Sea Transportation: Evolving Risks

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September 4, 2021: The coalition of international ship owners’ associations has agreed to reduce the HRA (High Risk Area) off Somalia from most of the East African coast and deep into the Indian Ocean to a smaller area encompassing the EEZs (Exclusive Economic Zones) off Somalia and Yemen and the approaches to the Persian Gulf. EEZs extend 380 kilometers off the coast and the new HRA found that this is where the piracy risk remains. This was demonstrated on August 13 when a British bulk cargo carrier, 180 kilometers northeast of the Somali capital, spotted a speedboat of armed men approaching at dawn. The pirates were coming at the cargo vessel at high speed. The ship increased speed and alerted the International Piracy Patrol. Once the pirates realized they had been spotted they turned away, aware of the fact that a piracy patrol warship might be close enough to send an armed helicopter to their location quickly. This incident occurred within the new HRA, which went into effect on September 1st.

The piracy patrol already had more ships watching the Yemeni Coast and Persian Gulf entrance, where Islamic terrorist groups have turned to piracy but have so far been more of a threat than successful. The threat near the Persian Gulf entrance has been increased by Iran, which tried using some of its commandos to seize a ship, but the crew carried out their anti-piracy safety drill before the Iranians could board. The crew reached their fortified safe space and disabled the engines. The Iranians tried to get the engines going but failed and fled before help arrived and killed or captured any of them. The crew heard the pirates speaking and realized they were Iranians. As usual, Iran denied any involvement. The same denial occurred after ships recently attacked with limpet mines (attached to the hull of anchored ships with strong magnets) and Iranian cruise missiles (small UAVs carrying explosives). Several of these missiles hit a ship recently and killed two crewmen. Examination of the missile debris confirmed that the UAVs were Iranian, which Iran denied despite a growing number confirmations by national and international teams demonstrating how the components were Iranian, even when the Iranians manufactured these parts without any identifying marks. There are more ways to identify where a component came from than there are ways to deceive the new identification techniques. The recent missile and mine attacks were disproportionately directed at Israeli-owned ships. Groups staging an attack to make it appear like someone else did it is an ancient practice referred to as “false flag” attacks. Like many other criminal activities, rapid technology developments have made it more difficult to make these successfully.

While the threat to shipping still exists in the new HRA, its degree is much lower than a decade ago. At the same time a similar threat has developed off the West African coast, mainly in the Gulf of Guinea and off the Nigerian coast. For that reason, the shipping companies are establishing a new HRA off West Africa that will encompass over 3.2 million square kilometers (910,000 square miles). Within the area the risk is rising and some shipping companies refuse to send their ships into waters near the Niger River Delta, an area controlled by Nigeria that has experienced the most attacks. Some crews are demanding double pay to enter this area. While the Nigerian Navy has established guarded anchorages and purchased coastal patrol UAVs the risk remains. Nigeria will not allow any armed security teams on merchant ships, as has become common in the Somali HRA. This makes the crews feel even more vulnerable.

In the Gulf of Guinea piracy is becoming a major problem and shipping companies warn that this will increase maritime ship insurance and other piracy related costs that will be passed on to consumers in Nigeria and neighboring countries. Off the Nigerian coast the pirate activity is increasing despite growing Nigerian efforts to curb the threat.

Nigeria will not get as bad as Somalia, which was the only place in the world where pirates could, for nearly a decade, take a large ship and anchor it off a small coastal town controlled by pirates. With no threats from local authorities, the pirates threatened to murder hostages, especially the ones taken ashore, if the anti-piracy patrol attempts to take back the ship. This lack of any Somali coast guard or government control of the entire coast was why Somalia was the only region seriously enough threatened by pirates that armed guards were allowed on large commercial ships passing through the most dangerous areas. In the other pirate hotspots, like Nigeria/Gulf of Guinea, the Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and Indonesia, and parts of the Caribbean, local police, navies and coast guard keep the pirates under control and usually forbid armed guards on ships. The main risk outside Somali waters is nighttime raids by local pirates who rob the crew of valuables and the ships of anything portable.

These “robbery” tactics escalated in Nigeria over the last five years because the pirates realized that kidnapping key crew members and holding them for ransom was safer and more lucrative than hauling away portable valuables. Kidnapping was slow to catch on because initially local security forces could locate the kidnappers’ hideouts and free their hostages. That changed in Nigeria because pirates made deals with local political and military officials to share the large ransoms paid for kidnapped foreign sailors. Once these ransom sharing deals were in place it became more difficult to find the pirate hideouts where hostages were held. This corrupt profit-sharing arrangement is nothing new in Nigeria and has been a component of the crippling corruption Nigeria has suffered since independence in the 1960s. Currently about five million dollars in ransoms are being paid each year and that is increasing. This is what is threatening to raise ship insurance rates and the cost of shipping anything in or out of the Gulf of Guinea. Ultimately the customer pays, otherwise shippers could not continue doing business in high-risk areas.

These robberies and kidnappings are common in areas where a lot of large ships have to anchor off a busy major port and await their turn to dock for loading or unloading cargo. What enabled the Nigerian pirates to become more of a menace was the entrenched gangster culture in the Niger River Delta. This is where most of Nigeria’s oil is produced. More of the oil is coming from offshore rigs and these became attractive targets for pirates. The seemingly entrenched gangster culture is made possible by the culture of corruption among local politicians and local security forces. Many politicians adopt a local gang to provide muscle for ensuring voters select the most corrupt candidates. Nigeria has been undergoing increasingly vigorous and effective reform efforts since 2000 but the gangster culture is so pervasive and entrenched that progress is slow in the more profitable areas. Nigerian leaders don’t like being compared to Somalia, but there are similarities. One difference is that there is more to steal in Nigeria and that many Nigerians, unlike Somalis, consider the outlaw culture a flaw not a feature.

Piracy still exists off Somalia, but it has been largely suppressed. No large ships linger off the Somali coast. The Somali pirates have not captured any large ships since 2012, when 14 were taken. That was in sharp contrast to 46 ships hijacked in 2009 and 28 in 2011. Each of these ships yielded, on average, several million dollars in ransoms. That kind of money attracted a lot more people to the business and the pirates prospered by sharing the ransoms with powerful people in Somalia and the Persian Gulf that made it possible to arrange and carry out the exchange of large amounts of cash for captives.

The piracy threat off Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden still exists and shipping companies were recently warned that while no large ships have been captured since 2013, the threat, and the higher shipping costs, still exist. Some of the criminal gangs and militias in northern Somalia that carried out most of the successful hijackings between 2009 and 2012 are still operational and monitoring this situation. These groups either abandoned the piracy business or cut way back on such activities. The gangs switched to smuggling drugs, guns or people between Somalia and Yemen.

During the years when many ships were being captured, the gangs developed ways to monitor ship activity using information available on the Internet. Some of that knowledge appears to have been picked up by Nigerian pirates. One of the useful items of information the gangs still monitor is the degree to which large vessels still hire armed guards for the 1,500-kilometer passage though offshore Somali pirate territory. Many of these larger ships no longer train and drill the crews on how to spot pirates and then handle them if they get aboard. While insurance companies still provide a discount for ships that hire the armed guards, that does not cover the high cost of these four-man armed security teams. Security companies send out boats with the four-man teams who board large ships and then another boat takes them off at the end of the 7-10 days the guards are needed. This system works but it is expensive and a hassle for the ships.

Fewer nations still contribute ships and aircraft to the Somalia anti-piracy patrol. There are still enough warships, mostly from the EU (European Union) and United States, to monitor radio traffic and they report that they still occasionally pickup Somali chatter regarding potential pirate targets. These days the only ships taken are fishing trawlers and dhows (small wooden coastal freighters) that have no ransom value but can be looted or taken for use as pirate mother ships. There are a lot of these small ships in the Gulf of Guinea, but also a lot of large tankers and cargo ships because of the oil-fueled economy. Bigger is better as far as pirates are concerned.

One of the more unnerving anti-piracy tactics was monitoring the pirate ports and following ships that left. UAVs or ships would observe these vessels and once they were in international waters (22 kilometers from the Somali coast) board and search any suspected of being pirates. If weapons and boarding equipment was found, the pirates were disarmed, taken back to Somalia, and left on a beach. Their boat was sunk at sea, along with their weapons and tools. Documents found on the boat were passed on to intelligence specialists. This degree of scrutiny was more than the pirates could handle. The pirates needed cash to keep operating as each multi-million-dollar ransom quickly disappeared into the pockets of the pirates and their financiers and suppliers. Few of the pirate leaders wanted to invest their newly acquired wealth in keeping the level of activity where it had been until 2012, when it became clear that capturing more ships was frustratingly difficult and eventually nearly impossible. At that point the financing of the pirate gangs disappeared and most of the pirate gangs went back to smuggling people and goods to Yemen or what many of the pirates originally did; fishing. The anti-piracy techniques were not forgotten bot collected by the shipping companies and adapted for use off the East African coast where the pirates are also adapting.

Large ransoms were not just an incentive for pirates off Somalia, but also for their financial advisors and suppliers of cash, supplies and information. Eventually the pirates found there were few people they could trust or rely on and the once lucrative pirate “industry” in northern Somali collapsed. Currently the pirates are not holding any ships or sailors they can get a ransom for.

Some of the merchant ships in the Somali HRA still observe the “2009 rules” to avoid pirate attack. They put on extra lookouts, especially at night, and often transit the 1,500-kilometer-long Gulf of Aden at high speed, even though this costs them thousands of dollars in additional fuel. The pirates seek the slower moving, apparently unwary, ships, and go after them before they can speed up enough to get away. The international anti-piracy patrol initially offered convoy protection, but many ships didn't want to halt and wait for a convoy to form. Ships that proceeded on their own took additional precautions. The convoy system was gone after a few years as individual ships found other ways to improve security. In the last few years more merchant ships reduced these security precautions, so shipping companies were warned that the pirates are definitely observing all this and waiting for an opportunity for another multi-million-dollar payday.

Meanwhile the Nigerian pirates are applying many of the techniques that worked for the Somali pirates. The Nigerian pirates are locals who know their way along the many small waterways found in the Niger River Delta. Like the Somali pirates, the Nigerian freebooters depend on a network of middlemen, some of them local politicians, who help broker the ransom deals. Bribes and political influence will often prevent the police and navy from finding pirate hideouts deep in the delta. For a while Nigerian pirates tried to loot cargoes by arranging for another ship to meet with a captured one to transfer a lot of the cargo before daylight and curious police came to check on the ship whose crew was no longer responding to calls from port authorities or the shipping company that managed the ship. The police became more alert to the cargo transfer scam and did radio checks more frequently with large ships anchored off the major ports waiting for an opportunity to unload or take on cargo. The pirates have, so far, adapted more quickly than the shipping companies or local security forces.

 


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