Pirates extending range of terror on the high seas


Better security off Somalia is pushing the criminals further into the Indian Ocean, writes JODY CLARKEin Nairobi

“WHERE THERE is a sea there are pirates” goes an old Greek proverb. But even Athens’s greatest admirals would be stumped with what to do about Somalia’s piracy problem.

Last week, Somali pirates seized a 35,000-tonne Turkish ship 1,000 nautical miles east of the northern coast of Somalia – closer to India than Africa, in what was probably their most long-range success to date. Attacks rose hugely in March, with pirates gradually expanding their range of operations, with so-called “mother-ships” or larger vessels stocked with food and fuel moving further away from their home bases.

Why the mounting bravado? Ironically, it could be because of the success of the multinational naval force off the Somali coast. “It’s mainly down to the effectiveness of naval operations in the Gulf of Aden,” says Roger Middleton, consultant researcher at Chatham House’s Africa Programme in London. “They’ve made it much harder to attack in their preferred hunting ground.”

In one recent success, the French navy captured 35 suspected pirates in a three-day operation earlier this month, described as “the biggest seizure” since the EU launched its Atlanta anti-piracy mission in 2008. “But as a consequence, we’re now seeing all this activity in the Indian Ocean,” says Middleton. About three dozen warships patrol the Somali coast. But with the increased use of GPS, pirates can now sail beyond the horizon in search of their prey.

The problem is that navies will find it much harder to police the Indian ocean, “an area as large as Australia” says John Burnett, assistant operations director at Maritime and Underwater Security Consultants, which provides onboard security for ships.

“My greatest fear is they will attack shipping lanes towards the Persian gulf south of Colombo, where China and Japan get 80 per cent of their oil,” says Burnett. “If that’s the case, it will have a serious impact on the global economy.” How big, it’s hard to quantify. But already, many ships are choosing to sail around the Cape of Good Hope, says Rob Lomas, secretary general of Intercargo, an industry group representing ship owners. And “that can add anything from four to eight or nine days a voyage”.

It also means increased insurance rates which, according to one insider, are up 4,000 per cent since 2004, when the problem started. It’s hardly a surprise then to see shipping companies turning to private security firms to protect their ships, with guards shooting dead a Somali pirate last week, the first recorded instance of its kind.

US and French navies have shot and killed Somali pirates before, but this “represents a troubling escalation of defence against pirates”, says EJ Hoogendoorn of the International Crisis Group in Nairobi. “The question now is will this backfire in terms of how the pirates will treat the crew and how they will approach armed ships, which are now presumed armed.”

Mother ships can’t always be destroyed as they are often captured fishing vessels, with innocent crew still on board. But locating them and using spotter planes will go some way to tackling the problem, says Middleton.

“But any medium- to long-term strategy has to be focused on Somalia. It’s easier to catch a pirate in his house than in the ocean.” In a country that has been without a government since 1991, that’s easier said than done. With the Horn of Africa effectively lawless, ship-owners will have to get used to pirates for the immediate future and probably longer.

“A young Somali man makes about $30 a month,” says Burnett. “But if he becomes a pirate, he can make thousands. So it’s no surprise to find that the waiting list even for job applications is very, very long.”