"FACTS ARE STUBBORN THINGS"
In the first nine months of 2010, Somali pirates ventured further away from their shores and are now handling 44% of all piracy incidents on the seven seas.
They hijacked 35 ships (out of a world total of 39) from January to September 2010, and they stretch now from inside the Red Sea, close to Madagascar, and 350 miles west of India.
Crew are kept hostage for an average of three months (two months in 2009), for an average ransom of 2 million US$ (1 million US$ last year); the highest ransom paid was 9.5 million US$, for a Korean tanker, in november 2011.
Navies from around the world -including China, Norway, Australia, Korea, Russia, the U.S.A., just to name a few, helped prevent numerous attacks off the Horn of Africa, where their presence is vital in protecting merchant shipping against piracy.
However; piracy activity has spread out over the Indian Ocean, in an area so vast, that it is impossible to control with the warships at hand.
When pirates are caught "with a smoking gun"; they are often released again, without any legal action.
There are a few examples of pirates being taken before court, in Kenia, the U.S., France, Yemen; often, suspects have to be set free again for lack of evidence.
Five pirates were brought to court in the Netherlands and were sentenced to five years in prison (not the maximum sentence), in May 2010. One of them has already applied for asylum in Europe.
This state of affairs may encourage, rather than deter pirates.
When a ship wants the transit the hot-zone off Somalia (which covers now large swaths of the Indian Ocean), the shipboard scenario now reads like this:
1. The ship itself is prepared; read: transformed into a fortress;
A "safe room" or "citadel" is a designated pre-planned area in the ship where, in the event of imminent boarding by pirates, all crew will seek protection. A citadel is designed and constructed to resist a determined pirate trying to gain entry. The obvious idea is that there needs to be armed assistance within range.A citadel will only keep out hijackers for a limited period, and if there is no relief by the time the hijackers have broken through, these may be pissed off, with worse results for the crew.
More details on current best practices can be found here:
2. Nowadays it has become commonplace to hire a team of "security specialists" (a redemption of the old mercenaries) to sail onboard through the Indian Ocean. These -mostly ex- special forces guys add a professional touch to preparing ship's defences, and train crew.
3. One step further yet is hiring armed guards.
IMO, and most flag states, are squeamish about weapons onboard merchant vessels. Besides all the legal implications, IMO argues that armed merchants would escalate violence.
One can only think: what more violence can the situation escalate to ??? These guys come onboard, armed to the teeth with automatic guns and RPG's. The argument is obsolete, but is stubbornly repeated over and over again.
Nevertheless, some companies play it just plain practical and get hired guns onboard. A few warning shots are enough to deter pirates, and chase them away to find easier preys.
No armed merchant vessel has been hijacked so far.
3. Ships in transit are reported to the naval authorithies on site, and transit in group through the Gulf of Aden; a revival of the WWII convoy system. Thus, they are more easily shepherded by the navies on site.
4. When ships come under attack; the crew is gathered into a "saferoom" onboard and locks itself in, alerting the warships in the vicinity. The saferoom (also called "citadel") keeps the pirates out long enough, until boarding parties (commonly: marines) can board and take back the ship.
Royal Dutch Marines storm a ship (helmet-camera).
The Somali piracy brand has evolved in a mini-economy, where the actual pirates only get a share of the ransom money, the rest goes to local communities, militia, sponsor, financers...
There is even a stock exchange in Haradhere, where one can buy and sell shares in upcoming hijacks.
The idea of locking in the ship's crew in a "safe room" and waiting for the cavalry to arrive, is the best option yet.
But there is no backup in this plan....
If the marines do not arrive in time, the crew is in a dire situation; unable to control the ship, just waiting for the pirates onboard to find a way into the safe room, or smoke the crew out of their hide-away.
Individual pirates may act stupid, sometimes they mistakenly attack warships.
One must imagine the scenery; a skiff full with armed and dangerous Somali, slightly delirious, because of khat. One of them spot a ship, shouting: "سفينة ، وهذا هو يومنا محظوظ", only to find out minutes later that they made a serious error of judgement.
But Somali piracy has evolved:
The "safe room" is a measure that is temporarily successful.
Sooner or later these pirates will find a fast and easy way to crack into a safe room. (Just suppose .... they use their RPG's ???)
There are little legal alternatives for "safe rooms": a ship getting hijacked by Somali pirates equals that the crew is kept at gunpoint, with automatic weapons, for two months, or longer, by teenagers under influence of drugs.
That is the truth on the ground.
Marc Van de Velde
The measures described in this article only take into account the Somali situation.
Piracy is also prevalent alongside West Africa (particluarly Nigeria) and South East Asia.