Piracy 3.0

Piracy 3.0?  Sounds like a software update, doesn’t it?  The piracy in this case refers to the piracy in the Indian Ocean, Gulf of Aden and Horn of Africa area – that’s right, Somali pirates.

Piracy or Piracy 1.0 would refer to the pirates of Southeast Asia – a relatively genteel endeavor compared with Piracy 2.0 or 3.0.  Piracy in Southeast Asia – the Straits of Malacca and South China Sea in particular – has been ongoing since the 18th and 19th centuries.   In the most recent 20 years, the majority of piracy in this area has been constrained to what amounts to high seas robbery.  Pirates would board ships via small boats, hold the crew at gun or knife point and then leave with all the valuables they could carry.  Normally, this would also include the cash in the Master’s safe, which could run into the tens of thousands of dollars.  While the prospect of being held with the threat of violence, even for a short period of time, is not for the faint of heart, it was well known that the “business model” for these pirates was “rob and leave.”  This piracy business model persists today in the Straits of Malacca,  South China Sea and Southeast Asia, but has been much curtailed due to the efforts of the countries in the area.   Since 2004, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have increased anti-piracy efforts and have been rewarded with a rapidly decreasing frequency of pirate attacks.

Piracy 2.0 is essentially Somali piracy.  Somali pirates appeared on the scene as early as the late 1990s, ostensibly in retaliation against foreign fishing boats overharvesting Somali waters.  For the average merchant vessel, these pirates were not a concern, but foreign fishing vessels rapidly adapted with armed crews.  During the early 2000s, merchant ships in the Gulf of Aden/Horn of Africa (GOA/HOA) area were more concerned with the idea of seaborne terrorism off the coast of Yemen.  In October 2000, the USS Cole was attacked while in the port of Aden, Yemen and in October 2002, the French-flagged oil tanker Limborg was attacked by an explosives laden boat off the coast of Yemen.  As a result, merchant shipping frequently opted to travel well South of Yemen, putting them in closer proximity to the Somali coast.  By 2004/2005, Somali pirates were making themselves known to the world.  The International Maritime Organization (IMO) and shipping companies were taking notice.  From 2004 to 2008 Piracy 2.0 was in full effect with attacks taking place along the Somali coast and in the Gulf of Aden with a great success rate.   By late 2008, early 2009, many nations, including such diverse ones as the United States, Russia, China, Korea, United Kingdom, India and Iran were gearing up for the anti-piracy mission in the Horn of Africa region.  Unfortunately, they seemed to be one step behind the Somali pirates as they implemented their next upgraded business model – Piracy 2.5.

The defining factor in Piracy 2.5 was motherships.  By hijacking fishing boats or dhows, the pirates were able to extend their reach almost to Indian coastal waters, South into the Mozambique Channel and North into the Gulf of Oman.  Extending the mothership concept, hijacked merchant vessels were frequently operated as motherships until their fuel ran low or became too well known.  2009 and 2010 were difficult years with several high profile incidents, including the hijacking of the containership Maersk Alabama and sailing vessel Quest.  The explosion in frequency and success of attacks brought about rapid changes onboard merchant vessels operating in the region.  Tactically, merchant vessels starting adopting the use of citadels and carrying armed security teams.   The combination of these two tactics turned the tide on the Somali pirates with the success rate of attacks plummeting.  Through 2011, piracy against merchant vessels in the Horn of Africa region was relatively stagnant with low attack success rates.  The Somali pirates tried to change up their tactics in many ways, including hijacking a ship out of the Salalah, Oman anchorage under the eyes of local officials, increasing attacks in the Southern Red Sea and attempting boarding during hours of darkness.  International naval coalitions have continued to disrupt pirate activities both in the open ocean and littoral areas.  In October 2011, Kenyan  armed forces crossed the border into Southern Somalia in pursuit of al Shabaab, an Islamic extremist group.  This military incursion closely coincides with the advent of Piracy 3.0.

Piracy 3.0 is not so much of a paradigm shift as an evolution of the pirates’ existing business model.  The advent of better tactics and armament on merchant vessels as well as the continued pressure from naval forces is making it increasing difficult to hijack a ship.  Changing tactics and areas of operation hasn’t produced the results of previous years.  The pirates, however, have seen opportunities elsewhere.  Somali pirates had successfully collected a $1 million ransom in November 2010 for Paul and Rachel Chandler who had been taken off their sailboat in the Indian Ocean.  On September 11, 2011, this tactic was expanded with the kidnapping of a British woman from a Kenyan seaside resort.  In October, an additional 5 foreigners (2 Spanish, 1 American, 1 French and 1 Dane) were kidnapped either from Kenyan hotels or refugee camps.  On January 21st, American Michael Moore, a journalist, was kidnapped in Somalia by pirates.  They are refusing to negotiate for his release unless a ransom is paid.  This is Piracy 3.0.

This piracy (piracy due to their relationship with the ship hijackings) business model is fraught with problems for both sides.  In the cases of all the individual hostages being held, there are no deep pockets or companies behind them.  The Chandlers were held for well over a year before their family and friends could raise enough ransom money.  Needless to say, an extended hostage situation is not good physically or mentally for the hostage.  The Frenchwoman taken in October 2011 subsequently died while in captivity.  Neither is it good for the business of the pirate or hostage-taker, as they are incurring debt for supplies and services during the entire negotiation process.  Unfortunately, the opportunity for hostages is limited only by the imagination, ranging from coastal resorts in Kenya and Djibouti to foreign nationals in Somalia itself.  Merchant vessels have been able to protect themselves from pirate attacks, but individuals traveling or living in this range stand little chance against armed gunmen.  Foreign nationals who find themselves kidnapped will find little zeal in their country’s military for a rescue mission within Somalia.  While there have been well documented cases of hijacked ships being retaken by military force, the same opportunities are not afforded shoreside.  In the case of Captain Phillips of Maersk Alabama fame, one of the foremost concerns of the U.S. military was to not let him get taken ashore.  It’s not to say that a rescue effort could not be attempted ashore in Somalia, but the risk is much greater for all involved.  Last but not least in the issues involved with Piracy 3.0 is the fact that not all the hostages were taken by Somali pirates originally.  In the case of at least two hostages, they were kidnapped by members of al Shabaab and then sold to the pirates.   If an American were in this situation, it could be argued that a ransom paid for them would indirectly support al Shabaab.  And al Shabaab has been branded a terrorist group by the United States.  Executive Order 13536 was signed by President Barack Obama in April 2010 prohibiting U.S. citizens, permanent residents or entities organized under U.S. law from conducting business with al Shabaab.  To say that this adds a new level of complexity to the situation is an understatement.  Piracy 3.0 is in its infancy.  It can be hoped that the Somali pirates can be rendered ineffective before they can adapt to their new environment both on and off the water.  Unfortunately, it is looking even more like a long term solution will include changes within Somalia to bring about stability and security.  In the short term, travelers in these areas need to be aware of the situation and take appropriate measures for their security.

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