The recent hijacking of a ship by Somali pirates was the first such incident off the Horn of Africa since 2012, and more ships are being targeted off West Africa. But why are attacks increasing and how should the international community respond?
The latest State of Maritime Piracy report by the watchdog Oceans Beyond Piracy (OBP) warns against security complacency in the shipping industry, particularly around the Horn of Africa. It appears the industry has gone from a state of heightened security awareness to taking its foot off the pedal.
After five years without any hijackings, the Comoros-flagged vessel Aris 13 was seized in March off the coast of Somalia. Pirates freed the oil tanker and its Sri Lankan crew three days later without ransom. But within weeks, there had been more incidents.
On the other side of the continent, piracy has not declined even though its form has changed. In its 2015 report, the OBP noted that attacks were on the rise off the West African coast.
One out of every five pirate attacks takes place there, making it the most dangerous region for seafarers.
Pirates used to seize oil tankers for their cargo but falling oil prices made this less lucrative, so there was a shift to kidnapping for ransom.
Foreign seafarers were the obvious targets, as the pirates can make higher ransom demands for them. These attacks were also reported to be more violent. That trend appears to have continued. West African governments have poor surveillance systems, which criminals can exploit.
At its peak – between 2010 and 2011 – piracy off the Horn of Africa cost the shipping industry up to $7bn (£5.42bn) annually. This prompted an international response led by the tripartite coalition of Nato, the European Union Naval Force (EU NAVFOR) and the US Combined Maritime Forces.
The use of private security, which was once frowned upon, became common practice.
The associated costs and the overall success must have fed the perception that the piracy had been solved.
In November 2016, Japan scaled down its counter-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden. Weeks later, Nato ended its operation Ocean Shield, which operated around the same area, hailing it as one of the organisation’s most successful ever missions, one which had achieved its objectives.
However, the pirates never really went away. They just could not strike because of the armed presence in their seas.
It’s a point that the former Operation Commander for EU NAVFOR Maj Gen Martin Smith explained to me more than a year ago.
“We’ve taken away the opportunity for pirates to go to sea… but we’re very conscious that the capability required is fairly basic,” he said.
“Secondly we are aware that the intent still exists. The pirate networks still exist, they’re just doing other things and we believe that if we gave them back the opportunity they would go back to piracy.”
Now it appears that that is exactly what has happened, as some of the anti-piracy units have completed their mission and have headed home.
This is coupled with the issue of illegal fishing by foreign vessels in the area.
One of the pirates who hijacked the Aris 13 told the BBC Somali Service that the foreign ships are not just depleting fish reserves but are also attacking local fishing boats.
“We were after a particular ship that destroyed some of our equipment, when we came across this one, about eight miles from the coast,” he claimed. “It came across initially as a fishing vessel, and later on, when we went inside, we discovered that it [was] a cargo ship, transporting oil. We had to hold it, because we have nothing to lose anyway.”
While these claims cannot be independently verified, it is true that vessels from elsewhere in the world come to fish illegally in the waters off the Horn of Africa.
The Stop Illegal Fishing campaign highlights a global enforcement imbalance as one of the key reasons for the trend.
As it says: “Effective controls in other regions force illegal operators to seek alternative fishing areas where the risk of being caught is lower and the sanctions if caught are less severe, such as the [Western Indian Ocean].”
The mandates of the international naval patrols are limited to counter-piracy operations, rather than maritime policing.
The problems both on the eastern and western coasts of Africa involve the absence, or poor implementation, of regional maritime strategies. Ninety per cent of Africa’s imports and exports are conducted by sea.
Its waters also include key global shipping lanes, such as the Gulf of Aden, so securing these channels would be of great value to the continent and its partners, who both need to show the will to see maritime security improved.
Singapore-flagged tanker attacked off Somalia but escapes
AP — Mogadishu – An international anti-piracy force says a Singapore-flagged chemical tanker has exchanged fire with attackers off the coast of Somalia before escaping unharmed.
The European Union anti-piracy force says in a statement that the MT Leopard Sun was attacked by two skiffs early on Friday about 160 nautical miles off central Somalia. A private security team on the tanker fired warning shots and the skiffs turned away about 20 minutes later.
The Horn of Africa nation saw a brief resurgence of pirate attacks a year ago.
The EU statement says Friday’s attack is “likely to be piracy related” and is the first such attack since November.
The statement says the chemical tanker had been en route from Oman to Cape Town, South Africa.
Can Somalia’s fishing industry keep pirates out of business?
Rising piracy on Indian Ocean spells high insurance charges
Daily Nation — Cases of piracy in Indian Ocean off Somalia coast increased in 2017, raising fears that sustained attacks could raise insurance and freight costs for Kenya importers.
Nine piracy attacks were recorded off Somalia in 2017, up from two in 2016, a new report shows, as global attacks dropped to a 22-year low.
“The dramatic incident, alongside our 2017 figures, demonstrates that Somali pirates retain the capability and intent to launch attacks against merchant vessels hundreds of miles from their coastline,” Mr Pottengal Mukundan, International Maritime Bureau (IMB), director said in a statement.
The increase in such attacks usually comes with costs such as increased insurance premiums, longer freight routes as vessels avoid hot spots and additional cost of hiring private armed guards.
For country that imports more than Sh1.3 trillion worth of consumer and industrial goods, the increased cost is eventually passed to the consumer through higher retail prices.
In their heyday six years ago, Somali pirates launched 237 attacks off the coast of Somalia in 2011, the IMB says, and held hundreds of hostages.
That year, Ocean’s Beyond Piracy estimated the global cost of piracy was about $7 billion.
The shipping industry bore roughly 80 per cent of those costs, the group’s analysis showed.
But attacks fell sharply after ship owners tightened security and avoided the Somali coast.
Intervention by regional naval forces that flooded into the area helped disrupt several hijack bids and improved security for the strategic trade route that leads through the Suez Canal and links the oilfields of the Middle East with European ports.
The IMB data shows a total of 180 incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships took place globally, the lowest level of sea-based crimes to be recorded since 1995, when 188 reports were received.