Shipping faces evolving piracy threat

Somalian pirates surrender to HMS Cumberland's Royal Marine's boarding team in the Gulf of Aden. Credit: MOD

The merchant navy faces an ever-evolving range of security risks. The firing of rockets and missiles against ships operating off the coast of Yemen in 2016 have presented a new threat to seafarers sailing in the region and, around the world, piracy and terrorism threats persist.

Piracy has been a primary driver behind the emergence of maritime security as a major international political issue. The key factor was the rapid rise in pirate attacks off the Horn of Africa between 2008 and 2012. More recently, mass migration across the Mediterranean Sea has sharpened this political focus.

While both issues were tackled by countries deploying naval forces, the piracy problem has been particularly critical for the commercial shipping world, with ships and seafarers taken hostage for ransom. Today, despite a significant drop since 2013 in the piracy risk in the Horn of Africa ‘hot spot’, there remains risk of piracy resurgence and also concern across the commercial community over terrorists seizing ships and seafarers for ransom.

Piracy hot spots

Peter Cook, director of global maritime security consultancy PCA Maritime, pointed to “three established piracy hot-spots around the globe” – the South China Sea, the Gulf of Guinea, and the Horn of Africa – as well as an emerging risk in the Caribbean region. In the Caribbean, private yachts are at particular risk.

The world’s maritime choke points are the primary risk areas for commercial shipping, said Martin Ewence of Blue Forge Consulting. When transiting choke points, Cook noted, “vessels are concentrated, often moving at slower speeds, and taking predictable routes”.

The international response to the original upsurge in pirate activity off Somalia saw naval assets used to escort ships, best management practice guidance given to shipping companies, and armed guards embarked on some ships. This confluence of pressures, which also included building a strategy to address the causes of piracy ashore and establishing legislation and infrastructure to deliver effective prosecutions, saw the Somali problem disappear. According to Cook, the use of best management practice by commercial companies generated “unprecedented levels of training for seafarers”.

The benefits of such co-operation endure today. Ewence told Safety at Sea that there was now a greater degree of co-ordination between local coastguards and the US-led Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) and European Union Naval Force (EU NAVFOR) counter-piracy operations.

However, a naval ship can only be in one place at one time. It could be argued that as navies found themselves diverted elsewhere due to shifting political focus, for example, in the case of EU and NATO counter-piracy forces, to the Mediterranean migration crisis, Somalia’s piracy problem has begun to return. This has coincided, too, with a broader deterioration in the global maritime security situation.

Piracy returns?

In May 2017, a report by UK state broadcaster the BBC asked whether piracy was returning to east Africa, noting the hijacking of the Comoros-flagged small tanker Aris 13 off Somalia’s Puntland region in March. This prompted calls from the US Coastguard to commercial shipowners to invest in private armed security onboard vessels. A month later, pirates boarded the bulk cargo ship MV OS-35, with the crew securing itself in the ship’s citadel. According to an EU NAVFOR statement, assets from the CMF and the Chinese and Indian navies worked together to free the crew, with EU NAVFOR supporting the operation.

As military forces respond to shifting threats and as world market forces ebb and flow, so the criminals operating at sea change their focus too. “We all live in a free-market economy and entrepreneurial criminals will find new opportunities to make money,” said Cook. “Criminals are adaptive, innovative, and market-sensitive, making crime a dynamic force.”

Cook noted the reduction in oil siphoning in the South China Sea as world oil prices dropped, and how criminals operating in the Gulf of Guinea then turned more to kidnap and ransom as the market for stolen oil diminished. In the Gulf of Guinea, Ewence noted that pirates were “getting more audacious”, citing instances of attacks on police and other security forces.

Co-operation remains key to reducing risk. Gerry Northwood, chief operating officer for Maritime Asset Security and Training (MAST), pointed to the role of close military/commercial liaison in reducing the risk of successful hijackings during the spike in Somali pirate activity between March and June 2017. “Even though the maritime forces in the Gulf of Aden had suffered some skill fade and have subsequently had to think carefully about making their standard operating procedures more effective,” Northwood told Safety at Sea, “without that close co-operation, in all likelihood OS-35 would have been the first hijack of a major vessel since 2012.”

Yet while the Somali piracy risk may be increasing, things are still relatively quiet compared with 2008–12. Back then, the pirates “created a lucrative and highly successful kidnap and ransom business model that took the world by surprise”, said Northwood. “For nearly four years, they pretty much had it all their own way until a sufficiently robust security framework was put in place and well enough established to contain them.”

EU NAVFOR spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel David Fielder told Safety at Sea that the recent Somali piracy spike “serves to remind all stakeholders of the fragile state of containment”.

As for the current nature of the global piracy risk, Northwood argued there was a steady state, with ‘maritime muggings’ being the order of the day; mainly attacks on ships to gain access to valuables. “The spectre in the room,” he said, “is a return to kidnappings in Nigeria and hijack and ransom by the Somalis.”

Big change

Despite the enduring piracy risk, Ewence argued that rocket and missile attacks on ships off the Yemeni coast were “the biggest change in the past six months, as regional conflicts spin out into the maritime zone”.

On 1 October 2016, the United Arab Emirates’ high-speed logistics vessel Swift was struck by a missile reported to have been fired by Houthi rebels in Yemen, with the rebels stating the ship was targeted because it was supporting military operations. On 31 May 2017, in what may have been the first attack by the rebels on a commercial vessel, Marshall Islands-registered tanker Muskie was targeted with three rocket-propelled grenades fired from a skiff in the Bab-al-Mandab Strait: no organisation claimed responsibility.

Alongside the returning piracy risk, the increasing instability ashore in Yemen has resulted in a new transit corridor being established, in addition to the existing internationally recognised transit corridor (IRTC) in the Gulf of Aden, which was established in 2008 in response to the Somali piracy threat. The Maritime Security Transit Corridor (MSTC) has been set up west of the IRTC, covering the area extending west through the Bab-al-Mandab Strait and then north into the Red Sea, with ships escorted west of the Hanish al-Kabir and Jabal Zuqar islands.

Effectively, only naval ships have the capability to deal with anti-ship missiles. Broadly, shipowners and seafarers alike “would of course like to see greater naval presence in the areas of greatest threat”, said Cook. The presence and power of a warship has proved to be a significant deterrent to piracy and other forms of criminality. However, Cook noted, more than 80% of the global commercial fleet is assigned to ‘open registries’; these ‘registries’ do not have navies that can provide such protection. So, shipowners are faced with the choice of whether or not to pay for security, at times and in places when it might – or might not – be needed.

Cook added that Western governments had invested significant resources in developing very effective maritime domain monitoring and intelligence networks, but these are defensive in nature and their development is underpinned by political will. This, combined with the challenges in maintaining naval presence, he argued, can mean that “security at sea is inconsistent at best and very patchy at worst”.

Yet, the co-operation generated across different naval groups operating in the same area can be a force multiplier, as they co-ordinate to address various risks, even if one particular group’s mandate may be limited to addressing one particular risk. Fielder said that, while EU NAVFOR’s mandate was limited to piracy, risks such as those emanating from Yemen were taking place in waters where EU NAVFOR was operating. Thus, he noted, EU NAVFOR can use “instruments of information sharing” administered by EU NAVFOR’s Maritime Security Centre Horn of Africa (MSCHOA) to facilitate “co-operation and response by military forces with wider mandates like CMF”.

Muddying the waters

Instability in regions surrounding a number of choke points has stimulated enduring concern over terrorism. Insurgent violence has been a long-standing risk for shipping and seafarers, as demonstrated by the attacks on the tanker Limburg in the Gulf of Aden in 2002 and on the US Navy destroyer USS Cole in Aden harbour two years earlier. While instances of such attacks have, to date, not been as great at sea as in other domains, Cook said that “maritime terrorism is a worrying and growing trend that is less predictable”, when compared with other risks. Moreover, added Northwood, “none of the terrorist organisations [operating] in the maritime [domain] is wedded to a single method of delivery”.

There are a number of risks from militant groups, such as targeting ships in port or attacking them at sea with missiles or improvised explosive devices; there is also the risk of ships and seafarers being taken hostage. Northwood noted two maritime attack hot spots: the Gulf of Aden/Bab-al-Mandab region, and the Sulu Sea. “The clear and present threat is the Bab-al-Mandab,” said Northwood. Noting the apparent efforts to target tankers from shore, he said, “It is more by luck than intervention that we have not seen a major incident.”

Of great concern for seafarers is the fact that under United Nations Resolution 1844 and a US Presidential Order (signed in April 2010), payment of ransoms to insurgent groups is prohibited, with heavy consequences likely for any breaches. So with security threats not only persisting but evolving, and as naval forces attentions are pulled in multiple directions, the issue of how merchant shipping can continue to protect its crews still needs addressing.

Contact Lee Willett

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