UK: Piracy - A Review Of 2009

Last Updated: 25 February 2010
Article by Stephen Askins

The IMB's report on the piracy incidents of 2009 reveals, in hard figures, the significant level of activity off Somalia over the past 12 months. There were some 214 attacks in the region reported to the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre in 2009, of which 47 resulted in a hijacking. This is a sobering reminder of the human cost of piracy: 867 ordinary crew members were held hostage by pirates during that period.

What can we learn and can we expect 2010 to be any different?

It is not appropriate to compare 2009 on a "like-for-like" basis with the previous year. In 2008 it took the pirates a number of months to build up a head of steam and the sub-clans operating out of Haradheere (whose hunting grounds are the Somali Basin) were not particularly active until the autumn of 2008, when the Faina and Sirius Star hauled the international community out of its complacency.

The first part of the 2009 saw most activity and attacks in the Gulf of Aden but, until the recent hijackings, the last successful attack there was on 10 July 2009. For the next six months it was almost quiet, until the sudden increase in attacks and a cluster of hijackings at the end of the year and early into 2010 reflected a similar pattern to the previous year. If there is any encouragement to be drawn from the figures then it is the fact that attacks in 2010 are running at half those of the corresponding period in 2009. The weather and naval activity is never a constant and play a huge part, so it is too early yet to make a prediction on future trends.

The relative calm of the Gulf of Aden in the second half of 2009 was in dramatic contrast to the spike in activity in the Somali Basin in October/November (following a similar spike in April/May). This reflected not only periods of better weather making small boat operations possible, but a general failure to respond to the developing threat outside the Gulf itself.

Attacks

The tactics and weaponry of the pirates have remained fairly constant, armed as they are with AK47s and RPGs. But some of the distances from shore at which the attacks take place defy belief when considering that some of the mother vessels being used are not much bigger than the attack skiffs. There is evidence that the pirates go to sea prepared to spend a month away. However their survival can depend on their ability to seize a ship in order to secure food, water and a passage home. This also means that attacks are often pressed home with a degree of desperation.

Lines continue to be "drawn" at sea marking the parameters of areas deemed to be of greater risk. At present the Additional Premium area set by war risk underwriters is 600 miles from the east coast of Somalia. However, attacks have taken place beyond this demarcation and it has to be asked whether Masters are becoming overwhelmed or confused with the information received and perceive themselves to be safe once beyond those limits. The concern remains that pirates who are equipped with GPS equipment simply wait beyond the 600 mile limit in the hope of attacking ships that believe themselves to be safe. The area between the easterly limit of attacks (around 61 degrees E) and the coast of India means that one attack in the Arabian Sea was only 350 miles from Mumbai.

By the end of the summer 2009 the pirates were having to attack seventeen ships to hijack one. While the coalition forces took some credit for this, they admitted they intervened only in about 20% of attacks and much of the success against attacks was down to the crew themselves. It was therefore worrying to see that ratio slip back to less than one in three by the end of November. This no doubt reflected the fact most hijacks at that time were around the Seychelles, where the Naval reach was limited and where there is no Group Transit Scheme. But it must also be due to the fact that crews transiting the Indian Ocean are not at the same level of readiness and preparation as those in the Gulf. Admiral Hudson's criticism that the majority of shipping is not complying with the Best Management Guidelines is probably unjustified, but the threat posed outside the Gulf is greater than realised as the pirates push the limits of their operating capability.

In all discussions little is said about whether more could be done to disrupt the pirates' ability to navigate so far offshore, possibly by disrupting or jamming the GPS signal in vulnerable areas. Merchant crews could go back to their sextants and remember how things used to be. We know the pirates carry GPS, but if they have no idea where their skiffs are then the ocean suddenly becomes a very difficult place in which to operate, particularly over 600 miles from shore.

For those hijacked the experiences have been varied and no two hijackings have been the same. Somalia is not a benign place in which to conduct negotiations and they never progress on a linear basis. So much remains out of the owners control: skirmishes and killings ashore, arguments between pirates settled at gunpoint, key gang members dying at inopportune moments all add to the mix. On board there have been injuries, threats and mock executions which make for real trauma. It is encouraging to see that steps are being made to address the effect long term on hijacked crew.

Release

The length of time vessels are held varies considerably, with the average hijacking lasting 60-80 days. Of the released vessels, the Bow Asir, released after 15 days, still stands as a record for the shortest period held with the Winfar 161 topping the league for the longest held at nearly ten months.

Ransoms

Published ransoms of vessels released show a seemingly unstoppable upward trend from an average of around US$1.5m at the beginning of 2009 to US$3.5m at the end. Some vessels have been released for significantly higher amounts. The Maran Centaurus was reported in the press to have been released for a ransom of between US$5.5m and US$7m, albeit after only 50 days.

The legality and indeed morality of paying a ransom is still debated and there is no doubt that the reward side of the equation remains in the pirates' favour. Payment is legal as long as there is no reasonable doubt that the money is funding terrorism. Changing the law to render such payments illegal simply condemns the crews being held to an uncertain future.

Response

More must be done to balance the equation by increasing the risk to the pirates. The pirates know that if they ditch their weapons they will not be arrested. It has been admitted that the UK Royal Navy has caught and released 66 pirates during their operations off Somalia. Across the world's Navies that figure is said to be near 400. This "catch and release" policy means that over 60% of pirates captured are simply allowed to go home to try again. Despite agreements with Kenya and the Seychelles, this is a poor track record and reflects a collective lack of political will to arrest and prosecute pirates in courts.

In 2007/ 2008 the UK government published its intention for new laws (the Transport Security Bill). These would have defined and extended the role of the Royal Navy and given them further powers, which would no doubt be invaluable in maritime security generally. However, these have since been shelved and parliamentary records show that whilst it was the intention of the military operation to "deter and disrupt" pirate activity, it was never the intention to bring pirates back to the UK for prosecution. It begs the question why? This apparent lack of political will is not limited to the UK. There have been a few exceptions with other nations involved in the prosecution of pirates, but these have generally followed high profile hijackings such as the Maersk Alabama and the Alakrana.

Agreements have been reached with Kenya to prosecute pirates, with the emphasis on funding regional courts and centres. Kenya has 112 pirates awaiting trial. Others await prosecution in Holland and France, but Kenya is being asked to bear the brunt. There has been no increase in the numbers held by Kenya since October 2009. Whilst there has been no official announcement, the implication is that they are refusing to take any more. The Seychelles have announced steps to build a new Court and high security prison, which will hold 40 people but will not be ready until the end of the year.

The recent military intervention on the Ariella, where the crew had locked themselves in the citadel seems to be a step in the right direction, although it is apparent that the pirates left before the military forces arrived. Further it is not the unprecedented action that it is claimed to be, as we are aware of an almost identical situation on the Theoforos in November 2009. After recent and unjustified criticism involving the failure of the Royal Navy to intervene during the transfer (and not the actual kidnapping) of the Chandlers from their yacht to the Kota Wajar, the military no doubt need some good press. None of the press coverage about that story acknowledges that the Kota Wajar was itself a hijacked vessel, with 23 crew whose lives were also at risk from the enhanced gang of pirates on board that vessel.

Armed guards

The lack of political will and general resolve to prosecute pirates is reflected in a perceived hardening of the view that the best way to protect ships is by having armed guards. This has caused a schism in the maritime industry, with industry bodies and governments urging caution, but with shipowners bowing to the apparently inevitable. Certainly by the end of 2009 fire fights between armed guards and pirates were widely reported and it remains a fact that no ship armed with guards has been captured. However, the risk of escalation remains, with crew members injured and killed at the point of hijacking. It is inevitable that this will continue as attacks are pressed home with increasing force and we would advise shippers to seriously consider these risks when contemplating employing armed guards on their vessels.

2009 saw the advent of maritime private security companies offering the "very best" in training and security. Accreditation of these companies remains a distant hope and shipowners have to rely on instinct and word of mouth to try and sort the wheat from the chaff. 2009 was also the year of the anti-piracy device. We have seen new robotic hoses, spinning hoses (from a company that specialises in tank cleaning), acoustic devices, crude cannons firing golf balls and netting and more latterly lasers designed to induce sickness at a range of two miles (as if sitting in a skiff would not be enough), all presented as effective anti-piracy devices. But as Captain Stapleton found when his vessel the Boularibank was attacked, self-help can still be the cheapest and most effective response, as he showed by dropping 200 kilograms of timber from the bows of his vessel into the wake and path of the attacking skiffs.

Success

There has no doubt been much that has gone right. The IMO working Group coordinates a truly global response and many countries have committed naval assets to help. However, little has been achieved on the ground in Somalia and without that there is little hope of stopping the pirates in the short term. The international community has no influence in towns like Haradheere and Hoboye, very few ships are processed as crime scenes and little evidence has been accumulated for use in future prosecutions. It is still remarkable that for all the talk of shadowy investors outside the country no ransom or part thereof has been recovered.

On a commercial level the Best Management Practice Guidelines stand as the bench mark for good practice and are now backed by insurers who are able to insist on their compliance by including warranties to that effect in insurance policies. However, in our experience there is still more that can be done in the management of a hijacking itself. Piracy is a universal crime and cries out for a universal response, not least to relieve the suffering of the crews involved. There is still a feeling that it is seen as only an owner's problem, yet the dynamic of a maritime hijacking is different to a kidnapping. There is always a number of stakeholders in a maritime venture, some of whom may pay more than the ransom itself for losses incurred as a direct result of the hijacking. If a ransom is to be paid then the accepted argument is that it should be the minimum, so no encouragement is given to others. But a target-driven approach comes at the expense of time and in shipping that costs money.

Care must be taken that the narrow interests of the ransom payer do not squeeze out the interests of others, as to do so is likely to raise the overall cost of the hijacking itself. This is a debate which we would encourage the industry to have.

There can be no doubt that piracy will continue. There can be no doubt that 2010 will see more of the same and the hope is that the Somali model is not copied elsewhere. Our response to piracy is coordinated by Stephen Askins. For further information or advice in relation to piracy please visit our website, or contact Stephen or your usual Ince & Co contact.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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