Somali Pirates Demonstrate Long-range Menace

By and William Maclean | November 11, 2009

Anti-piracy measures off Somalia appear to be forcing pirates to extend their range to strike deep into the Indian Ocean, shifting the menace even further from the protection of international naval forces.

Gunmen on Monday launched their longest range hijack attempt yet by opening fire on a big Hong Kong-flagged crude oil tanker, the BW Lion, 1,000 nautical miles [app. 1150 miles – 1850 kms] east of Mogadishu, the European Union naval force EU Navfor said.

The bid failed, but was a stark demonstration of seaborne gangs’ ambition to outwit the naval forces deployed against them and defeat a more determined defense by their civilian prey.

“It’s a pretty formidable development. It shows the pirates are a confident and adaptive opponent,” said Martin Murphy, an expert on maritime irregular warfare at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.

The Horn of Africa’s coastal waters — vital shipping lanes linking Asia and Europe — have seen a sharp rise in attacks by pirates who have earned tens of millions of dollars in ransom from hijacks of mostly foreign vessels in the past three years.

The minimum distance vessels are advised to keep from shore has steadily increased in that time to 600 miles [960 kms] from fewer than 200 miles [320 kms]. The pirates typically use “mother ships” to sail hundreds of miles to sea and then attack in small skiffs.


“They have shown their competence at greater and greater distances. At each stage of this development, the pirates have gone to the previously assumed limit of their range, knowing that there is where they will find ships to attack,” Murphy said.

Monday’s attack follows similar incidents at distances off the east coast that were also far in excess of earlier attempted boardings, which often took place within 200 miles of the coast.

On Oct. 29, for example, pirates seized a Thai-flagged fishing boat, the Thai Union, about 200 nautical miles north of the Seychelles and 650 miles off the Somali coast.

On Oct 19, pirates seized a Chinese coal ship, the De Xin Hai, some 700 nautical miles east of Somalia.

Tony Mason, secretary general with the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), which represents 75 percent of the global industry, said reports of Monday’s attack were worrying. “This is a really big problem if shipping over that sort of area has got to consider itself susceptible to attack by pirates,” he said.

Ironically the development appears to stem partly from security improvements aboard. Responding to expert advice, many crews now take a wide variety of measures to resist boarders, so as to buy time to allow naval forces to come to their rescue.

Such steps can include installing barbed wire coils, using fire hoses, sailing the vessel in a zigzag pattern and speeding up. But taking such steps in remote waters may have little use since there are few naval forces active there to rescue them.

Foreign navies are deployed mainly off Somalia’s north coast in the Gulf of Aden. Since the turn of the year they have operated convoys as well as set up and monitored a transit corridor for ships to pass through vulnerable points.

These measures have also deterred pirates, but they only have an effect where naval forces are present. “In contrast, on the east coast of Somalia, there is practically no naval effort except for probably a few ships belonging to the (U.N.’s) World Food Program and maybe a few more,” said Cyrus Mody, manager with London-based watchdog the International Maritime Bureau (IMB).

John Dalby, chief executive of MRM, which provides security personnel to merchant vessels in the region, said it was going to be impossible for navies “to police the whole of the western half of the Indian Ocean.”

“We are stressing to governments that we just can’t see this problem institutionalized — that people just accept piracy in this area as a way of life,” the ICS’s Mason said. “To us that is unacceptable. We need to call on governments for a bit of fresh thinking on how we are going to really deal with this problem.”

A regional analyst who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the topic said pirates had become better at using Global Positioning Systems navigational aids and had mastered the logistical challenges of refueling and resupplying their craft in remote waters.

The pirates would seek big vessels like oil tankers, the analyst said, as this was “a way of ensuring you get a bigger ransom. There is an incentive to go for a bigger ransom because the payment structure is built on a percentage basis.”

James Burnell-Nugent, former commander in chief, fleet, of the British navy, told Reuters: “The navies have done a fantastic palliative job of addressing the symptoms. The Gulf of Aden is a lot safer than it used to be. “But the root causes of this menace, which lie on land, have not yet been addressed. The 1,000-mile radius (of Monday’s attack) is a warning sign to the (shipping) industry at large.”

(Editing by Charles Dick)

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