In numbers

352: Number of attacks on ships by pirates in January-September 2011

289: Number of attacks on ships by pirates in the same period in 2010

Source: International Maritime Bureau

Record levels of attacks on ships in the first nine months of 2011 suggest a grim outlook for Gulf shipping operators travelling on some of world’s most dangerous sea lanes.

More than 10 per cent of all oil transported by sea passes through the Gulf of Aden to the Suez Canal, with most of that coming from the Gulf. These are also the shipping lanes most vulnerable to pirates originating from the Horn of Africa. Between January and September, the UK-based International Maritime Bureau (IMB) recorded 352 attacks on ships, mainly from Somali pirates, up from 289 in the same period in 2010.

Reduced success for pirates

“The number of attacks has increased to record levels, but what is significant is that the number of hijackings is down, compared with the same period last year,” says IMB director, Pottengal Mukundan. “What that indicates to us is that while the pirates are more active, they are less successful.” Pirates have managed to seize only 24 ships so far in 2011, compared with 35 between January and September 2010.

The IMB attributes this to the efforts of naval forces defending vessels and protective measures deployed on ships. During 2011, there has been a marked increase in the number of private armed security teams on board ships.

Measures that have proved effective include blocking access points from the sea with barbed wire and hardening engine control rooms so crews can hide while awaiting rescue.

Piracy activity has shifted from the historically active Gulf of Aden – just off the coast of Somali Puntland, the base for most attacks on the Horn of Africa – to the Arabian Sea. US risk management firm Aon says there has been a 267 per cent year-on-year increase in attacks in the Arabian Sea. Now, with the monsoon season ending, the shipping industry is gearing up for another increase in the threat level.

“One of the geographic hotspots in the Indian Ocean area is … where traffic from the [Arabian Sea] meets traffic going into the Gulf of Aden. This is an area where several attacks have taken place, because you have several vulnerable ships fully laden with oil cargoes,” says Mukundan. 

In typical action, Somali pirates will fire automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades at vessels to board and hijack them. If successful, they sail the vessel to the Somali coast and demand a ransom for the safe return of vessel and crew.

Pirates are organised mainly along clan lines and are based in remote port towns. Reports suggest there may be seven to 10 gangs financed by so-called “instigators”, who organise the funding and delegate operations to group leaders.

A report from the US Congressional Research Service says these groups operate from Xabo on Puntland’s northern coast, along Puntland’s eastern coast, out of ports from Garacad south to Hobyo, and from Harardhere in central Somalia south to Kismayo. UN officials have warned of a rise in attacks from an area between Harardhere and Kismayo run by militants affiliated with the Islamist Al-Shabab movement.

Gulf oil tankers and cargo ships are attractive booty. The Greek supertanker MV Maran Centaruaus, hijacked in early 2010, was carrying $162m-worth of Saudi crude bound for the US. The shipowners handed over $7m in ransom to release the vessel.

Coordinated naval responses offer some protection. “About 20 naval vessels at any time are operating in this area from countries that are not natural allies and they are coordinating as best they can,” says Mukundan.

The US Navy conducts counter-piracy operations through the Combined Task Force 151 (CTF-151) and Nato’s Operation Ocean Shield. CTF-151’s mission is focused on the Gulf of Aden and off the Somali coast. CTF-152 operates in the Gulf conducting maritime security operations in conjunction with the GCC. However, Middle East states have been accused of failing to do enough to combat the piracy threat.

“We’d like to see more direct involvement by Middle East countries to support naval actions in the Horn of Africa,” says Mukundan. “Most navies are coming from outside. As there is considerable wealth in the Gulf, we’d like to see them using it to protect what are essentially trade routes from their region.”

Economic threat to the Gulf

Much of the Gulf countries’ maritime security focus is still targeted at Iran, rather than Somali pirates, but Gulf states are waking up to the threat piracy poses to their economic interests.

In April 2011, a unit from the UAE’s Anti-Terrorist Special Forces, supported by US air defence units, freed a UAE-flagged vessel, MV Arrilah, from pirates in the Arabian Sea, east of Oman.

“It’s getting to be a pretty serious situation. For example, the UAE’s ships have this year been targeted most and that is what provoked the counter-piracy reaction earlier this year,” says Theodore Karasik, a Gulf-based research director at consultancy Inegma.

A draft UAE maritime strategy released in April urged the international community to pursue a comprehensive strategy of support for Somalia. It prioritises improving land-based security capacity and establishing a system of governance and rule of law, notably through equipping and training the coastguard and building up the judiciary sectors.

Lacking the rule of law, a functioning economy and with rudimentary forms of governance, Somalia is a long way from being able to undermine the support base of pirates. As long as it pays dividends for pirates to charge ransoms, ships will remain in the firing line.