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Raising the stakes on the high seas – the pirates’ response to the increased use of private maritime security protection

Euro-View: SAMI’s Steven Jones on Maritime Piracy


As piracy attacks off the coast of Somalia continue, the actual number of successful hijacks has fallen. This is in no small part due to the effectiveness of private maritime security companies, and many ship owners have now made the difficult decision to “go armed”. This deterrent’s 100 percent success rate means that thousands of seafarers have avoided capture by pirates.

Against this backdrop, it is reassuring to see that the shipping and security industries are both striving for a credible deterrent against piracy, and are prepared to invest in the appropriate accreditation and standards for private contractors to guarantee proper conduct at sea. Flag States increasingly accept the concept while the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) is addressing the aspect of standards. So the armed response appears set to stay.

With armed guards on the increase, what will the effect on pirate behaviour be in this high-stakes contest?

Sadly, it seems that recent successes in keeping pirates at bay have led to increased tensions, as pirates look to new techniques to hijack vessels. While their successes have fallen, there are reports of increased violence when they do get onboard vessels. The escalating brutality is seen as a sign of heightened desperation.

Yet in the long term, what will be the next step in the piracy problem’s evolution? It is clearly still too good a business for the pirates to drop out of the market, and as British Rear Admiral Duncan Potts — Commander of the EU’s anti-piracy task force (EUNAVFOR) — recently warned, any gains made against pirates are reversible. There is a danger in thinking we have piracy “cracked”.

Somali pirates will continue to adapt to the security measures employed by the shipping industry. They are adaptable, skilled and shrewd — dangerous opponents in every sense. Indeed, analysts now see evidence of new patterns in their attacks.

First is the “drifter” scenario. This sees one pirate boat making a series of attacks not far from the internationally recognised transit corridor (IRTC) policed by EU and NATO task forces. Here the drifter pirates stay close to one area and hit out at preferred targets. There have been multiple attacks in one area off the coast of the Oman recently, which supports the “drift and hit” theory.

Another pattern involves multiple pirate boats working in tandem to attack. This “pre-determined” skirmish is used to confuse any armed response onboard, drawing fire away from the actual boarding pirates.

EUNAVFOR has also warned of pirates using fishing fleets as cover. As the annual south-western monsoon takes hold on the region, rough seas and storms force fishermen to operate in quieter areas located in the western Gulf of Aden and the southern Strait of Bab El Mandeb. However, pirate groups can take advantage of this situation to blend in with the fishing boats. In stormy weather, it is more difficult to tell the difference between a pirate action group and ordinary fishing vessels.

These patterns are interesting, as they suggest that some pirates may be relying less on the “mothership” approach, i.e. the use of a larger vessel far from shore from which to launch attacks, since these have proven susceptible to military interdiction. So we may see more attacks closer to the coast once again.

In future it is also anticipated that offshore vessels operating along the coast of East Africa are increasingly under risk of attack by pirates. They are believed to be the latest targets for pirates as commercial activities in the region increase, with new East Africa oil and gas discoveries driving an offshore boom.

Offshore vessels such as drill ships, platform supply vessels and seismic vessels are particularly vulnerable because they are slow-moving and easy to board. These are expensive technical vessels and they often carry large numbers of high-value Western crew on board.

As the oil and gas activity picks up, the proliferation of such vessels doing “strange things” such as stopping dead in the water to drill, survey, or conduct diving operations will increase. Such behaviour is exactly the opposite of that needed to safeguard them against piracy. One only has to look at the lessons in the fourth version of the EU-endorsed best management practices guide for protection against Somali piracy — known as “BMP4” — to see the risk of doing so. It will require a completely new security mindset to police and safeguard these vessels.

It is evident that an end to piracy is a long way off, and that the struggles out at sea will continue. This has invoked increased scrutiny of the maritime security sector and as a result SAMI, the Security Association for the Maritime Industry, has created a standard and accreditation programme to reassure the shipping sector about the delivery of safe and reliable armed security. Over the past months a stream of SAMI members has gone through the programme to gain “accredited” status.

Yet whilst the battles will continue to be fought out on the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean, many feel the war will only ever be won by addressing the root of the problem ashore: an insecure Somalia.

BMP4 handbook: http://www.mschoa.org/docs/public-documents/bmp4-low-res_sept_5_2011.pdf?sfvrsn=0

SAMI Guide to BMP4: http://www.seasecurity.org/wp-content/uploads/SAMI-Guide-to-BMP4-August-2011.pdf

     Steven Jones is the Maritime Director of SAMI — the Security Association for the Maritime Industry — a global organisation which is the security focal point for the maritime industry. He can be contacted at: smj@seasecurity.org. For information about SAMI’s standards and accreditation scheme for maritime security contractors, visit: http://www.seasecurity.org/standards-accreditation/

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