Somali pirates, the bane of freighters and tankers plying routes south of the Arabian Peninsula, are adopting daring new tactics to counter the effects of a multinational naval crackdown and better-protected merchant ships.
In the first-ever attack on a vessel at anchor in a country's territorial waters, armed pirates hijacked the chemical tanker Fairchem Bogey within sight of the Omani port of Salaleh on Aug. 20, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB). Armed pirates boarded the ship, took its 21 crew hostage and put the vessel on course for Somalia, according to the bureau's Piracy Reporting Center.
Earlier this month, at least two freighters told the IMB that the largest ever number of pirates working together had swarmed their vessels. The Neptune came under attack Aug. 7 off the coast of Eritrea by a dozen skiffs each carrying five to eight pirates. The crew fought off the pirate armada, but 11 days later a second, unnamed, bulk carrier was nearly hijacked by a fleet of seven skiffs in the same area.
"On the one hand, it shows they're desperate because it's becoming more difficult to hijack ships, but on the other hand it shows the strength of the pirates. If you're desperate to reach your goal and you face increasing pressure, you become more innovative," Jan Stockbruegger, who studies piracy at the African Studies Center Lieden, told The Media Line.
The pirates are working hard to keep ahead of growing international efforts to protect shipping on the sea lanes south of the Arabian Peninsula, the pirates' main area of operations. A lot is at stake: according to Oceans Beyond Piracy, initiative piracy globally costs $7 billion to $12 billion a year in added insurance premium, lost operating time, ransom and other costs.
More than 60 percent of the attacks last year originated in Somalia, an African country that has devolved into anarchy. Their hunting grounds are the Gulf of Aden and Arabian Sea, where a large part of the world's oil passes as do imports of food and other critical goods to the countries of the Gulf. As many as 24,000 vessels ply these waters every year.
A single hijacking, in this case of the MV Victoria, a German-owned bulk carrier that was held for 73 days in 2009 until the owners paid some $2 million in ransom, cost its operators €3.2 million ($4.6 million). For the pirates, hijacking is a hugely profitable enterprise.
Ransoms have increased to an average of $5.4 million in 2010 from just $150,000 five years earlier. As of June 30, Somali pirates were holding 20 vessels and 420 crew, and demanding ransoms of millions of dollars for their release.
Piracy profits have grown so much that it may well be the second-largest generator of money in Somalia, bringing in over $200 million annually, according to a paper, Trends in Piracy: A Global Problem with Somalia at the Core, published last April by Roger Middleton, a researcher at Chatham House. Only foreign remittances from Somalia's Diaspora community bring in more -- around $1 billion a year, he said.
Stockbruegger said the pirates have only rarely employed high technology, such as global positioning systems (GPSs) to upgrade their capabilities, but they have changed tactics - employing mother ships that enable them to target ships farther away from their home base, finding ways to break into the safe rooms ships have installed to protect crews and even hiring professional negotiators to handle ransom talks with ship owners.
The IMB said in a July report that ships are increasingly coming under attack with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. "Five years ago, pirates were just as likely to brandish a knife as a gun. This year guns were used in 160 attacks and knives in 35," it said.
Stockbruegger, who is also co-editor of the Piracy Studies website, added that swarming attacks increased the likelihood of violence since pirates would be less hesitant to raid a ship carrying armed guards.
Some analysts said the pirates have begun onshore intelligence networks made up of Somali expatriates, who advise them on what ships are coming and going and what they are carrying. If such a network exists, it would a boon for pirates who traditionally seize targets at random on the high seas, not knowing the value of their prospective haul until they have captured the vessel.
"It has been ongoing for last year or two. It started off more locally in terms of ports on the Arabian peninsula and intelligence on the Gulf of Aden and then it spread out to parts as far as [the Indian] subcontinent," Theodore Karasik, director for research and development at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military, told The Media Line.
"Who are these people? Are they working for shipyards or are they scouring the Internet?" he added. "It's probably a combination of both. There's a certain amount intelligence gathering on land and via the Internet."
The pirates have to devise new tactics because they are encountering more resistance from international naval forces and better defended freighters and tankers. In the first half of the year, the IMB recorded 163 attacks, up from 100 the same period in 2010. But the pirates have succeeded in capturing fewer ships, just 21 compared with 27 the same time last year.
Cyrus Mody, manager at IMB, attributed this both to increased ship hardening and to the actions of international naval forces to disrupt pirate groups off the east coast of Africa.
"What we've seen so far this year is that there have more incidents but their success rate has been nearly halved. Last year we had a success rate of approximately one out of four vessels being hijacking; so far this year, it's one vessel out of eight," Mody told The Media Line.
Mody said he doubted that pirates had developed land-based intelligence networks, but he nevertheless maintained the Omani hijacking constituted an escalation of their activities. "It does show that the pirates do have the capability of going into another state's waters and attacking a vessel. This means vessels in such areas also have to remain alert of small boats approaching," he said.
At any given time, some 20 to 30 navy ships from a large number of countries from as far afield as Europe and East Asia are patrolling the waters. But Mody said the pirates are threatening to extend their range of operations, further stretching the defenders' capabilities. Furthermore, when the monsoon season ends during September the calmer waters closer to India will let pirates with their small skiffs return, he said.
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