x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

How taking the fight to pirates is turning the tide

As 10 Somalis are jailed for life in Abu Dhabi for hijacking a UAE cargo vessel, other countries too have had enough of anarchy on the high seas and are taking the fight to the lawless pirate gangs. Laura Collins reports.

An armed Somali pirate keeps vigil on the coastline at Hobyo, northeastern Somalia, while a hijacked cargo ship is anchored just offshore. But after years of maritime lawlessness, victim nations are fighting back.
An armed Somali pirate keeps vigil on the coastline at Hobyo, northeastern Somalia, while a hijacked cargo ship is anchored just offshore. But after years of maritime lawlessness, victim nations are fighting back.

As 10 Somalis are jailed for life in Abu Dhabi for hijacking a UAE cargo vessel, other countries too have had enough of anarchy on the high seas and are taking the fight to the lawless pirate gangs. Laura Collins reports

Looking back, it was a certain numb clarity of thought that gave Adam Zaradzie and his crew the determination to survive.

In the early hours of April 1 last year they were hijacked by pirates. Their Somali attackers seized the MV Arrilah-I and laid siege to the ship's master and his crew. For a day and a night they tried in vain to prise them from the tanker's citadel - part-strongroom, part-prison and the iron fist that had closed upon them.

"We were all over the place," the master recalled. "They tried every possible way to get us out - grenades down the funnel, they tried to set us on fire. We were battling in high temperatures and low oxygen, and there was lot of banging and running around."

But he was clear on one point. "If we gave up and we allowed them to sail to Somalia our families would probably never see us again."

Thirty hours after the ordeal began, UAE special forces stormed the bulk carrier - hijacked as it was returning from Australia to Dubai - arrested the pirates and liberated the hostages.

Yesterday those 10 pirates were sentenced to life in prison. Sitting in Abu Dhabi, the Federal Criminal Court ruled that the men should be deported after serving 25 years behind bars.

It could all have gone very differently. Indeed, a few years ago it probably would. Because the storming of the MV Arrilah-I and the capture and conviction of her attackers are the latest examples of a hardening approach to piracy.

In the case of the MV Arrilah-I the trap was set barely four months before the attack, when the UAE invited South Korean forces to train their home-based peers in counterterror, anti-hijacking and counterinsurgency operations. That move followed the hijacking of the South Korean cargo ship Samho Jewelery, ambushed in the Arabian Sea in January 2011. Unwilling and unable to pay a ransom, the ship's owners called on their government to resolve the situation. The ship was violently reclaimed, several pirates killed and the crew of 21 saved.

Yesterday's case may have taken place in the UAE, but it is indicative of an international shift and a renewed determination to tackle this scourge of the seas: alleged Somali pirates are on trial this week in two courts in Europe.

A Paris court is hearing the case against six Somalis accused of taking hostage Le Ponant, a luxury sailing ship in the Gulf of Aden in 2008. The ship had left the Seychelles and was on its way to pick up passengers when it was boarded by armed pirates, who also took the 30 crew hostage.

After the owners paid a Dh9 million ransom, the ship was released but French special forces pursued and captured the gang inside Somalia.

Meanwhile in a Rome courtroom, the crew of the Italian-flagged cargo ship Montecristo described coming under attack by speedboats off the coast of Somalia in October last year.

Pirates were said to have fired rocket-propelled grenades at the ship, as the 23 crew sealed themselves in an engine-room safe room, or citadel.

The Montecristo was eventually intercepted by American and British warships as part of a Nato operation. The alleged pirates are charged with hijacking and kidnapping with "a possible terrorist intent" and face up to 20 years in prison.

If there were any lingering doubt as to just how severely the international community is determined to come down on piracy it disappeared last week when the EU Naval Force (EU Navfor), working off the coast of East Africa under Operation Atalanta, unleashed their first airborne land strike, deploying helicopters and surveillance aircraft during an overnight raid on a pirate base.

The strike came four days after pirates seized a Greek-owned oil tanker carrying close to a million barrels of crude oil in the Arabian Sea and was designed, according to Rear Admiral Duncan Potts, the force's commander, to "further increase the pressure on and disrupt pirates' efforts to get out to see and attack merchant shipping and dhows".

Last year piracy cost the global economy almost US$7 billion - $160 million in paid ransoms - as it has steadily bled from the Gulf of Aden into the Arabian Sea and round into the Gulf of Oman.

According to the maritime security analyst Ruari Dowds, a specialist working with Maritime and Underwater Security Consultants in London and Ras Al Khaimah, one of the key difficulties is that the waters in which the pirates hunt and the methods they use are in a state of constant flux.

He explains: "Pirate behaviour is nearly always changing with each new measure shipping companies, private security companies and naval forces try to implement."

And while the problem of piracy is as old as the sea itself, Mr Dowds dates what he refers to as the "industrial level of hijack for ransom" to the end of 2007, beginning of 2008. This, he says, is when Somali pirates stopped attacking fishing vessels in their own waters, posing as the coastguard and plundering ships' safes before returning the relatively close shore, and moved out into the Gulf of Aden and the more lucrative practice of holding ships for ransom. The Gulf of Aden was ideal territory - restricted but largely unpoliced.

Paradoxically, the international community's early attempts to secure the Gulf by creating a safe corridor as close to Yemen as possible actually increased the number of attacks as there simply weren't enough warships in place and the corridor had unwittingly been set in an area abuzz with Somali skiffs carrying smugglers and pirates. A change of strategy and a boost of naval presence virtually stopped successful hijacks overnight - though the attempts continue.

But as warships and a highly coordinated early-response team run by the UK MTO (Maritime Trade Organisation) in conjunction with the MSCHOA (Maritime Security Centre Horn of Africa) and predominantly British and European navy have eased the problem in the Gulf of Aden, the pirates have moved East into the Indian Ocean. Today an area the size of Europe is patrolled by less than 30 warships.

"It's an impossible task," according to Mr Dowds. Where an attack cannot be prevented it must be survived by the crew, which is where citadels and strongrooms come into play - along with an increasingly blurred protocol when it comes to Rules of Engagement.

Those followed by British and most European forces state that a ship must not be moving, the crew must be in the citadel (usually the engine room from where, crucially, the crew can control the ship and render it dead in the water) and there must be communication to that citadel before the ship is stormed. But Chinese, Russian, American and Dutch forces do not always abide by this protocol - as patience with the ransom demands of opportunistic pirates dwindles.

Indian authorities in particular have replaced their once softly-softly tactics with a more robust approach. They lend assistance and equipment to the Maldives, Seychelles and Mauritius and have been stringent in securing their own coastline since Somali pirates who had run out of fuel washed up on the Gujarat coast.

Today the area of sea known as The Fan has become recognised by experts as one of the most dangerous. Coming east out of the Gulf of Aden, this area is loosely seen as delineated by the trade routes that come east from the Suez Canal and curl round Oman into the Arabian Gulf as well as south around the Cape. It is an area directly east of the Gulf of Aden and South of Oman and it offers pirates the greatest concentration of shipping outside the Gulf of Aden and without anything like the same concentration of naval assets.

"The Omanis are very proactive at patrolling their waters and responding to distress calls," Mr Dowds says, "but they have a long coastline and limited resources."

Which is why, increasingly, companies are turning to private security firms. Last year $530m of the amount lost to piracy was accounted for by hiring such firms. Until recently they boarded most vessels travelling these waters in Muscat but enterprising pirates began attacking further west, and today floating armouries beyond port boundaries off Fujairah are a popular place for cargo ships, low in the water and heavy with oil, to pick up their security detail.

"These pirates are lunatics and high on drugs but they're there to make a profit. It's business to them. They want to go home. They have yet to overpower a vessel carrying armed guards," Mr Dowds says.

But then their tactics are evolving every day and, as envoys from seven nations agreed last week at a summit in Abu Dhabi, while it is vital to fight fire with fire, ultimately the crime will continue as long as poverty and lawlessness in Somalia provide young men with motive and safe haven.

Because while the problem is acted out at sea, ultimately any meaningful solution must be sought on land.

lcollins@thenational.ae