UK: The Paradox Of Modern-Day Piracy Off Somalia: The Dangers, And How To Reduce Them

Last Updated: 9 December 2009
Article by John Knott

One of today's paradoxes is how semi-literate, part-time fishermen, from a country with the worst humanitarian conditions in the world, are able to outwit powerful navies, and hijack vessels and create havoc for commercial shipping. Attacks on vessels in the waters off Somalia are said to be in reaction to illegal fishing by foreign trawlers, and the dumping of toxic waste. But whatever merit there may originally have been in such explanations, it is clear that nowadays those engaged in acts of piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the western areas of the Indian Ocean are simply after large amounts of money. They do not care whose lives they endanger, or how many families are traumatised by the capture of crew members, or what cost and disruption they cause to the shipping industry, and indirectly to consumers worldwide.

Unwelcome figures

During the year 2008 there were 21,420 transits of the Suez Canal, which gives an approximate (but obviously not precise) indication of the number of vessels passing through the Gulf of Aden. During the same period 42 vessels, including a few yachts, were hijacked in the Gulf of Aden and the western area of the Indian Ocean, which put the risk of a hijack during 2008 at approximately one in 500, or 0.2 per cent. Those odds may seem to be quite favourable for a shipowner, but they do not tell the whole story. And they are deceptive, because, as we shall see, some ships are more vulnerable than others.

In addition to the number of ships hijacked off Somalia during 2008, many more were attacked. Probably not all incident were reported, but the International Maritime Bureau recorded a total of 111 attacks during 2008. And despite the presence of a fleet of multi-national warships, the frequency of incidents has increased this year. Already by mid-May of 2009 the IMB had recorded 114 attacks, exceeding the number for the whole of 2008; by the end of June 2009 the total had risen to 146; and by the end of September there had been 168 attacks off Somalia, resulting in 32 hijackings. And although the ratio of attacks resulting in hijackings was somewhat reduced (about 25 per cent until mid-2009, with further reductions to about 19 per cent by the end of September and about 11 per cent by the end of October, compared to about 38 per cent during 2008), there was a sharp increase in the number of reported incidents in which pirates had fired upon vessels during unsuccessful attacks: already 85 by the end of September 2009, against 39 for the whole of 2008. Some more unwelcome statistics: for the period January to June 2009, the countries managing the largest numbers of vessels which had been attacked world-wide were Germany, with 38, ahead of Greece with 33, Singapore with 17, and Hong Kong with 13.

The disruption caused to shipping by piracy is dramatic, but the outcome in human terms is even more striking. During 2008, Somali pirates held 815 crew members hostage. By September 2009 a further 485 had been captured. The vast majority of such hostages, but not all, survive attacks and periods of capture, but it is likely that all will be seriously affected by their experience. And their families, friends and colleagues will suffer at least many weeks, and sometimes many months, of anxiety and worry. The lasting effects of piracy in human terms are often not visible, and cannot be measured simply by conventional means, such as in money; but they are real, and the victims are not limited to those who have actually been held hostage.

Future prospects

Somalia itself is a virtually lawless country; a large part is under the control of Islamist insurgents; and almost one-half of the population is starving. These facts may help to explain the actions of the pirates, but certainly do not justify them. Ultimately, Somali piracy will be extinguished only when that country has a strong government uniting the various clans; a healthy economy giving opportunities for gainful and lawful employment; and adequate security forces on land and at sea. But these conditions cannot be realised in the near future, while the Transitional Federal Government ("TFG") is fighting for its survival. Probably the best that can be hoped for in the interim is that the ordinary people of Somalia, encouraged by certain clan elders, will react against the pirates. There have recently been some encouraging developments in this direction, but the benefits have so far been quite small and spasmodic. Another possibility is a limited form of military action on land, which has already been authorised by the United Nations Security Council. An indication that some such action may be contemplated is the recent build-up in Djibouti of Special Forces from a variety of countries.

The relatively most successful area in Somalia, both in terms of stability and specifically in counter-piracy measures, is Somaliland, where significant progress has been made in recent months with the establishment of a credible coastguard facility, headquartered in the Port of Berbera, with outposts along the Somaliland coastline. Already the Coastguard, which has the advantage of local knowledge, has achieved successes in arresting pirates and in policing Somaliland's territorial waters. It seems likely that Somaliland, over which the TFG's influence is virtually non-existent, will eventually receive international recognition as an independent state. It already displays many of the characteristics of independence.

The key question

Meanwhile, an important question is: What practical measures can be taken by shipowners to minimise the risk of a hijacking, and give crews and vessels the best chances of survival if a ship is attacked? This question can best be tackled in three categories:

  • General, pre-incident strategies
  • Specific, ship-board measures, and
  • Prepared responses.

(1) General, Pre-incident Strategies

The first matter to consider is whether it is necessary or desirable for a particular vessel to transit the dangerous waters of the Gulf of Aden and the area of the Indian Ocean within about 1,000 or more miles of the eastern coast of Somalia. Sometimes there is no feasible alternative, or one that is commercially viable, even after allowing for saving the cost of Suez Canal dues and possibly war risk premiums if a vessel were to be diverted around the Cape of Good Hope. Towards the end of 2009, war risks premiums increased dramatically, and Suez Canal tolls are not insignificant: during the Canal Authority's fiscal year July 2008 to June 2009 they totalled US$4.74 billion. A diversion would be less onerous for a vessel on passage between Hong Kong or Shanghai and Europe; but, even so, would add another 3,800 miles, compared with an additional 5,400 miles if on a route between, say, Ras Tanura and Europe. Even for a ship on passage from Singapore to New York, a diversion away from the Indian Ocean and the Suez Canal, to the Pacific Ocean and the Panama Canal, would add a further 2,700 miles.

A related consideration is that Somali pirates are tactically ingenious. They undertake their operations in areas, and using methods, that maximise the prospects of success. Thus, for example, after the arrival of warships tasked with protecting commercial shipping in the Gulf of Aden, the pirates extended their hunting ground not only into the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea, but also well into the Indian Ocean. There, in November 2008, at about 500 miles south-east of Mombasa, they astonished the shipping community by capturing the Sirius Star, a supertanker with a deadweight of over 300,000 metric tons, and an overall length the same as that of a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. Ironically, the Sirius Star, on passage from the Persian Gulf, was proceeding to the United States via the Cape of Good Hope. And in November 2009 pirates hijacked another supertanker, the Greek-owned Maran Centaurus, on passage from Jeddah to New Orleans via the Cape of Good Hope, while she was about 800 miles off the Somali coast, near the Seychelles. In each case it would have taken the pirates several days to reach the area where they attacked.

If Somali-based pirates, deploying skiffs from mother-ships, can hijack merchant vessels 500 and 800 miles into the Indian Ocean, it is clear that they can also attack ships at even greater distances. They have in fact done so. A conclusion to draw from the hijacking of the Sirius Star, the Maran Centaurus, and other vessels such as the Faina, with its cargo of 33 ex-Russian battle tanks and other heavy weapons, is that virtually any vessel sailing between Europe and East African countries such as Kenya, or the Persian Gulf, Pakistan, or India; and to a lesser extent South-East or East Asia (lesser, because that entails a more southerly route); is potentially at risk of attack by Somali-based pirates, not only if the vessel sails through the Suez Canal, but also if it goes via the Cape of Good Hope. And whereas one may think that the problem for pirates, of locating and intercepting shipping well out in the Ocean, gives a measure of safety—the dubious concept of "security through obscurity"—a counter-consideration is that naval protection will be too far away to be of any help in the event of an attack. In light of incidents far from land, the Joint War Committee on 25 November 2009 considerably extended the listed area within the Indian Ocean.

Vulnerable vessels

The degree of risk faced by any commercial vessel entering the wide area in which Somali pirates operate, depends on a number of factors. Some are specific to the particular vessel, while others are dependent on external conditions. Of those specific to a vessel, the most important are its speed, the height of its freeboard, and the nature of its cargo. At one extreme, the most vulnerable would be a small vessel such as a yacht, a trawler, or a slow-moving tug, particularly if conducting a tow; while at the other extreme, the relatively high speed of a large liner should offer a good degree of protection. Even so, the attack on MSC Melody in April 2009—with astonishing reports of passengers throwing deck-chairs to prevent pirates from boarding—shows that liners are not invulnerable. For vessels between the fastest and slowest there is a wide range of varying risks, one important consideration being what effect gunfire could have on any cargo. From the point of view of vessel capture, it is generally considered that a speed of 16 knots marks the boundary between relative vulnerability and relative safety, particularly if a fast-moving vessel has a high freeboard and conducts evasion manoeuvres. These include zig-zagging to increase the wash, within safety limits, if this can be carried out without too much reduction in speed. For the pirates, effecting an opposed boarding becomes more difficult in rough weather with winds at Beaufort Scale 5 and above, which produce a wave height of more than six feet. Accordingly, the worse the weather, the less chance there is of pirates being able to board a moving vessel, which explains the lull in attacks during the Monsoon season.

Crew training

Of vital importance in avoiding a hijack is an adequate, well-trained and alert crew, who have rehearsed anti-piracy measures, and who know exactly what to do in the event of an attack. Even better, they will react before an attack starts, while hostile craft are still several miles away, because they will have been maintaining a proper lookout, both visually and by the use of radar; they will have been in contact with naval forces; and they will be monitoring radio channels for warnings of pirate activity. A detailed anti-piracy plan for the specific vessel will have been prepared by the Company Security Officer in conjunction with the master, and will have been modified if necessary in light of the features of a particular voyage. The anti-piracy plan will include not just procedures to be followed in the event of an attack—such as sounding the alarm and making a piracy announcement to the crew, alerting the appropriate naval forces and the vessel's managers, and activating fire hoses and other defensive measures—but may also cover the installation of structural defences (which we shall consider later).

Passage through the Gulf of Aden

A summary of the relevant naval liaison and command offices engaged in counter-piracy activities entails an introduction to several acronyms. Naval units currently engaged on counter-piracy duties off the coast of Somalia are mostly grouped within the Combined Maritime Forces' Combined Task Force 151 ("CTF-151"); the European Union's naval task force EU NAVFOR Somalia (Operation Atalanta); and NATO's Operation Ocean Shield. Other naval units, such as from Russia and China, co-operate closely with these forces, through the United Kingdom's Maritime Trade Organisation ("UKMTO") office in Dubai and through the use of the military communications system Mercury. In turn, UKMTO Dubai liaises with EU NAVFOR's Maritime Security Centre (Horn of Africa) ("MSCHOA"); with CTF-151; and with the NATO Shipping Centre in the UK. The commander of both EU NAVFOR ATALANTA and MSCHOA is based at Northwood, UK. The conduit for information passing between the US Navy, the Combined Maritime Forces (including CTF-151), and the commercial maritime community in the Middle East is the US Maritime Liaison Office ("MARLO") in Bahrain. Also involved is the Shared Awareness and Deconfliction ("SHADE") group, co-ordinating naval activity in the region.

To gain the full benefit of these forces and facilities, vessels intending to sail to or from Europe via the Suez Canal and the Gulf of Aden should voluntarily make their plans known several days in advance to UKMTO Dubai and to MARLO, and should register with the MSCHOA office. Subsequently, they should submit daily reports to UKMTO and MARLO of their noon positions and speed, with more frequent reports when in areas of heightened risk. Times should be expressed in UTC. The preferred method of communication is email.

The currently preferred route through the Gulf of Aden has been designated as the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor ("IRTC"). It runs approximately east to west, with westbound vessels using the northern part of the corridor and eastbound vessels using the southern portion. Full details are shown on a non-navigational Chart Q6099, titled "Anti-Piracy Planning Chart—Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and Arabian Sea", which has been available since June 2009 from the UK Hydrographic Office: The chart is extremely useful as it also includes brief guidance for masters, and contact details for UKMTO, MARLO, and MSCHOA. It would be sensible to have a copy on board every ship transiting those areas.

Despite what one might expect, vessels transiting the Gulf of Aden after registering with the naval authorities, and making daily progress reports, are generally not accompanied by warships in the same way that wartime convoys have been escorted. The distances involved, and the numbers of commercial vessels in the area, are simply too great for the available naval forces. Rather, vessels are generally grouped with others of similar speed, and dispatched in loose convoy formation, although sometimes special arrangements are made for particularly vulnerable vessels. A convoy's progress is monitored visually and on radar by warships patrolling, or stationed at intervals, along the IRTC. Convoy vessels also maintain watch, and report suspicious incidents. Additional monitoring is undertaken by Lockheed-Martin P-3 Orion maritime patrol and other aircraft; by satellite observation; by remotely-piloted unmanned aerial vehicles ("UAVs" or drones) including Reapers fitted with powerful photographic equipment (and in that configuration able to remain airborne for over 24 hours); and by electronic surveillance. Currently, the Chinese navy is also operating an east-bound and a west-bound convoy system (CTF-529), at five-day intervals, with rendezvous positions different from those of the IRTC. The Chinese escort vessels have already beaten off several dozen attacks. Contact details are available on the MARLO website.

AIS and navigation lights

With some similarity to the feeding habits of wild animals, Somali pirates often launch their attacks at dawn and at dusk, so these are times when vessels in danger areas should be proceeding at the maximum speed which is safe in the circumstances. Also, many attacks occur during daylight, but there have been only a few at night, when the main danger occurs at times of strong lunar illumination—at or near a full-moon, with little or no cloud cover. The current recommendation by MARLO is for vessels capable of travelling in excess of 18 knots to transit between 47º East and 49º East at night-time. But while it is permissible for a master to turn off a vessel's Automatic Identification System ("AIS") (although a better procedure within the IRTC is to leave it on, but transmit only basic information), navigation lights should always be lit between sunset and sunrise and during periods of restricted visibility. There have been reports of vessels in the Gulf of Aden sailing at high speed at night, not showing any lights, and with their AIS turned off, no doubt in the belief that this makes them less vulnerable to a hijacking attempt. That may be correct, but such action is foolhardy as it enormously increases the risk of collision in those congested waters, and puts innocent vessels in danger.

(2) Specific, Ship-board Measures

There are a number of precautions that can be taken to reduce the risk of a piracy attack against an unarmed merchant ship in the vicinity of Somalia, in addition to transiting the IRTC in a convoy and maintaining radio contact with naval forces and other vessels. The following ideas include some pooled from a variety of sources.

(a) AIS awareness

Bridge Officers should monitor AIS to identify ships which are not transmitting an AIS target. They should also be aware that the system can be spoofed, and there have been reports that pirates have achieved this. Some Maritime Ministries, including South Korea's, have ordered their merchant ships to turn off AIS transponders when in the Indian Ocean within a certain distance of Somalia.

(b) Radio watch

A constant radio watch should be maintained, covering naval forces and distress and safety frequencies. Maritime safety information broadcasts should be monitored.

(c) Water defences

Fire hoses, including additional hoses with special fittings to facilitate the directing of water jets, should be rigged on the external decks and kept pressurised. The placing of a dummy to pose as a crew member has been known to be part of an effective deterrent. Hose pressures of 80 lbs a square inch and above have deterred some attackers. Water jets can not only physically repel boarders but can swamp their boats and damage engines and electrical systems, but should not be relied on exclusively. Some chemical tankers have used fire-suppressant foam, deployed along both sides of the vessel, to prevent a boarding. Some special systems to deliver water jets along the side of ships are commercially available, and others are under development. A possibility may be to introduce a chemical or DNA marking agent, as part of an evidence-generating procedure.

(d) Lights

Particularly at night, searchlights can be used to identify potential attackers and restrict their vision. There are also commercially-available laser guns, capable of generating a high-powered visible light to dazzle attackers from a distance. Illumination of all deck lights can alert potential attackers that their presence has been detected. Lookouts should be equipped with good quality, low-light binoculars.

(e) Securing decks

All the shell openings on the mooring decks should be secured, with hawse pipe covers in place. Mooring decks should be locked if possible. No ropes should be left hanging over a ship's side (boarding has been effected that way!), and ship-side ladders should be removed or blocked by welding empty drums horizontally across them.

(f) Ship manoeuvres

Aggressive manoeuvres should be used to discourage pirates from attempting to board, where these can be carried out safely. On several occasions pirates have been thrown out of their boats into the sea by turbulence from a target vessel's wash.

(g) Vessel speed

An important action, in areas where there is a risk of piracy, is for ships to increase their speed to the maximum for safe navigation. Successful piracy attacks occur mainly on vessels which are operating at low speeds (below about 16 knots), particularly if they have low freeboards; or which are suffering from engine failure. An opposed boarding of a vessel with a high freeboard, travelling at speed, and manoeuvring aggressively (but not to the extent of compromising sufficient headway), is difficult to achieve, particularly if the crew are taking other defensive measures.

(h) Lookouts

Vigilance around the open decks including, in known areas of piracy, the posting of extra lookouts, will increase the chance of long range identification of a potential attacker and will therefore provide further time for evasive action and other measures to be taken. Lookouts should be aware that appearances may be deceptive. For example, a motorboat with one or two occupants, towing several apparently empty skiffs, may suddenly turn hostile when pirates who were lying down in the skiffs emerge with weapons. Lookouts should be in radio communication with the bridge.

(i) Attention to stern

The posting of additional lookouts on the stern (from where pirates often approach a target vessel), and covering radar blind spots, should be considered. Radars should be constantly manned. A yacht radar could be installed at the stern of a vessel, to give warning of the approach of small craft which otherwise might not be detected in time.

(j) Restricting access

For ships not carrying inflammable cargo a removable, non-lethal electrified fence can be fitted, extending horizontally from the deck.  Such a product, capable of delivering a 9,000-volt pulse, is specifically endorsed by the IMB, and details are given on their web site. The fence can be swung out of the way on its mountings when access is needed. An alternative, low-technology approach, suitable for any vessel, would be to firmly attach razor-wire at vulnerable points. A drawback of using razor-wire is the difficulty of handling it, and the need for its removal and storage when greater access is needed in port. Some ports, e.g. those in South Africa, will not admit ships with barbed wire screens, because of the problems this causes for cargo handling and the provision of marine services.

(k) Restricting movement

All doors allowing access to the bridge, engine-room, steering-gear compartment, officers' cabins, crew accommodation and other vulnerable areas should be secured and regularly inspected. Restricted areas should have access controls and automatic alarms. Strengthened doors and windows may help to prevent an attacker gaining access to key areas of the ship, although this concept is likely to fail if violence is threatened against any crew member caught outside a protected area.

(l) Constructing a citadel

An idea which is increasingly gaining favour, while also generating some controversy, is for a secure area, often called a citadel, to be constructed, into which the crew of an attacked vessel could retreat if it became apparent that pirates would succeed in boarding. In fact, some new buildings are being designed to have such a feature and other anti-piracy measures. The intention is for the crew to remain in relative safety—there is no such thing as absolute safety at sea—in the expectation that they could be rescued by naval and military forces. However, great care needs to be paid to the details, and a comprehensive plan needs to be prepared to cover all aspects of the use of such a facility. Among the most basic considerations when constructing a citadel would be to ensure that the occupants are protected from gunfire; that they have a source of power, supplies of food and water, some medical equipment, and hygiene arrangements; that there is a means of communicating with the outside world; and that they have a means of escape in the event of an even more serious emergency. In addition, it would be useful for the occupants to be able to monitor other activity on and nearby the vessel. There are, of course, many other features affecting safety and security and other matters that would need to be considered before installing and using a citadel; including, in particular, the methods that may be available to pirates trying to gain entry, and the crew's inability to manoeuvre the vessel (unless exceptional measures had been taken in a citadel's construction). A sophisticated model would be multi-layered, and would include means of secure movement between decks—but considerations of space and cost would prevent anything too ambitious. If a citadel were to be used, the naval co-ordination offices would need to know. Otherwise, it is highly unlikely that a rescue attempt would be made.

(m) Acoustic and other devices

Technical defensive measures include the use of a long-range acoustic device, in which piezoelectric transducers generate a beam of sound with an intensity of up to 150 Db, which is generally intolerable to the unprotected human ear. Such devices are installed on some cruise ships and warships. However, such a device should not be relied on exclusively, as its effect can be reduced by the use of industrial hearing protectors, and if pirates are in a semi-drugged condition they could be partially immune. A further factor is that anyone aiming such a device at an approaching pirate craft would be exposed to incoming fire. And unless there are several such systems and trained operators on board, a crew would not be able to respond to multiple, simultaneous attacks. There have been reports of operators of such a system being shot at and injured. Some form of protection for an operator would be desirable—as a minimum, a bullet-proof jacket and a suitable helmet, or a protected operating position, although neither would be adequate if rocket-propelled grenades were being used by pirates. Other non-lethal stand-off weapons are planned, including a device which fires bursts of beamed millimetre waves over a distance of 500 yards, generating heat of 130º Fahrenheit (54º Centigrade), and which is under development for the US armed forces. Another stand-off device, roughly equivalent to a tyre-bursting method used on land by law enforcement officers to stop motor vehicles, involves firing a net, said to be capable of entangling a small boat's propeller.

(n) Aerial reconnaissance and Sonar

There are also some exotic, high-technology systems that may be available to a determined owner, such as miniature UAVs, which could in theory complement radar in the detection of surface craft. Additionally, UAVs could be used to inspect potentially hostile craft from a distance. However, equipment of this nature would be expensive and would call for the employment of trained operators. Civilian UAVs are of varying degrees of sophistication, and can be configured for a variety of roles. Their limitations include a relatively short range and endurance, and, in a marine context, the difficulty of retrieval. Also theoretically possible would be the use of a towed sonar array, to detect craft approaching from astern, particularly at night. However, considerations of vessel speed, length of tow wire, sea conditions, with associated problems of use in congested areas, and the need for specialist operators, make such a system impractical for a merchant vessel.

(o) Solid-state radar

More practical would be the use of commercially-available solid-state radar equipment incorporating pulse Doppler signal processing technology, and claimed to be capable of detecting small, high-speed craft in all weather conditions, and at far greater distance than traditional radar. Recently-developed, 3-dimensional, Holographic Radar, which continuously tracks targets, would be particularly suited to resolving an object's motion at fine scale and against background clutter. The intention in using any such equipment on a merchant vessel would be to increase the chances of detecting a potential attack at an early stage, so that personnel could be alerted and suitable defensive measures adopted. Reports of successful hijackings suggest that some incidents last no more than about 10 to 20 minutes from when hostile or suspicious activity is noted. The greater the warning, the greater will be the ability of a target vessel to be ready, and naval forces to respond.

(p) Information security

A further area where some precautions can be taken is in relation to the dissemination of information about a vessel's itinerary. In the early days, it had seemed that attacks by pirates off Somalia were all opportunistic, with pirates congregating at sea in likely places—usually masquerading as fishermen—ready to move against any vulnerable-looking vessel that sailed nearby. Subsequently, there were reports that some pirates were operating radar to track vessels. These were radar units that were already fitted to fishing vessels and to small cargo vessels that pirates had previously captured, and which they were using as mother-ships from which to launch attacks many miles off-shore. In addition, pirates are known to use satellite communication systems and GPS devices in co-ordinating attacks.

There have also been reports that at least some groups of pirates have informers in key ports where vessels load cargo for transit through the Gulf of Aden. For example, there have been specific claims in relation to ports in Dubai, Kenya, Yemen and Sri Lanka, among other places; and the variety of hijackings would suggest that there may also be informers in other countries and at choke points such as the Suez Canal. There is also the possibility for targeting information to be obtained in various technical ways. The conclusion is that owners should be careful to provide information about cargoes, sailing times, routes and destinations, only on a "need to know" basis. Of course, this will often conflict with operational needs and with business development plans, but at least attention should be paid when giving out information.

(q) Electronic surveillance systems

Both for the crew's use if they retreat to a citadel, and also for the purpose of gathering and recording evidence, a ship security plan could include the installation of a covert, closed-circuit camera system, which would complement any existing, visible system. A covert audio-visual system, remotely controlled from a citadel, would enable the master and the ship's security officer to monitor the activity of pirates once they had boarded. Vital information, including live pictures, could then be passed to any naval forces in the area, to facilitate a rescue. Also, close contact could be maintained with the owners and managers, which would be of enormous help for many reasons, including responding to any ransom demand and (within limits of operational security) keeping families informed of developments.

(r) Security guards, and the use of firearms

Some shipowners employ independent, unarmed, security guards on certain vessels. There is no doubt that well-trained security guards of mature outlook can perform a useful service in the event of an emergency. However, despite calls, mainly by some US politicians and military personnel, for merchant vessels to be entirely responsible for their own protection against piracy; and the support for this idea given by some civilian security organisations; the overwhelming view held in the shipping industry—including, e.g., by the International Maritime Organisation ("IMO"), by the Baltic and International Maritime Council ("BIMCO"), and in the Best Management Practices—is that merchant vessels should not be armed, unless by official military personnel.

In the face of the current wave of piracy, arguments for the wide-spread arming of merchant ships are superficially attractive. Some vessels with armed guards have been able to beat off attacks by pirates. However, the arguments against arming civilian personnel on board merchant vessels—particularly against arming crew members—are many and convincing, and include legal constraints, insurance considerations, and particularly the increased risk to crews. Moreover, there is an understandable and serious concern that an attempt, by the use of light firearms, to repel a pirate attack, would be likely to lead to an escalation of a conflict. The pirates operating off Somalia are usually armed not only with automatic assault rifles such as the AK-47 or a derivative, but also with shoulder-launched anti-tank weapons (rocket-propelled grenades, or "RPGs"); and some craft are equipped with mounted machine-guns. There have been reported sightings of more potent weapons, even before pirates captured a vessel said to be carrying short- and medium-range missiles in November 2009. Pirates conducting a co-ordinated attack with several skiffs are highly likely to be able to score numerous hits on a merchant vessel if allowed to approach sufficiently close. If they were to unleash a volley of RPGs, instead of one or two for effect, a ship could be seriously damaged—particularly if the cargo were volatile—and those on board would be at increased risk of serious injury or death.

Currently, some private security companies are providing armed civilian guards, many of whom are ex-military personnel. Some have already been involved in exchanges of fire with pirates. The potential for serious legal repercussions from such activity is enormous, quite apart from legal difficulties likely to arise with Flag State Administrations and Port States Administrations from the presence of firearms on merchant vessels. And yet another area for complications is in the control of responses by private security guards. Under the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea ("SOLAS") the master of a vessel has the ultimate authority for making decisions affecting the safety of the crew. One can easily imagine situations in which there could be a conflict between a master's decision and action that security guards may consider it necessary to take. A recent conference at Chatham House (the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs) concluded that there needs to be an accreditation system for private companies engaged in maritime security, which would identify the higher quality companies and would implement a system of due diligence.

(3) Prepared Responses to an Attack or Hijacking

If precautions have been taken along the lines set out above, there are excellent prospects that any attack by pirates will be unsuccessful, and that a hijacking will not occur. Even better, an attack may be avoided altogether. However, a determined attack may succeed, particularly if co-ordinated between several skiffs, and if naval support cannot reach the area in time. In this connection it is worth noting that a key feature of naval support is the use of armed helicopters to make initial contact with attacking pirates. With some military helicopters capable of travelling at over 150 mph, or about five or more times the speed of a warship, a helicopter which is already in the air when an alarm is received, or is on quick-reaction standby, would be likely to reach the scene of an attack in time to intervene, if within a range of perhaps 40-60 miles or more. However, several helicopters sent to the scenes of attacks off Somalia have arrived just too late, sometimes just as pirates have boarded, and have been unable to help. This illustrates how important it is to maintain a good look-out; to give prompt notice of suspicious activity or an attack; and to use defensive measures to delay an attack as long as possible.

(a) Ship security plan

An anti-piracy security plan, drawn up well in advance of a vessel reaching an area of danger, will inform a master and a ship's security officer of exactly what action they should take to maximise the prospect of a safe outcome for ship and crew. Among the initial steps to be taken will be sounding the alarm and piracy alert message to warn all crew members; reporting the situation to the UKMTO Dubai naval co-ordination office; activating the Ship Security Alert System to notify the Company Security Officer and the flag state; ensuring that the AIS is active (so that response units will be guided to the location); making a Mayday call on VHF Channel 16 (with Channel 08 as a backup, which naval units also monitor); sending a distress message through either the Digital Selective Calling system or Immarsat-C; and speaking with UKMTO by telephone, to explain the situation in more detail and to determine what response is available, and whether the vessel should alter course.

(b) Other action by ship and crew

Meanwhile, the master will have put the vessel at her maximum safe speed, and will have instructed the helmsman to undertake small zig-zag manoeuvres to deter boarding; and the crew—who will have rehearsed their roles during anti-piracy drills—will perform their allotted tasks, manning fire-hoses, etc, as may be desirable in light of the particular circumstances of an attack. Something to bear in mind, on which the crew will already have been instructed, is that pirates in a co-ordinated attack involving several skiffs may adopt distracting manoeuvres, in order to approach a vessel at an unprotected point.

(c) In the event of pirates boarding

If, despite a crew's prudent efforts, pirates succeed in getting on board, the master and crew should by then have retreated to the citadel. The master will have first alerted UKMTO and, if possible, the owners or managers, and will have stopped the main engine. If there is no citadel, or if there is insufficient time for everyone to get inside, then the pirates will have succeeded in taking control of the vessel, and the crew will become hostages. If some of the crew have retreated to a place of relative safety but others have been captured, the pirates are likely to use threats against those they hold, to force the remaining crew to submit. The strong advice in such a situation, or if the pirates have captured the whole crew, is that no resistance should be offered.

(d) As a hostage: the good news

The overwhelming consensus among persons and authorities best placed to advise what to do if you become a hostage in a situation such as we are considering, is that you should stay calm and co-operate with your captors. An important factor in Somali pirate hijacking incidents—as distinct from the hijacking of an aircraft—is that the pirates' motivation is to obtain a large ransom payment. To achieve this, it is in their interests to ensure the safety of the ship, crew, and cargo; whereas persons hijacking an aircraft may well be terrorists, in which case they are likely to have an entirely different agenda. Accordingly, there is a very high expectation that if you are on a ship which is hijacked by Somali-based pirates, you will survive and (after whatever time it takes) you will eventually be released. That is an important consideration, as it should encourage you to adopt an appropriate and positive state of mind, which will minimise the effect of your ordeal and may enable you to help colleagues who have reacted less well.

(e) As a hostage: the not so good news

No-one in their right mind would wish to be taken hostage, even by the relatively benign pirates of Somalia. You will probably be held on board your vessel (which will be moved to Somali waters), in cramped and uncomfortable conditions, with inadequate food and water; with primitive hygiene arrangements; with little ability to exercise; and fearful of provoking violence from your captors, who are liable to act irrationally, particularly when affected by the drug khat (otherwise, quat or qat) which many of them chew as a stimulant. You will also be worrying about your family and friends, and could easily become highly stressed, with unknown consequences. For this reason it is most important to remain as calm as possible, and to this end any experience of meditation and mind-calming exercises is likely to be beneficial.

(f) Attitude towards captors

As your captors will be armed, and at least some will be tense, and as the safety of each crew member will depend partly on the conduct of the others, you should avoid confrontations with your captors and should comply with their instructions. This is not the place for individual and irrational acts of attempted heroism. Rather, you should seek to ease the tension, and gain some advantages for all, by trying to establish friendship and a degree of trust with your captors. Even small concessions will be welcome and useful. There may, of course, be a language problem, although among the pirates will be those who speak at least some English.

(g) Ransoms payments: the case against

The topic of ransom payments raises a number of practical and moral issues (quite apart from potential legal issues, which are not addressed here). When considered from a moral viewpoint, there is overwhelming support for not paying ransoms to pirates. Payment will enrich the pirates, so they can afford to continue to commit acts of piracy, and it will provide a positive encouragement for them and others to do so. With any ransom money that they receive they can acquire ever more powerful and more dangerous weapons, and they can purchase sophisticated technology to help them carry out further attacks. On land, an increase in successful piracy attacks will lead to pirates becoming independently wealthy and therefore achieving a higher social status within their province. Making the pirates more powerful than the embattled government is liable to feed corruption. In the long term, the encouragement of further attacks will mean that more crew members will be endangered, which stands in direct contrast to the argument that paying ransom preserves the personal safety of crews. And the crew on board are not the only persons at risk. People involved in the physical transfer of ransom funds to the pirates are placing themselves in grave personal danger, despite their training and the precautions they take.

(h) Ransom payments: the case for

Under English domestic law the payment of a ransom as a result of piracy (as distinct from an act of terrorism), is not in itself illegal. Payment of ransoms can normally be expected to bring about a swift resolution to a desperate situation which, most importantly, has the effect of minimising the physical and emotional strain on crew members and their families. The Somali pirates have made no secret of their willingness to use crew members as human shields in order to obtain and maintain control of ships, and they have from time to time made specific threats to kill European crew members following incidents involving the arrest and detention of fellow pirates. From a commercial viewpoint, the payment of a ransom ensures that a hijacked vessel can be returned to normal service as soon as possible, causing a minimal disruption to the owner's trade and, in turn, world trade, which is of particular significance in the current world-wide economic situation.

There are few alternatives to the payment of a ransom once a ship has been attacked and its crew have been taken hostage. A held ship generally cannot rely on assistance from naval forces. Finally, the payment of a large ransom ensures that the issue of piracy continues to be given a global spotlight, and promotes the coming together of the global community to provide a long-term solution to the problems of Somalia. A ship hijacking illustrates the difference between theory and practice. While one can argue that ransoms should in principle not be paid—a position adopted by the United Nations Security Council in Resolution 1897/2009, passed on 30 November 2009—it would be very difficult to oppose payment if that were the only feasible means of securing the release of one's own family. Who among us would take a stand on principle in such circumstances? And if not for one's own family, then why for another?

(i) Hostage negotiations

The conduct of negotiations with the pirates is best left to a professional and experienced kidnap and ransom consultant, preferably one with whom an owner's lawyer has a good working relationship. There are many factors to be taken into account during such negotiations—too numerous to deal with here—but an overriding consideration is that the most important result to achieve is the release of the crew, and that with every day of captivity they and their families will suffer an increased burden. Some crew members may be badly affected by their experience, particularly if there is a lack of trust between the captors and the negotiator and owners. Some negotiations have been extended by unhelpful attitudes adopted by one party or another, or by disputes between various sets of underwriters, or by some external event. On the other hand, in some negotiations everyone co-operates and an early and relatively satisfactory result can be achieved.

(j) After-care

During and after a hijacking incident an owner will have many matters to attend to. At every stage there will be legal issues which need to be resolved. There will be a need to control information that is given to the press, to avoid unhelpful interaction with the negotiating process. And particular attention must be paid to the families of captive crew members, not overlooking their financial needs. Naturally, another important subject is the health of crew members after their release, and making sure that they receive any necessary medical attention, and possibly counselling.

Final remarks

There are numerous facets to piracy at sea, which cannot all be covered in an article such as this. Discussion of preventative measures is also covered in the revised "Best Management Practices to Deter Piracy in the Gulf of Aden and off the Coast of Somalia", dated 21 August 2009, issued by the Round Table of International Shipping Associations. Those practices are supported by many shipping industry representatives and by MSCHOA, UKMTO Dubai, and MARLO.

The earlier sections of the present article summarise the key features of practical aspects of tackling piracy at sea, particularly off Somalia, from the perspective of the owner of a merchant vessel. The nature of piracy attacks is constantly evolving, and Somali pirates have shown an ability to adapt to changing situations. A key consideration for many owners, particularly those with more vulnerable vessels (low speed, low freeboard) and vulnerable cargo, is whether or not to avoid the Suez Canal and the Gulf of Aden, and to incur the extra expense and delay entailed by deviating around the Cape of Good Hope. However, the hijacking of vessels far out into the Indian Ocean has shown that this by itself is not always an adequate solution. Shipowners need to plan their operations carefully, and their crew need to remain vigilant.

© Copyright John Knott, 2009

The author is a consultant at the London head office of Holman Fenwick Willan LLP, who have been instructed in over 50 per cent of the commercial vessel hijackings that have occurred off Somalia during 2008 and 2009, in addition to similar incidents elsewhere. Among further piracy articles by the author are those that can be found at (under shipping / piracy and terrorism). This article and those are for information purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. Specific legal advice should be sought for particular situations on any aspects falling within the scope of the articles.

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