedo finally managed to escape, ending a nightmare ordeal that began when their ship was hijacked in November 2010, en route for Jebel Ali in the UAE.

The sailors, from Bangladesh, India, Iran and Sri Lanka, had been held in captivity, enduring torture, for 1,288 days.

“While we are encouraged by their release, we must stay engaged in the work to release the seafarers who are still held in pirate custody,” said Conor Seyle of Oceans Beyond Piracy.

“Until there are zero hostages held by pirates, the human cost is too high.”