Maritime Security

Somali Pirates – is the tide turning

Article for Yachting Matters by Keith Simpson MBE

Last year UK PM David Cameron announced that UK registered ships would be allowed to protect themselves from Pirates off the coast of Somalia and the wider Indian Ocean.  On the 23rd February UK held an International conference in London to discuss ways to combat the menace of Somali Piracy and wider Somali Political issues.

BBC’s Andrew Marr asked David Cameron whether he was comfortable giving private security operatives the right to ‘shoot to kill’ He replied by saying, ’we have to make choices’.  He said that the hijack and ransom of ships around the horn of Africa had become a ‘complete stain on our world’.  He also went onto say ‘The fact that a bunch of pirates in Somalia are managing to hold to ransom the rest of the world and our trading system I think is a complete insult’.

A recent United Nations report said that Somali pirates received approx $170 million in ransoms in 2011, up from $110 million the previous year, with some of the money channeled into the world’s legal financial system.  The average ransom increasing from $4 million in 2010 to $5 million in 2011.  The most expensive release of a single ship, the Greek tanker Irene SL, cost $13.5 million.

Although successful hijackings dropped in 2011 to only 28 from 44 in 2010 the number of attacks increased by 25 to 237 in 2011.  The addition of armed guards on ships has contributed to a number of attempted attacks being thwarted as well as the increased awareness and security measures now implemented by ships transiting the high-risk areas.

The summer monsoon of 2011 saw the pirates adopt new tactics by kidnapping tourists at luxury resorts in Lamu and aid workers working in the border regions between Kenyan and Somalia.  This prompted the British Foreign Office to issue a warning advising UK citizens to stay 150km away from Kenyan coastal areas near the Somali border after a disabled French woman was kidnapped only weeks after a British couple suffered similar but tragic fates.

Maria Dedieu a disabled well-known retired French journalist was said to spend half the year at her home on Manda Island.  This is likely to have been known by the gunmen which made her easy prey.  A witness talked of 10-armed men who arrived in two small speedboats and busted into her house shouting ‘where is the foreigner’.  She was dragged down the beach and put into a speedboat leaving her wheelchair behind.

Tragically Maria Dedieu died in the hands of Somali Pirates shortly after being captured.

Also in September 2011 a British couple were hijacked from their beachfront cottage on the Kenyan Island of Lamu.  David Tebbutt was tragically shot and killed by the pirates during the attack but his wife Judith Tebbutt was taken hostage and is currently still being held captive inside Somalia.

They may have been targeting their victims on land potentially due to the monsoon season restricting their ability at sea or they may be looking for easier targets to keep ransom payments coming in as many merchant vessels are now better protected using armed guards.

On 25th January 2012 two aid workers kidnapped by Somali Pirates were a little more fortunate as they experienced a dramatic rescue by US Special Forces leading to a number of pirates being killed and the safe release of Jessica Buchanan an American, and Paul Hagen Thisted, a Danish citizen.

They worked in the de-mining unit of the Danish refugee council.  Last October two trucks of gunmen hijacked the couple when they were on the way to the airport after finishing a workshop on land mines that day.

US Navy Seal teams released the two aid workers in an operation performed in the early hours of Wednesday morning near the Somali town of Adado.  It has been reported that there was up to six helicopters involved where US Navy Seals parachuted into where the couple were being held captive.  It is believed that the team that freed the couple were from Seal team 6 the same Unit that was reported to have killed Osama Bin Laden last year.

The rescue mission was authorized by President Barack Obama after there had been talk that Buchanan’s health was deteriorating.  The gunmen had also just refused a $1.5 million ransom for the couple to be released.

Sadly the South Africa yacht couple Bruno Pelizzari and Debbie Calitz, hijacked from SY Choizil on 26th October 2010 are still held captive by Somali pirates.

Pirates normally focus on commercial ships at sea but in recent years have also attacked private yachts, capturing Europeans or Americans on pleasure trips.  Recently a reputed $3.5 million was paid for the release of the Danish Johansen family.  The British yacht couple, Paul and Rachel Chandler spent over a year in captivity and were finally released last November for a ransom reputed to have been £600,000.

January 2012 saw NATO’s Operation Shield Naval Forces swooping into action capturing several Somali pirate motherships and disrupting others at a time when their captured vessels were low in numbers.

UK’s RFA Fort Victoria prevented MT Liquid Velvet a captured merchant vessel at the hands of Somali pirates being used as a mothership from progressing towards the Arabian Gulf to conduct piracy operations.

MT Liquid Velvet has a crew of 23 on board and was reportedly being used as a mothership earlier in the week by EU NAVFOR.  The interdiction took place after Fort Victoria shadowed the mothership during the night and sent their Lynx helicopter to overfly the mothership to demonstrate they meant business.

This act gave the pirates second thoughts and they turned the ship around and headed back towards the Somali coastline being followed by Fort Victoria.

The Danish Navy warship Absalon rescued a captured Iranian fishing dhow Tahari with 14 crewmembers on board.  25 pirates were captured during the boarding operation.  The captured dhow had been held for two months and crew were glad to be set free without injury.

American warship USS Kidd seized a further Iranian fishing dhow capturing 15 Somali pirates and setting free the crew of 13 Iranian fishermen.

On Thursday Spanish Naval Tanker SPS Patino suffered an attack by Somali pirates in a case of mistaken identity, which proved to be disastrous for the pirates.   SPS Patino was conducting World Food Programme escort duties off the coast of Somalia when a lone pirate skiff approached at speed and opened fire believing the supply ship was a merchant vessel.   The navy crew on watch returned fire at the skiff and launched their helicopter to prevent the skiff evading capture.

The six pirates onboard the fleeing skiff jettisoned their weapons and pirate signature equipment overboard in an attempt to plead their innocence when captured, as they knew the game was up and surrendered.

RFA Fort Victoria had a busy week as shortly after they prevented MT Liquid Velvet from conducting mothership operations when they were called into action once more against a suspicious fishing dhow.

Royal Marine snipers on board a Navy Lynx helicopter fired warning shots towards the dhow, which failed to stop.  Marines in rigid inflatable craft moved towards the dhow under cover of the airborne snipers to conduct a boarding and search of the dhow.  The Marines faced no resistance from the dhow and boarded it to find 13 Somali pirates on board with a cache of weapons and ammunition.

A very successful week for the Navy however, there is no end in sight as the pirate menace simply continues.

Recently the recurring what if happened much to the regret of the Italian security detachment on board MT Enrica Lexie.  A number of skeptics of armed guards onboard ships have argued that innocent lives may be lost if a security team open fire on innocent fishermen.

On 15th February 2012 two Indian fishermen tragically lost their lives after coming under fire from a six-man Italian Military security detachment based onboard the Italian flagged tanker Enrica Lexie.  The incident has caused a diplomatic rift between India and Italy as the vessel was ordered to stop by the Indian Coastguard and was then escorted to an anchorage off the coast of India.  The Kerala Police have taken the ships Captain and the two Italian Marines accused of the shooting into custody for questioning.

The Indian fishing vessel had eleven crew members onboard although nine were said to be asleep at the time of the incident.   The case continues to highlight the complexities of Maritime law and the issues that may arise if things don’t go quite to plan.

Currently figures for 2012 are below average for the pirates with only two successful hijacked vessels so far this year.  The number of attacks is also considerably lower than 2011 with only 13 reported.

In light of the current emphasis in London could we see the tide turning on the Pirates as Governments get tough on the actions by so few causing misery and costs to spiral at this time when the world faces a Global financial crisis.