A Singapore-registered tanker sailing in Malaysian waters has been boarded by pirates and robbed of its marine fuel, Malaysian coast guard officials have confirmed. Port authorities lost contact with the ship late on 8 August, several hours after it had set sail from the Indonesian city of Tanjung Pinang. The ship, which was en route to the Malaysian island of Langkawi, was carrying a crew of ten and 3,500 tonnes of marine fuel when it was attacked. Two of the crew members sustained injuries after the vessel was boarded and they have since been hospitalised.
According to information from the International Chamber of Commerce’s International Maritime Bureau (IMB), over the past six months pirate attacks in Southeast Asia are the highest that they have been in twelve years. By contrast, there have been no reported incidents of piracy off the coast of Somalia, or in the Red Sea, Arabian Sea or in the Gulf of Aden. If this trend continues, 2015 could be the first year since 2006 that Somali pirates were prevented from claiming any prizes.
Worldwide, the IMB reported a total of 134 pirate attacks from January to June this year, an increase of 18 attacks over the same period last year but still below 2011’s record breaking 266. It is not, however, the relative increase in the frequency of attacks that is the most striking feature of the IMB data – it is the overall change in their geographic distribution. Indonesia, for instance, recorded 54 attacks over the reporting period, the highest number since 2010, while Vietnam and Bangladesh suffered 13 and 11 respectively. The Strait of Malacca, a notorious hotspot for piracy, has also seen an uptick in pirate activity.
Various factors have been attributed to the decline in Somali piracy – amongst them the increase in naval patrols and the “target hardening” efforts of shipowners”, who have gone to considerable lengths to make their vessels harder to board, including the use of armed guards. Nevertheless, shipowners’ have been warned against becoming complacent. While it is certainly unusual for there to have been no incidents of piracy reported over the first six months of the year, Michael Howlett, deputy director of the IMB said that the threat had not vanished. “We still advise masters to be aware. [The pirates] still have the capacity [to launch attacks]. It only takes one successful attack for this business model to be relaunched,” he said.
Piracy at sea is at its lowest level in six years, with 264 attacks recorded, a 40% drop since Somali piracy peaked in 2011.
The drop in worldwide piracy attacks has greatly been due to the dramatic drop of incidents recorded in waters off Somalia. In 2013, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) reported fifteen incidents off Somalia. According to its records, this is down from 75 in 2012 and 237 in 2011. The increase of armed guards on vessels, coupled with international navy patrols and the “stabilizing influence” of Somalia’s government have aided in deterring pirate. According to Pottengal Mukundan, IMB’s director, “the single biggest reason for the drop in worldwide piracy is the decrease in Somali piracy off the coast of East Africa,” adding that “it is imperative to continue combined international efforts to tackle Somali piracy. Any complacency at this stage could re-kindle pirate activity.”
The IMB’s annual global piracy report has indicated that more than 300 people were taken hostage at sea in 2013 and 21 were injured, nearly all with guns or knives.
Examining global piracy figures, Indonesia witnessed the most pirate attacks last year, accounting for more than 50 of all reported incidents. However it must be noted that attacks in waters of Indonesia were “low-level opportunistic thefts, not to be compared with the more serious incidents off Africa.” Piracy off West Africa made up 19% of attacks worldwide in 2013. According to the IMB report, Nigerian pirates accounted for 31 of the region’s 51 attacks. These attacks were “particularly violent,” with one crew member killed, and thirty-six people kidnapped and held onshore for ransom.
In November 2013, a United Nations and World Bank report indicated that pirates operating off the Horn of Africa, which are some of the world’s busiest shipping and humanitarian aid routes, had netted more than US $400 million (£251 million) in ransom money between 2005 and 2012.
Meanwhile in neighboring Kenya, the trial of four men charged over the Westgate shopping centre siege began in Kenya’s capital Nairobi.
The four suspected foreigners have denied the charges of aiding a “terrorist group,” and of being in Kenya illegally. However none of the men – named as Mohammed Ahmed Abdi, Liban Abdullah, Adnan Ibrahim, and Hussein Hassan – have been accused of being the gunmen who carried out the attack. While their nationalities have not been disclosed, they are said to be ethnic Somalis.
Police officials in Kenya have also indicated that the four accused had sheltered the attackers in their homes in Eastleigh a Somali neighbourhood in Nairobi, and that they were in contact with the gunmen four days prior to the siege being carried out.
During the first day of the trial, the court heard testimony from security guards who saw what happened when the gunmen launched the attack in September 2013, killing at least sixty-seven people. During his testimony, guard Stephen Juma told the court that he had been directing traffic outside the upmarket shopping centre when a car pulled up and three men jumped out. According to Mr Juma, one of them immediately shot dead a shopper, adding that “I began to hear gunshots, I made a radio call for help while running to the main entrance.” Mr Juma further noted that he could not identify any of the gunmen as their heads and faces had been covered with black headscarves.
The four are the first to be charged over the attack, which was the worst in Kenya since 224 people were killed in the 1998 bombing of the US embassy. Reports have indicated that around forty witnesses are expected to give evidence at the trial, which is likely to last around a week.
Somalia’s al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab confirmed days after the siege at they were behind the attack, indicating that one of its suicide brigades carried out the siege. Although al-Shabaab is fighting for the creation of an Islamic state in Somalia, the militant group has on numerous occasions carried out attacks in neighboring Kenya in a bid to avenge the presence of Kenyan troops in Somalia to bolster the UN-backed central government.
Heads of states in West Africa have called for the deployment of an international naval force that will aid in curbing the growing threat of piracy off the Gulf of Guinea. There are currently more pirate attacks occurring off the coast of West Africa than in the waters off Somalia, which used to be a piracy hotspot. Patrols by foreign warships, as part of the European Union’s and Nato’s anti-piracy operations, have reduced attacks by Somali pirates, with the last successful vessel hijacking occurring thirteen months ago. Piracy off Somalia decreased by 78% in 2012 when compared with 2011. With Somali piracy significantly on the decline, mainly due to increased patrolling of the waters coupled with the presence of security teams on board vessels transiting through the region and better practices by the ship’s captains and crew, leaders in West African states are increasingly looking into the possibilities of deploying international navies in order to manage the issue.
Speaking at a meeting of West and Central African leaders in Cameroon’s capital Yaounde, the Ivory Coast’s President Alassane Ouattara highlighted that the growing threat from piracy in the region resulted in a need for the issue to be tackled with “firmness.” He further indicated that “I urge the international community to show the same firmness in the Gulf of Guinea as displayed in the Gulf of Aden, where the presence of international naval forces has helped to drastically reduce acts of piracy.” Cameroon’s President Paul Biya also noted that it was vital to respond to the threat and to protect shipping routes and the economic interests of the region.
According to statistics released by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), for the first time, more pirate attacks were reported in the Gulf of Guinea than off the coast of Somalia, in which about 960 sailors were attacked in West Africa in 2012, compared with 851 that occurred in the waters off Somalia. However while attack numbers have sharply decreased in Somalia, at least 78 hostages are still being held captive by Somali pirates. Some of them have been held for long periods of time. A number of security sources have indicated that waters off the coast of Nigeria, which is Africa’s largest oil producer, have the highest risk of pirate activity in the region.
Although pirates in West Africa typically only steal fuel cargo and the crew members’ possessions, attacks in the region have been known to be extremely violent. IMB has reported that five of the 206 hostages kidnapped last year off vessels transiting through Western Africa have been killed. In sharp contrast, pirates in Somalia typically seize a vessel and its crew members and hold them until a hefty ransom is paid.