x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Focus:Gunning for the millionaire pirates

Prompted by concerns about piracy, the French military has begun accompanying cargo ships and stationing elite soldiers and heavy artillery aboard World Food Programme vessels.
Prompted by concerns about piracy, the French military has begun accompanying cargo ships and stationing elite soldiers and heavy artillery aboard World Food Programme vessels.

Just after 3am on July 20, a 24-hour tracking and monitoring station operated by the British navy's Maritime Trade Operations branch at a secret destination in Dubai picked up the latest in what has become a series of familiar cries for help. Approximately 1,400km away, somewhere off the coast of Somalia, a ship heading for the Suez Canal was under attack and had been boarded by 40 heavily armed pirates. The radio operator managed to transmit his mayday message just three times before the line went dead.

Two months later, the Japanese-operated Stella Maris and her Filipino crew are still in captivity as they await the outcome of protracted ransom negotiations. The ship, a "supramax" bulk carrier with a cargo of more than 50,000 tonnes of zinc concentrate and lead ingots, is believed to be the pirates' largest haul to date, but is far from alone in its anchorage off the Somalian coast. Somalia has been without effective central government for more than 17 years, is plagued by insecurity and has no functioning navy - meaning pirates can act with near impunity in its waters. In the past year they have attacked more than 50 ships, 15 of which remain at anchor off the coast.

According to the International Maritime Bureau, some 230 crew members, including Europeans, Filipinos, Indians and Bangladeshis, are still being held prisoner. On average, each negotiation takes between six and eight weeks; the longest has taken eight months. Almost certainly, the kidnapped sailors will eventually be released. Equally certainly, the pirates holding them will be paid the hundreds of thousands of dollars they are demanding.

About 22,000 ships a year pass through the Suez Canal, and free passage through the Gulf of Aden is vital to world trade. Since the canal opened in the 19th century, ship owners and operators have willingly paid the toll for using it as the price for avoiding the lengthier and more hazardous journey around the Cape of Good Hope - a trip that for a general cargo ship can add up to 15 days to the journey from Asia to Europe.

Now, however, the industry is having to factor in the additional expense of a possible ransom demand. So formalised has this opportunistic black industry become that full-time professional hostage negotiators exist who conduct talks between the kidnappers and kidnap-and-rescue insurance companies. "It's a business of getting the price down to the bare minimum for which you can safely release your crew, ship and cargo in a reasonable amount of time," says Cyrus Mody, an analyst at the International Maritime Bureau's headquarters in London.

For obvious reasons, he says, the industry is reluctant to disclose the sums paid out in ransom. "These people are not living in the Stone Age," he says. "They are up to speed with communications and technology. There are ways to find out which ship is owned by whom and as soon as the pirates realise that X owner has paid a much greater ransom they will target them more." However, earlier this month a spokesman for Hiscox, a London-based insurer, told The Times that the pirates' demands were increasing and that the average ransom payment, once "in the low hundreds of thousands", was now US$1 million.

There is also concern about where the ransom money might be ending up. Last month Andrew Mwangura, head of the East African Seafarers' Assistance Programme, told Reuters that the businessmen and warlords who were controlling the pirates were also funding Al Shabaab, Somalia's increasingly active Islamic insurgency group, thought to have links with al Qa'eda and which in February this year was designated a Foreign Terrorist Organisation by the US state department.

"The entire Somali coastline is now under control of the Islamists," Mr Mwangura said. "According to our information, the money they make from piracy and ransoms goes to support Al Shabaab activities onshore." The situation, says Mr Mody, "is getting out of control. The Somalis have realised that it is extremely good business and very good money." So far, he said, the IMB had heard of only one sailor who had been killed in an attack, but it was, he feared, only a matter of time: "Because there is indiscriminate firing there is always the potential for someone getting hurt or killed."

The pirates' tactics were simple, he said, and increasingly dangerous: "They try to scare the master into stopping the ship by firing indiscriminately towards the vessel; there have been times when they have even fired rocket-propelled grenades. As soon as they get a rope over the side it's pretty much all over." And the pirates seem to be raising their game. On Aug 26, the Commercial Crime Services division of the International Chamber of Commerce issued a warning to all shipping crossing the Gulf of Aden. Within one 48-hour period, four ships had been hijacked and intelligence sources, said the CCS, "revealed that there are now three suspicious vessels ... believed to be pirate mother vessels looking to attack ships with intent to hijack".

The ships, two trawlers and a tug, were believed to be approaching unwary vessels and, at the last minute, launching fast boats packed with armed boarding crews. The world community's patience with the pirates, however, appears to be running out. On Thursday, several global shipping bodies joined forces with the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITWF) to demand that the United Nations tackle a problem that was "spiralling completely and irretrievably out of control". A Security Council resolution passed in June permitted foreign warships to enter Somalia's territorial waters to combat the pirate menace, but the ITWF statement said a "lack of political will" was discouraging navies from taking effective action.

"The solution, the industry stresses, is for more nations to commit naval vessels in the area and, crucially, for them to engage effectively, actively and forcefully against any act of piracy," the statement said. A spokesman for the UN's International Maritime Organisation (IMO) said officials were "very concerned with the situation" and had "not left any stone unturned" in rallying efforts to combat pirates.

The UAE's mission to the UN voices great concern over piracy, estimating that about half the raided vessels are Emirates-flagged dhows trading commodities with the Horn of Africa. On April 21 the Dubai-based Al Khaleej, carrying cargo to Somalia, was attacked by seven pirates and held overnight before being freed after a gunfight between pirates and Somalian troops. On Friday, France circulated a draft resolution at the UN Security Council, urging all countries with warships and aircraft operating in the area "to take all necessary measures, in conformity with international law ... for the prevention and repression of acts of piracy".

The IMO's secretary-general, Efthimios Mitropoulos, has called for the Security Council resolution allowing warships into Somali waters to be extended when the six-month mandate expires in December. A spokesman for Ban Ki-moon said the UN secretary general was paying a "great deal of attention" to the piracy threat, particularly the danger faced by World Food Programme ships carrying aid to the Horn of Africa.

Late last Monday evening, the French president Nicolas Sarkozy gave the go-ahead for a military operation to free two French sailors who had been held captive by pirates for a fortnight. Jean-Yves and Bernadette Delanne, bound from Australia to France, had been captured as they sailed their yacht past Somalia, en route for the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. Thirty commandos equipped with night-vision goggles stormed the vessel in a pre-dawn raid in which one pirate was killed and six others were captured.

The successful operation, said a triumphant Sarkozy in a televised statement, was "a warning to all those engaged in this criminal activity". Piracy, he said, was "a fully fledged criminal industry ... The world must not remain indifferent or passive. I call on other countries to take their responsibilities as France has done twice." With a naval base at Djibouti, a few kilometres from Somalia's northernmost border, it was not the first time the French had acted against pirates. On April 11, helicopter-borne commandos captured six pirates after a US$2 million ransom had reportedly been paid for the return of the luxury 88-metre French yacht Le Ponant and its crew of 30, which had been seized a week earlier while crossing the Gulf of Aden on its way from the Seychelles to the Mediterranean.

Neither operation, however, appears to have dimmed the pirates' enthusiasm for their lucrative business. Within days of the French raid, two more ships had been taken - the Hong Kong-registered Great Creation, en route from India to Tunisia, and a Greek ship, captured off Mogadishu as it made its way down the coast to Kenya. According to the International Maritime Bureau, the seizures brought the number of ships taken this year to 57, with 14 captured in the past two months alone. A third ship, a Norwegian-flagged chemical tanker, had reportedly managed to outrun suspected pirates in speedboats.

The area plagued by pirates is patrolled by the multinational Combined Taskforce 150, linked to and including elements of the US navy's Fifth Fleet, based at Bahrain. Countries including France, the US, the UK, Canada, Pakistan, Denmark and Germany contribute ships to the force by rotation - Canada, with three warships in the group, has led the force since June and handed over command to the Danes on Monday.

Comprised of no more than eight or nine ships at any one time and given the task of covering a huge area, including the North Arabian Sea, Gulf of Aden, Gulf of Oman, Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, CTF-150 is spread fairly thin. Nevertheless, says Mr Mody, "their presence is being felt". There have, he says, "been numerous attacks which have been foiled because of their presence and because they have dispatched ships or helicopters to aid the vessel in need".

Last month the coalition came up with a solution to the problem of having too few ships - reducing the volume of water they have to cover. The US navy's Central Command at Manama, Bahrain, has now set up a Maritime Security Patrol Area in the Gulf of Aden - essentially, a narrow corridor which is being patrolled by CTF-150, overflown by coalition aircraft and along which all commercial shipping and yachts are strongly advised to pass.

The corridor, 1,000km long and about 10km wide, was "being established in support of the International Maritime Organisation's ongoing efforts", said the navy. It was not, however, a long-term answer: "Coalition actions will give the IMO time to work on international preventative efforts that will ultimately lead to a long-term solution." Piracy, says Lt Nathan Christensen, a spokesman with the US Fifth Fleet's Combined Maritime Forces Headquarters in Bahrain, "is a problem that starts ashore and it's an international problem that requires an international solution. It requires regional governments to get involved. We're going to take a short-term responsibility [but] we are not the long-term solution to this problem."

jgornall@thenational.ae jreinl@thenational.ae