On 23 November 2016, NATO announced that it has ended Operation Ocean Shield after a sharp decline in attacks by Somali pirates. While there has been no vessel hijacked off Somalia since May 2012, the threat of piracy remains high despite no major incidents reported. This is due to the fact that pirate action group’s (PAGs) operating in the region continue to maintain the capability and drive to launch attacks in a bid to successfully hijack a merchant vessel.
MS Risk advises all vessels transiting this region to remain aware that while NATO has ended its operations in the area, the threat remains high and continued vigilance and compliance with BMP4 procedures is necessary. The threat remains high in waters off the southern Red Sea/Bab el Mandeb, Gulf of Aden – including Yemen and the northern Somali Coast – Arabian Sea/Off Oman, the Gulf of Oman and off the eastern and southern Somali coast. In the past, incidents of vessels being attacked have been recorded in waters off Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique, the Seychelles and Tanzania, as well as in the Indian Ocean and off the western and southern coasts of India and western Maldives. We advise that all vessels continue to maintain a 24-hour visual and radar watch. We further remind all Masters that fishermen operating in this region may try to protect their nets by attempting to aggressively approach merchant ships. Some fishermen may be armed and should no be confused with pirates.
MS Risk further advise merchant vessels transiting the Red Sea, Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the Gulf of Aden to also operate under a heightened state of alert due to increasing tensions in the region, which can escalate the potential for direct or collateral damage to ships transiting this area. We advise that all vessels transiting this region should report any incidents or suspicious activity immediately. The threat may come from a number of different sources including missiles, projectiles or waterborne improvised explosive devices. Houthi rebels have claimed responsibly for the 1 October 2016 attack on a UAE vessel.
All ships and patrol aircraft under NATO Operation Ocean Shield have now left the area off the Horn of Africa. The Royal Danish Air Force carried out the last Indian Ocean surveillance missions for NATO, with the commander of the Danish air force detachment disclosing that NATO can resume its anti-piracy efforts at any time – whether in the Somali basin or the Atlantic Ocean.
Ships and patrol aircraft operating under the mission had been patrolling waters in this region since 2009 as part of a broader international effort to crackdown on Somali-based pirates who were impacting world shipping. The Ocean Shield operation, as well as European Union (EU) counter-piracy mission, have significantly reduced attacks, with the last reported vessel hijacking off Somalia occurring in May 2012 – down from more than thirty ships at the peak in 2010 – 2011.
NATO is now shifting its resources towards deterring Russia in the Black Sea and people smugglers in the Mediterranean. Earlier this month, NATO broadened its operations in the Mediterranean Sea in a bid to help the EU stop criminals trafficking refugees from North Africa.
According to a Somali official and a maritime expert, Somali pirates have hijacked an Iranian fishing vessel with fifteen crew members on board. The hijacking comes midst warnings that piracy in the Indian Ocean region may be making a comeback.
Abdirizak Mohamed Dirir, director of the anti-piracy and seaport ministry in Puntland, a semi-autonomous region in Somalia, has disclosed that “pirates hijacked an Iranian-flagged fishing vessel with its 15 crew from near Eyl,” a city located in northern Somalia. John Steed, East African region manager for Oceans Beyond Piracy, has also confirmed the hijacking, adding that the vessel is called Muhammidi.
While there are still occasional cases of sea attacks, piracy near Somalia’s coast has largely subsided in the past three years. This is mainly due to shipping firms hiring private security details coupled with the presence of international warships.
According to the latest Oceans Beyond Piracy report, the cost of Somali piracy to the global economy fell by almost half last year as attacks in the region continued to decline. However piracy in West Africa continued to rise.
According to the Oceans Beyond Piracy report, attacks carried out by Somali pirates in 2013 continued to decline, with only 23 vessels being attacked throughout the past year. While no large vessels transiting the region were successfully attacked or hijacked, the threat of piracy to regional traffic remains high.
Armed security teams aboard vessels in the Indian Ocean were relatively prevalent on those vessels reporting suspect activity: 100 vessels out of 145 reporting suspicious approaches had security teams aboard, as did 10 out of the 19 vessels that reported attacks. Furthermore, twenty-seven of the 100 vessels with security teams aboard during suspicious approaches reported firing warning shots in a bid to deter suspicious approaches, while eight out of ten vessels with security teams on board during attacks reported exchanging fire with pirates.
The latest annual security report put the total cost of Somali piracy at US $3.2 billion (£1.88 billion) in 2013. Over the past year, there were still at least fifty hostages being held captive in Somalia.
At the height of Somali pirate attacks in 2011, up to a dozen or more merchant vessels were being held captive at any one time as pirate gangs awaited to receive multimillion-dollar ransom payments. While Somali piracy was by far the largest single threat to international shipping in recent years, the increase of international navies in the region, coupled with embarked security teams on board vessels transiting the High Risk Area (HRA), has resulted in a sharp decline in pirate attacks, with the last successful hijacking of a merchant vessel occurring two years ago. However this decline is easily reversible. Furthermore, this decline in Somali piracy has effectively paved the way for a new region to take over the status of being a piracy hot spot.
West African Piracy
For the second year in a row, the number of piracy attacks in West Africa was greater than that in the Indian Ocean. According to statistics provided by Oceans Beyond Piracy, an estimated 100 attacks occurred off West Africa in 2013. This included 42 hostage-taking attacks and 58 robbery attempts.
In the past year, the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa has developed into the new piracy threat to international shipping, however pirate and criminal gangs operating in the region greatly differ from those groups operating in the Gulf of Aden. Reports of piracy attacks, kidnappings and hijackings in the Gulf of Guinea have demonstrated that piracy in the region are more violent then those seen in waters off Somalia. According to the new Oceans Beyond Piracy, analysts have observed “…a high degree of violence in this region,” adding that “the constantly evolving tactics of West African piracy make it extremely difficult to isolate it from other elements of organized crime.”
While providing accurate statistics for the Gulf of Guinea continues to be difficult, mainly due to incomplete reporting, it is evident that there was a rise in the number of seafarers who were kidnapped in the region last year.