November 12, 2009 | Op-ed

Return of the Somali Pirates

By Dr. Peter Pham

After maintaining a relatively low profile since the end of the monsoon season two months ago, Somali pirates literally shot their way back into the headlines this week with a brazen daylight attack on a crude oil tanker that was their longest range strike ever. This followed on the heels of the attempt by another group of pirates to hijack a commercial passenger airline flight last week as well as troubling indications that the various pirate gangs are begin to act with greater cohesion. All these developments possibly presage an escalation of the threat off the Horn of Africa.

At noon local time on Monday, pirates in two fast skiffs. Presumably launched from a nearby “mother ship,” attacked the MV BW Lion, a Hong Kong-flagged 160,000-ton, 330-meter-long tanker, with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. By increasing speed and taking evasive maneuvers as well as judiciously using water hoses over the course of the two hours he was under assailed by the marauders, the ship's master managed to evade the assailants without casualty or serious damage to his vessel. Nonetheless, the assault is significant because the target's position 400 nautical miles northeast of the Seychelles, well over 1,000 nautical miles east of Mogadishu. This is the farthest from the Somali coast that an attack has ever taken place. Moreover, the pirates acted in open daylight this time, rather than at first light or last light, when the vast majority of attacks have occurred, including the successful hijacking just last Thursday of the Greek-owned, Marshall Islands-flagged bulk carrier MV Delvina, which was captured along with its crew of seven Ukrainians and fourteen Filipinos, in the early morning hours some 300 nautical miles southeast of the Kenyan port of Mombasa.

The attack on the BW Lion comes just three weeks after the October 19 seizure of the Chinese bulk carrier De Xin Hai and its twenty-five crew members at point some 350 nautical miles northeast of the Seychelles and 700 nautical miles east of the Somali coast. The embarrassment of the hijacking and ongoing captivity of the coal ship no doubt played a role in the request made this week by senior officials the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) that China share in the chairmanship of the monthly strategy meetings currently rotated between the commanders of the European Union and United States-led anti-piracy task forces in the region (see my article earlier this year on the PLAN's deployment). In any event, these two strikes highlight a growing concern among some analysts, including the author, that the pirates have made significant advances in both technical and logistical capabilities. Specifically, they have mastered the seamanship necessary to operate in the oceans as well as the developed the structures needed to maintain that maritime presence far from their home waters.

So far this week – thanks, in part, to fair winds and calm seas – at least five other attacks, three of which were successful, have been reported:

  • On Monday, pirates seized control of a Panamanian-flagged vessel sailing from Dubai to Mogadishu as it passed by the port of Hobyo. The crew – fifteen Indians, two Pakistanis, and a Somali – were taken hostage and are being held along with their vessel off the central Somali coastal village of Garacad. There are conflicting reports about whether or not the ship,al-Meezan, was carrying weapons, including short- and intermediate-range missiles, to one of the warring sides in the conflict in southern and central Somalia, as some observers, like Andrew Mwangura of the East African Seafarers' Assistance Program, have speculated (although the reported arrival in the vicinity the very next day of a heavily armed convoy from al-Shabaab, the Islamist insurgents' movement, certainly lends credence to their analysis).
  • Later that same day, a Yemeni fishing boat, reportedly namedal-Hilal, was seized with all hands on board off of Raas Xaafuun, the promontory in the Horn of Africa that is the continent's easternmost point.
  • In the early morning on Tuesday, a Danish-flagged container ship, the MVNele Maersk, came under fire from automatic weapons not far from where theBW Lionwas attacked the day before, 1,000 nautical miles east of Mogadishu. By maintaining a high speed, the boat managed to outrun its pursuers.
  • Later that same morning, a Marshall Islands-flagged container ship, the MVFelicitas Richmers, came under fire from two pirate skiffs 530 nautical miles east of the Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and 420 nautical miles west of Victoria, Seychelles. By deft maneuvering and high speed, the vessel managed to evade the attack.
  • Early on Wednesday morning, a Greek-owned, Marshall Islands-flagged cargo ship, the MVFilitsa, was hijacked 400 nautical miles northeast of the Seychelles as it was sailing from Kuwait to Durban, South Africa. Taken captive were the vessel's three Greek officers and nineteen Filipino seamen.

Altogether Somali pirates currently hold at least eleven vessels and some two hundred crew members, with the Win Far 161, a Taiwanese fishing boat captured on April 6, and its crew of seventeen Filipinos, six Indonesians, five mainland Chinese, and two Taiwanese enduring the longest captivity. Overall, according to the most recent data from the International Chamber of Commerce's International Maritime Bureau (IMB) Piracy Report Center, piracy attacks off the Somali coasts have increased. During the first nine months of 2009, 147 incidents were reported (100 in the Gulf of Aden and 47 in the western Indian Ocean), compared with 63 for the same period last year. While the IMB's director, Captain Pottengal Mukundan, was careful to acknowledge the efforts of naval vessels operating in the region, the report made clear that the decrease in piracy during the third quarter “can be credited primarily to monsoons,” rather than the efficacy of any military interventions.

As a result of the recent long-range incidents, the European Union Naval Force (EU NAVFOR) Maritime Security Centre issued an alert this week advising merchant vessels not having to call at ports in Somalia, Kenya, and Tanzania to keep as far from the East African coast as possible, with a distance of more than 600 nautical miles from the coastline suggested as a minimum as well as the counsel to keep east of 60 E longitude until past of the Seychelles. (In addition to EU NAVFOR, the two other major naval forces conducting anti-piracy operations are the U.S.-led Combined Task Force 151 and NATO's Operation Allied Protector.)

The European Union also signed an agreement on Tuesday with the government of the Seychelles that would allow the possible deployment of EU troops on some of the 115 granitic and coralline islands of the archipelagic Indian Ocean statelet to prevent them from being used by pirates. The accord follows similar agreements with the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. In fact, just last week several MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) arrived in Victoria as part of the July U.S.-Seychellois status of forces agreement. The unarmed UAVs, which fall under the operational authority of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), are equipped with high-power optics and infrared sensors to collect photographic evidence of piracy. The deployment of the UAVs is described by anAFRICOM public affairs release as a “temporary stationing” as “part of a collaborative effort of the U.S. and Seychelles governments to determine the feasibility of using UAVs in support of maritime and border-related security initiatives in and around the Indian Ocean.”

Meanwhile, on Tuesday Alisha Ryu, a veteran Voice of America (VOA) correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya, reported a bizarre eyewitness account of an attempted hijacking of a commercial flight from the town of Boosaaso, in the northeastern Puntland region, to Djibouti. The plane, with about thirty passengers on board, was hijacked moments after takeoff last week by a gun-wielding man who ordered the flight diverted to Las Qoray, a coastal town in the Sanaag region contested by Puntland and the Republic of Somaliland (see my comments two month ago on this territorial dispute) that is the base of a gang of pirates whose predations in the Gulf of Aden have been curtailed in recent months by increased naval patrols. According to Ryu's sources, the hijacker wanted to take captive two German journalists. The attempt was foiled by the Russian captain of the Dubai-based Daallo Airlines flight who landed instead back at Boosaaso where the gunman and his accomplices were taken into custody. The speculation is that the would-be airline hijacker is part of the group of pirates which last year seized a German couple, Jürgen Kantner and Sabine Merz, as they sailed a yacht, the Rockall, through the Red Sea. The couple was held for more than seven weeks before being released for a ransom said to have been negotiated down to $600,000.

So far less fortunate than Herr Kantner and his wife are Paul and Rachel Chandler, a British couple who were taken hostage when their yacht, the Lynn Rival, was captured by Somali pirates late last month as it was sailing toward Tanzania from the Seychelles. The Kentish couple is reportedly being held in a village outside one of the main pirate ports, Xarardheere. Their captors are demanding a $7 million ransom for their release. The Sunday Times reported this week that those holding the Chandlers were now also demanding the release of seven pirates captured by the German Bremen-class frigate FGS Karlsruhe after they tried to seize a French fishing vessel, the Cape Saint Vincent. The additional demand is significant because the Chandlers are thought to have been taken by an inexperienced band of marauders unaffiliated with any of the major pirate syndicates. However, it seems that they subsequently were accorded sanctuary by the Suleiman sub-clan of the Habar Gidir clan of the Hawiye, whose members run one of the most important pirate networks out of Xarardheere and Hobyo. There has been no word yet on the reaction of the pirates to the announcement Monday that EU NAVFOR's Operation Atalanta, which the Karlsruhe is part of, has turned over the seven pirates to Kenyan authorities in accordance with the accord between the EU and Kenya for the trial of captured pirates.

Meanwhile, the Spanish government is coming under increasing public pressure from family members of captive fishermen to accede to pirate demands for the release of two of their comrades, currently being held for their part in the October 2 seizure of the Spanish-owned, Seychelles-flagged fishing vessel Alakrana. The tuna seiner was hijacked in international waters some 400 nautical miles off the East African coast and its thirty-six member crew, mainly Basque, taken hostage. The next day, the Santa Maria-class frigate SPS Canarias intercepted a small boat heading away from the last known location of the Alakrana. On board were two Somalis, one wounded, who were taken into custody as suspected pirates and later flown to Spain for interrogation. The two, identified as Abdou Willy and Raagegeesey, were subsequently indicted by the Spanish magistrate Baltasar Garzón on thirty-six counts of kidnapping as well as armed assault (Garzón is best known for his high-profile “universal jurisdiction” investigations of figures ranging from former Chilean President Augusto Pinochet to former George W. Bush administration officials). Consequently, the pirates holding the Alakrana off Xarardheere have demanded the return of the two defendants in addition to the payment of a ransom, said to be set at $3 million.

The demands for the release of captured pirates are a new factor in the already-complex negotiations involved when vessels have been seized. Especially in cases like that of the Chandlers where those whose release is sought are not directly related to the case at hand, the question arises whether or not this might not represent a new phase in the consolidation of a pirate “identity” that transcends the geographical and clan divisions between the major piracy networks. If it does, then clearly the challenge posed by the piracy phenomenon is even greater than previously thought.

Earlier this year, I testified before a Congressional panel that:

The marauders have hardly been cowed by the international naval presence involving warships from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, India, Japan, and several other countries which assembled early this year in an unprecedented effort to prevent a repeat of last year's wave of more than one hundred hijackings and other attacks on commercial vessels in the Gulf of Aden and other waters near the Horn of Africa. The pirates have simply shifted their operations to areas which they know are not being patrolled, with strikes increasing taking place on the high seas of the western Indian Ocean.

This week's assaults clearly show that the pirates have not only shifted their operations, but exceeded all expectations with the extent of their reach into the Indian Ocean. The danger that this represents will be even more magnified if it turns out that during the period when they were apparently inactive the pirates were consolidating their “group solidarity,” if not quite yet coordinating their operations. It is unfortunate that the international community did not likewise use the lull to develop effective long-term solutions whose costs can be contained within acceptable limits (no one seriously believes that the EU can long sustain Operation Atalanta at the current estimated cost of $450 million per annum) and whose long-term operability is sustainable by those with the greatest immediate stake in its success, regional states and local communities in the Horn of Africa as well as commercial shipping which must ply the nearby waters.

J. Peter Pham is Senior Fellow and Director of the Africa Project at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York City. He also holds academic appointments as Associate Professor of Justice Studies, Political Science, and African Studies at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and non-resident Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. He currently serves as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA).

Dr. Pham has authored, edited, or translated over a dozen books and is the author of over three hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to the study of terrorism and political violence, his research interests lie at the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.

Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress on numerous occasions and conducted briefings or consulted for the U.S. and foreign governments as well as private firms. He has appeared in various media outlets, including CBS, PBS, CBC, SABC, VOA, CNN, the Fox News Channel, MSNBC, National Public Radio, the BBC, Radio France Internationale, the Associated Press, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, USA Today, National Journal, Newsweek, The Weekly Standard, New Statesman, and Maclean's, among others.