Saturday, December 15, 2012

Pirate Threat to Container and Other Freight Vessels Reduced but Shipping Must be Self Policing

Vigilance and Standards Must be Maintained Say NATO and EU Navfor
Shipping News Feature

SOMALIA – WORLDWIDE – At a meeting at NATO’s new maritime command HQ earlier this month representatives of the three coalition partners that spearhead the war against pirates plaguing the waters of the Indian Ocean gave a complete analysis of the current situation plus a dire warning against complacency by the owners and operators of merchant ships transiting the waters off the Somali coast and beyond. Whilst the attacks against freight shipping such as container vessels and tankers are substantially down Rear Admiral Duncan Potts of EU Navfor and his colleagues were quick to warn against reduced vigilance on the part of both crews and management.

According to the statistics (EU Navfor) there are still five vessels currently held by pirates in Somalia with a 136 hostages detained, some whom have seen their ships released whilst they are being used as negotiating tools with the authorities for the release of other pirates and possibly extra ransom payments. The key statistics however tell an interesting story with attacks on vessels in 2009 and 2010 respectively rising from 163 to 174 with success rates for the pirates ranging between 27 and 28% whilst so far this year there have been only 34 attacks with just 5 (15%) successful.

Although the number of ‘disruptions’ is down from 65 to just 14 this figure is misleading. The naval forces count a disruption as putting the tools of a pirate gang’s trade beyond use, in other words disabling or sinking their skiffs and other vessels and capturing or destroying weapons, boarding equipment, fuel etc. For the first time we are witnessing attacks against land based pirate bases meaning the miscreants do not even have the chance of putting to sea. When they do, better communications and air reconnaissance mean their options are strictly limited and capture far more likely.

It is an interesting conundrum that, at a time when the forces of law and order often release pirates back to their homeland because they lack the prima facie evidence to prosecute, they have no compunction in launching shore based raids using a range of weapons and personnel to destroy what the pirate gangs would no doubt claim are innocent fishing boats.

That being said, the tactics are working and the avowed intent is for the EU, NATO and combined nations forces to make piracy a much less attractive business to young disenfranchised Somali’s who doubtless have seen entering the trade as a logical way to earn a living over the past few years. If these young men disregard the obvious risks of putting to sea in small boats through bravery or ignorance, the thought that the maximum penalty they are liable to incur is arrest and subsequent rerelease back on the shores of their homeland or at worst incarceration in a western gaol with regular meals and in comparative comfort is hardly a deterrent.

The worry for the officers heading up the anti piracy threat like Admiral Potts and NATO Chief of Staff to the Allied Maritime Component Command, Rear Admiral Hank Ort, is that complacency on the part of ships owners and operators may now start to creep in given the much better chances of innocent vessels passing through the danger zone without coming under attack.

Several factors have contributed to the impressive results achieved, particularly the fact that virtually every merchant vessel now employs the Best Management Practices (BMP) which we have mentioned time and again. Added to this is the use of the Mercury communications system, routed through the NATO Northwood base which allows every vessel to immediately report every sighting, incident and problem no matter how small, enabling the technicians at NATO to immediately collate the facts and disburse them to all vessels in the immediate area.

The other really significant factor is the use of much heavier security techniques including the regular deployment of armed private security guards aboard larger vessels. Attacking a ship with a rocket propelled grenade must formerly have been akin to shooting ducks in a barrel, not so when a trained sniper with a decent rifle aiming from the deck of a container vessel has twice or three times the range and a comparatively stable platform to make his defence from. The problem for the authorities is that ship owners and operators will always weigh commercial considerations first and foremost and already security companies are beginning to revise their field of operations.

This week maritime security intelligence company Risk Intelligence has reduced its Horn of Africa High Risk Area for the first time since 2007. The company says is has factored in pirate, merchant marine and naval activity when its analysts looked at all the areas of the wider Horn of Africa region and analysed each of them, in order to assess where the High Risk Area should be reduced and where it should be preserved. The Risk Intelligence High Risk Area is drawn up in the online maritime threat monitor MaRisk and is not similar to the official High Risk Area designated in the BMP's. The MaRisk High Risk Area identifies a 'substantial higher risk of attacks' this means that it does not guarantee that there is no risk outside the area. Chief Analyst in Risk Intelligence, Leerskov Mathiesen, said:

“When Somali piracy expanded it was easy enough, high risk areas were drawn up, further and further from the coast, but with the reduction in the frequency of attacks, we assessed that now was the time to start taking the consequences of that and reduce the area in an intelligent way. The revision is not based only on the declining numbers of attacks that are apparent to all, but it is rooted in the experience and expertise of the Risk Intelligence team of analysts and consultants and draws on statistical incident information, intelligence from local sources and systematic forecasting of the short and medium term. It is very important to understand that although the likelihood of an attack might be significantly lower outside the designated High Risk Area, the chances of pirate success and the outcome of both failed and successful attacks are still the same.”

The Naval forces concerned with the protection of food convoys and the defence of shipping will be anxious to see private security measures maintained, particularly as they appear to be winning this particular battle. The risks involved in transiting the region are often decided by the state of the weather which means in prolonged calmer periods pirates themselves are safer from interference the further they are into the Indian Ocean as their area of operations expands exponentially.

Everyone familiar with the political situation in Somalia knows that the piracy is merely a symptom of much more deep seated problems which the country is facing which can only be resolved in the halls of government and not on the high seas and the beaches of East Africa. Until then it is essential for all to ensure that piracy does not once again become an appealing employment option for the youth of the region.

Photo: An armed NATO patrol talk with a local Somali fisherman. (courtesy of NATO).