All at Sea Over Pirates

Piracy on the high seas, especially near failed and unstable Muslim states, is becoming an international security headache

Pirates conjure up images of hook hands, peg legs and eye-patches. The modern species is much less comforting, flourishing in failed states and confronting the crews of huge tankers and bulk carriers with a new and dangerous occupational peril. I once had an incredulous response from a young American radio journalist after remarking that international terrorism should be combated with the same concerted rigour that was once brought to bear on pirates. Being of limited contemporary cultural range, he immediately thought of Johnny Depp hamming it up in the 18th-century Caribbean as reconceived by Hollywood. But in the words of Captain Pottengal Mukundan, the head of the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), these are more like “maritime muggers” armed with AK-47s, than a cutlass-wielding Captain Blood.

Piracy is a very modern scourge that exists in dangerous proximity to Islamist terrorism, both as a source of revenue as well as the potential use of, for example, a liquefied gas tanker as a maritime super-bomb. Counter-terrorist agencies in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore conduct drills to prevent such an eventuality. A recent incident off Somalia involved pirates threatening to explode a huge ship laden with benzene unless the Japanese owners paid a ransom. There is hard evidence that Somali pirates are closely co-operating with the Islamist al-Shabaab militia, although ironically one of the few accomplishments of the Islamic Courts government was to have suppressed piracy before it was itself deposed by Ethiopian troops.

In the latest incident, Somali pirates have hijacked a Belize-registered Ukrainian freighter, the MV Faina, bound for Mombasa with a cargo of rocket-propelled grenades, machine-guns and 33 Russian T-72 tanks, which in reality may have been illegally destined for southern Sudan. The Kenyan official who alerted the world to this hijacking is now in jail. While the tanks will not be easily offloaded, the small arms are being taken ashore by relays of small boats, with 5 per cent being hived off by al-Shabaab as its share of the loot. The fate of the 20-man crew is uncertain; the captain is said to have died, apparently of hypertension, after the initial assault. As I write, Nato ships are now within a 10-mile radius of the freighter, with a Russian frigate about to join them. According to a pirate spokesman, communicating with journalists via a satellite phone, the more radical pirates have vowed to fight to the death – their own and the hostages’. Russia’s record in hostage rescue is not a happy one.

This story warrants the skills of a modern-day Joseph Conrad. Some 230 merchant mariners are currently being held hostage in Somalia, by pirates operating in and around the Gulf of Aden. This year, they have hijacked 30 vessels and currently hold 10. They range from luxury yachts and ocean-going tugs to tankers laden with palm oil or petrochemicals, like the Malaysian-registered Bunga Melati Dua and Bunga Melati Lim, which were seized in September along with 69 crew. A $4 million ransom appears to have been paid to release these two ships.

Britons have been affected too, notably 70-year-old sea captain Colin Darch, on his final voyage taking a Danish-built tug from St Petersburg to Singapore. He who was held for more than 40 days by Somali pirates until the Danish owners reputedly coughed up a $700,000 ransom. There were long delays in finalising this transaction since the pirates had neither passports nor bank accounts, and fake $100 bills were mixed in. As Darch noted, “It was like a syndicate of factory workers who had won the lottery but couldn’t find the ticket.”

A South Korean bulk carrier with 21 sailors is also being held. The crew of a Greek carrier narrowly escaped a similar fate by alerting the IMB’s piracy reporting centre in Kuala Lumpur. It directed a warship to drive off the pirates with a helicopter. Frogmen from the Commando Hubert (France’s Special Boat Service) parachuted into Somali waters at night and boarded the captured yacht Carré d’As (The Four Aces), shooting dead one pirate and detaining his six slumbering comrades. The pirates had tried to extort a ransom of €1 million to release a couple on the yacht, as well as six pirates held in Paris since last spring.

Bangladesh and Nigeria are also piracy hotpots. In Nigeria, pirates operate on behalf of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (or Mend), which seeks a larger share of the oil produced in the delta. Malaysia is the centre of world expertise on piracy because of the problem that used to afflict the Straits of Malacca and which is still endemic to parts of Indonesia, although Jakarta has succeeded in cutting piratical incidents by one-third in recent years. According to a retired Dutch Shell tanker captain I recently met in Malaysia, the tsunami apparently had one generally unremarked upside in that many pirates were drowned and their ships wrecked.

More importantly, co-operation between the politically stable neighbouring littoral states, which also include Singapore, means that joint air surveillance known as the “Eye in the Sky” enables their armed forces and maritime agencies to respond with the necessary speed. The US has also given the Indonesians 10 radars to monitor pirate activity between Sumatra and peninsular Malaysia.

But there is precious little stability in Somalia or Yemen, whose ports have not yet recovered from the aftermath of the 2002 terrorist attack on the USS Cole which killed 17 crew members. As a UN spokesman remarked: “If you gave countries points for anarchy and confusion from one to ten, Somalia gets 20.” Shipowners have little alternative to using the Gulf to ship manufactured goods, oil and liquefied gas between Europe and the Far East. According to Datuk Cheah Kong Wai, former head of the piracy bureau in Kuala Lumpur, a ship sailing from Port Klang to Rotterdam takes 25 days via this route, assuming an average speed of 13 knots. This 8,089-nautical-mile voyage becomes 11,590 miles, and takes an extra 12 days, if the same ship has to round the Cape of Good Hope. It is worth paying massively-inflated insurance premiums to take the riskier shorter route.

Four major gangs of pirates operate from such Somali coastal towns as Eyl, including the Somali Marines, the National Volunteer Coast Guard and the Marka Group, plus the Puntland Group, based in the northern breakaway tip of the Horn of Africa. In inshore waters, Somali pirates have been known to fire distress rockets to lure ships closer to their vessels, like Cornish wreckers using lamps to draw ships on to rocks. Use of large mother ships enables them to operate up to 200 nautical miles offshore, where smaller high-powered boats speed pirates armed with rocket-propelled grenades and machine-guns towards their unarmed targets which they board using grappling hooks. Payment of ransoms does not guarantee the release of either crews or ships, as the Iranians have discovered after paying $200,000 for the MV Iran Deyanat, which still lies off Puntland.

It is lucrative work. Most of the pirates operate on behalf of shadowy Somali “businessmen” who use the proceeds to invest in smuggling the narcotic khat and human trafficking. In a country where the average income is $600 a year, pirates make between $10,000-$30,000. It takes them about six months to blow this on drugs and 4x4s before they go to sea again looking for further victims. Some of these men are former soldiers whose wages have not been paid in the absence of government. Others are tuna fishermen whose livelihoods have been ruined by the absence of a state capable of enforcing fishing quotas or rights against the Koreans and Spanish, or by foreign vessels dumping toxic waste.

An international naval force called Combined Task Force 150, based in Djibouti, concentrates on interdicting the movements of jihadists rather than dealing with pirates. If a warship happens on an incident, or is alerted to one, then it responds, but that is not a sustained strategy. The European Union is trying to put together a dedicated task force to rectify this.

Employment of high-pressure hoses to sweep the pirates off decks does not seem to have been successful. One suggested measure is to rescind antiquated laws forbidding merchant ships from carrying firearms, although that might increase the number of casualties among ships’ crew as well as pirates; all-steel environments are not the best site for a gunfight. What happens if the crew kill a pirate? In the distant past that would have warranted a brief logbook entry, accompanied by the news that the corpse had been slung overboard; nowadays there would be endless inquiries, involving ships that cost $10,000 a day to operate.

Piracy is highly opportunistic, and experience suggests that at the first sign of resistance the malefactors seek easier pickings. They are more interested in cargoes of fuels and food rather than 5,000 tonnes of ethyl acetate for which they will never find a market. According to Captain Mukundan, vessels under attack should sail further out to sea while manoeuvring sharply, a tactic which usually leads the pirates to give up after about 30 minutes. Another is for ships to sail in convoys, which can be closely shadowed by naval vessels from both the affected countries and the UN-mandated Coalition Forces operating off Somalia. The ubiquity of flags of convenience means that the response to piracy is patchy. As one expert noted: “Your flag is your only protection out there – and Panama doesn’t mean much to a pirate.”

UN-mandated rules of engagement should be altered so that every pirate craft is automatically destroyed and their crews are subjected to criminal prosecution. Once again, the French have manifested a more robust approach, despite presumably having signed up to the same EU ordinances which don’t seem to accord with the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea. After rescuing 30 crew members from a luxury yacht last April, French helicopter-borne snipers shot out the engine of the pirates’ land-based getaway vehicle, enabling commandos to apprehend the six who are currently facing charges in Paris.

Although the Royal Navy is subject to the same rules of engagement, at the insistence of the Foreign Office Britain has been more concerned with the possibility that the pirates’ human rights might be abused if they were surrendered to neighbouring countries that cut off the hands of thieves and the heads of murderers, or that they might claim political asylum and welfare if they were transferred to Britain for prosecution. Along with the blubbing naval ratings incident off Iran last year, this has not helped the image of the senior service. As President Sarkozy said after the freeing of the Carré d’As hostages: “France will not accept that crime pays… The world must not remain indifferent or passive. I call on other countries to take their responsibilities as France has twice done.”

There is a bigger point to this story. Through accidents of geography, two of the main waterways afflicted by piracy lie beside Muslim nations. Many seafarers also hail from Muslim nations. Western nations rightly rushed to help in the case of earthquakes, floods and the tsunami. They should also recognise that piracy represents an opportunity to undertake the small practical steps, where there is no obvious benefit to us, which might really win the sympathies of South Asia’s ordinary people. In his brilliant book, The Way of the World, Ron Suskind ruminates on the ways on which the West has squandered its moral capital since 9/11. Helping friendly Muslim states to deal with piracy is one way in which we could start reoccupying the high ground. Such measures would give some substance to otherwise vacuous mantras about “hearts and minds”, and help to define a common civilisation between Muslims and ourselves based on the imposition of international law.

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