Weekly Piracy Review: Expanded Territory

Map of attempted (yellow) and successful (red) attacks in 2012

Recent trends indicate that piracy around Somalia and in the Gulf of Aiden is becoming less prevalent. Through September of this year Somali pirates have reportedly carried out 70 attacks, down from 199 in the same period of 2011. These attacks are becoming less successful as well – in 2011 about one in three attempted raids were successful, while now the figure is closer to about one in 20. Armed guards onboard ships, the presence of patrolling warships in the region, and onboard security measures such as barbed wire are among the efforts credited with this decrease in piracy. However, agencies such as the International Maritime Bureau continue to warn against complacency, pointing out that Somali pirates alone still hold 11 ships and 167 crew members hostage. More than 20 of those hostages have been under the control of their captors for over 30 months. The IMB also reports that it calculates the global cost of piracy was $12 billion in 2010, which is a clear indication that continued efforts to impede the ability of these criminals in carrying out acts of piracy is essential moving forward.

Along with this decrease in pirate activity off of East Africa, there is a growing threat in West Africa around the Gulf of Guinea. As the international community has put an increased effort into protecting merchant ships in other hot-spots, the threat of maritime piracy is spreading farther and affecting areas previously thought to be fairly safe. Specifically, reported attacks have more than doubled off of West Africa so far this year from those reported in 2011. Oil production is growing in countries such as Nigeria, and as a result shipping traffic is increasing, creating a new “market” for those seeking to hijack boats and seize cargo for profit. Since August at least three large tankers have been attacked, and about 10,000 tons of oil have been robbed from those ships. Up until recently it was considered relatively safe for large ships to anchor for days at a time and carry out ship-to-ship transfers near Ivory Coast, but recent attacks there indicate that the reach of maritime piracy is spreading quickly.Though prior attacks have often focused on holding a ship and its crew hostage for ransom, these goal in these recent incidents appears to be the appropriation of oil to be sold on the black market. The more widespread area in which attacks have occurred, and the fact that many have taken place much further out to sea than in the past, shows that these are sophisticated pirates with access to larger ships, greater resources, and information on ship movement.

Over the weekend the Nigerian Navy and the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) met to strengthen efforts under a memorandum signed a few years ago outlining the need for counter-piracy measures. The meeting was prompted after a presidential directive to end illegal activities (specifically maritime piracy and sea robbery) in Nigeria was handed down. The hope is to more effectively police the waters around Nigeria through increased cooperation and resource-sharing between the two agencies.

On Monday senior officials from the US, India, and Japan met for the third time to formally discuss strategies for combating piracy and bolstering maritime security. The three agreed to increase efforts in combating piracy through greater cooperation.

India took over the rotating Presidency of the United Nation Security Council (UNSC) this week. Hardeep Singh Puri, India’s Representative to the UNSC, has already indicated that India will use its post to seek a “comprehensive anti-piracy strategy to tackle the maritime menace.” Maritime piracy clearly presents a significant challenge to the international community and its effects are felt especially strongly in India and the surrounding region, so Puri intends to cultivate debate on the topic of how the UNSC will address piracy as an international crime.

Weekly Piracy Review: Crossfire near Somalia, Hostages Released

Pirate vessel ignites during firefight with HNLMS Rotterdam, NATO’s counter-piracy flagship

While patrolling the waters off the coast of Somalia on Wednesday the HNLMS Rotterdam, NATO’s counter-piracy flagship, destroyed a pirate fishing boat. The Rotterdam had deployed a boarding team to check out the boat, and upon confronting those aboard the ship the team began to take fire from fighters on the boat and on land. The fishing boat aroused suspicion as it was the type generally employed to transport pirates in their efforts to hijack larger merchant ships. The attack on the boarding team prompted the Rotterdam to return fire, which resulted in the fishing boat catching fire. Those on board were forced to flee into the sea, and despite continuing to draw fire from those onshore the Rotterdam proceeded to rescue at least 25 people from the water. One person was found dead, and it is unknown whether they were a pirate or being held hostage. It is also unclear how that person died. The Rotterdam suffered only minor damage and no one from the Dutch warship was injured.

In December of 2010 the MV Orna, a UAE-owned cargo vessel, was hijacked by a group of Somali pirates about 400 nautical miles North East of the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean. Since then the ship has been held hostage, along with the crew members who were taken with it. After growing impatient following nearly two years of attempting to collect a ransom for the return of the Orna and its’ crew, it has been reported that one of the hostages was killed in late August of this year. This killing was allegedly  carried out in an effort to prompt a ransom payment, though the truth of the story has recently been disputed by a technical advisor to the ship’s management company. If true, this act is believed to have been the first killing of a hostage by Somali pirates, as generally hostages are held unharmed until ransom is paid.

MV Orna

Last Saturday the vessel and 13 of the 19 crew believed to have been aboard were finally released following a ransom payment reported to be between $400,000 and $600,000. The ship’s captain, the chief engineer, and four other crew members were not released, and are still being held hostage. It is believed that their captors are divided into two separate groups, who disagree over the amount of money they require in order to release these remaining six hostages. The remaining hostages are being held by piracy investors, who support piracy by providing food and security for hostages during negotiations in return for a portion of the ransom. Negotiations are continuing between these piracy investors and the UAE company that owns the Orna.

The UAE’s National Transport Authority (NTA) announced a new anti-piracy security system it will be implementing. As part of the security measures being taken, tracking devices are being installed on commercial ships bearing UAE flags and carrying over 300 tons of cargo. This will allow these ships to be monitored around the clock from offices in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. According to the NTA, 150 ships have already been outfitted with the system, which will soon be installed on about 800 more. In addition, the system implemented by the NTA will provide on-board security protection for these vessels to further discourage piracy attacks.

The International Maritime Bureau reported this week that the number of reported attacks by Somali pirates has dropped to its’ lowest point since 2009. This is largely a reflection of increased efforts on the part of the international community to police the waters of the Arabian Sea around Somalia, focusing on patrolling the Gulf of Aiden. Along with this drop in pirate activity around Somalia there has been an increase in the number of attacks in other areas, including the Gulf of Guinea, Indonesia, and other parts of South Asia.

Pirate Attacks Hit “Low Season” in Somalia – Why and What’s Next?

According to the International Maritime Bureau, pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia continued to fall sharply in the first half of 2012.  July 2012 was particularly significant, with no reported attempted attack. Remarkably, it was the first full month with no noteworthy pirate activity off the coast of Somalia and the larger Indian Ocean since at least half a decade. The last reported attack dates back to 26 June 2012, when a Maltese-flagged bulk ship was fired upon near the Yemeni coast. As of 29 July 2012, Somali pirates are still holding at least 11 vessels and 174 crew members.

A piracy situational map we’ve rarely seen – Courtesy Oceanus Live

The suprising drop in Somali pirate activity is spurring a debate on the reasons behind it and the impact of the international efforts to counter pirate attacks. Among the main factors are the pre-emptive and disruptive counter piracy tactics employed by the international navies, with military operations now extending both at sea and on land, the effective implementation of the Best Management Practices by the shipping industry, including the use of citadels and other ship hardening means, the strengthening of a regional judicial system of law enforcement and prosecution, also targeting piracy financiers and kingpins, and in particular, the manyfold increase in the use of Privately Contracted Armed Security Personnel and government-provided Vessel Protection Detachments by ships travelling through the area. It is likely that all these factors together and concurrently have contributed to the falling numbers, tipping the risk aspect to rise above the possible profit expectations for wannabe pirates. Bad monsoon weather is also an additional factor often overlooked, with July and August being traditionally difficult months to set off to sea in the region for both pirate mother ships and small skiffs.

What’s Behind the Horizon?

The current status quo requires the operational strategy to continue and focus also on wider land-based solutions encompassing both security and economic development. Some commentators have warned that pirates and their financiers are simply sitting idle awaiting for better days to come.  Notably, August 2012 will mark the end of the Somalia TGF. While there are high hopes for a better future for Somalia, it is difficult to assess how this will reshape the Country’s current political landscape. There are also fears that the successes of current anti-piracy measures will detract the necessary attention below warning levels with a consequential lull in the international and national effors to combat piracy. If so, the momentum could shift back in the pirates’ favor.

What Does Piracy Have to Do with North Korea?

The reclusive authoritarian Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is once again back on the news headlines. Surprisingly, this time is not about the reactivation of its purported nuclear programme, or because of a new attempt to lift off a satellite/ballistic missile, or for some leaked information on the poor living conditions endured by its citizens. Media outlets are reporting on the possible hijack of 3 Chinese fishing vessels and the kidnap of their 29 crew members earlier this month. The vessels and all the captives were released today, following the intervention of the Chinese authorities. The incident has all the hallmarks of a piracy attack off the coast of Somalia or in West Africa. However, it occurred in the Yellow Sea, in an area between North Korea and China.

News reports are still contradictory and any in-depth analysis into this will necessarily depend on the real circumstances of the case. Notably, the incident has not been reported to the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre. In particular, it is not clear whether the incident took place in international waters. The identity of the assailants is also unclear. Some reports indicate that these were members of the North Korean military, while according to others Chinese mafia from the city of Dandong, on the North Korean border, might have been involved, possibly in cooperation with the North Korean military. Several news reports indicate that the vessels, originating from the city of Dalian, were accosted at sea by armed men and forced to sail to North Korea. The ship owners confirmed the capture of the vessels and their crew. According to the owners, the vessels were navigating within Chinese national waters. They also confirmed that the captors have asked for the payment of a ransom of nearly 190.000 US Dollars and have threatened to harm their captives if no payment was made.

If the assailants have no connection with state authorities, the main issue will be to determine whether the incident qualifies as piracy committed in the high seas rather than armed robbery within China’s territorial sea. However, whether the assailants are members of the North Korean military or not, the use of force and the request for a ransom renders them de facto pirates, because they appear to have acted in pursuit of private ends. If the available information is correct, their actions could also qualify as mutiny. In this regard, it is worth recalling that Article 102 UNCLOS encompasses acts of piracy committed by a government ship whose crew has mutinied.

Actions by the North Korea authorities have in the past drawn widespread international condemnation. However, it is difficult to envisage Pyongyang secretive rulers now embracing a state policy to terrorize fishermen in the Yellow Sea for ransom purposes, particularly when this has an impact on a longtime ally and regional military superpower as China. This latter routinely issues strong protests over fishing related disputes with Japanese, South Korean, Vietnamese or Philippine fishing vessels. China will likely take certain actions to prevent any further escalation of such attacks in the Yellow Sea, as it has done by policing Southeast Asia’s  Mekong river from drug smugglers and criminal cartels. However, doubts remain on whether the public outcry sparked by this incident will have an impact on its already strained relationship with North Korea.

International Maritime Bureau 2011 Global Piracy Report: Successful Piracy Attacks Decreasing

The International Maritime Bureau (IMB), the anti-maritime crimes arm of the International Chamber of Commerce, has released its 2011 Piracy Report. The Report is compiled on the basis of the incidents of piracy and armed robbery worldwide reported to the IMB.

Not surprisingly, pirate attacks against vessels in East and West Africa accounted for the majority of the world attacks, with Somali pirates accounting for more than 50% of these. Out of the 439 attacks reported in 2011, 275 attacks took place off the coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Guinea. There are fears that pirate attacks in West Africa in 2011 were underreported.

The total number of pirate attacks fell only slightly from 445 in 2010 to 439 in 2011. Overall, in 2011 there were 176 vessels boarded, of which 45 were hijacked, and 113 were fired upon, in addition to 105 attempted attacks. While the number of Somali incidents increased from 219 in 2010 to 237 in 2011, the number of successful hijackings decreased from 49 to 28. The last quarter of 2011 shows an even more significant drop. However, these numbers do not take into account attacks on dhows and smaller vessels which are often targeted by pirates and may also unwittingly end up serving as motherships.

These figures echo a recent positive trend already signaled by the International Maritime Organization. According to the IMB, this is mainly attributable to the presence of international naval forces in the Gulf of Aden, the enforcement of the IMB best practices (such as the use of citadels, sprinkler systems, and other active defences) and the deterrent effect of the employment of privately armed security personnel on board.

Will these positive developments continue in 2012?

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