Several hijackings of commercial vessels in the High Risk Area (HRA) since mid-March represent the first notable escalation of pirate activity since 2012.
As well as four successful hijackings and one boarding reported since 13 March 2017, several suspicious approaches have also been reported in the Gulf of Aden and Bab el Mandeb in the past month, with a series of incidents reported as recently as 14-16 April.
It is too soon to claim that the recent attacks mark the beginning of a wider resurgence of piracy in the region and several characteristics of recent hijackings differ from the previous Somali hijacking model. The incidents do occur on a wider backdrop of rising suspicious activity in the past 12 months and serve to reinforce the value of implementing effective counter-piracy measures, such as BMP4.
13 March: Pirates hijack bunkering tanker in Socotra Gap
Description: More than 24 assailants on board two skiffs hijacked a bunkering tanker on 13 March. The tanker, the Comoros-flagged Aris 13, had sent a distress signal and reported that it was being followed by two skiffs before its tracking system was turned off 16 nm off northeast Puntland.
Status: The pirates reportedly demanded ransom payments, although released the vessel and eight Sri Lankan crew members in Alula on 16 March following a shootout with Puntland security forces and threats of further violence against the assailants. Local sources said that the pirates were given immunity from prosecution.
24 March: Pirates hijack dhow off Puntland
Description: Pirates successfully hijacked a fishing vessel off Eyl, Puntland, and are thought to have headed out to sea to use the vessel as a mothership for further hijackings. The assailants dropped off 10 Yemeni crew members onshore, although the captain, engineer and cook remained on board the vessel, suggesting intent to use it as a mothership rather than as a means to extract ransom.
Status: The vessel was released on 26 March. The terms of the release are unknown but assailants stole fuel from the vessel before its release.
1 April: Indian cargo vessel hijacked in HRA
Description: Pirates hijacked the Al Kaushar Indian cargo vessel near Socotra Island while it was en route from Dubai to Mukala port in Yemen. The vessel had 10 crew members on board and was held between the towns of Hobyo and el Hur in Galmudug state.
Status: On 12 April Galmudug security forces released the hostages without any ransom being paid and apprehended three of the pirates. They had already secured the release of the vessel in an earlier encounter on 10 April.
3 April: Pirates hijack Pakistani cargo vessel
Description: Pirates hijacked a Pakistani-owned cargo vessel, the MV Salama 1, off central Somalia. It is unclear how many were on board on the vessel and the precise location of the attack was not disclosed.
Status: The vessel is reportedly being held near the former pirate base of Hobyo.
9 April: Piracy attack prevented by international naval forces in Gulf of Aden
Description: A piracy attack on the Tuvalu-flagged OS 35 bulk carrier was prevented by Chinese and Indian naval support. A Chinese naval vessel supported by Indian helicopter responded to a distress signal raised by the vessel when it came under attack off the coast of Yemen. All 16 Filipino crew went to the ship’s citadel and raised a distress signal when pirates boarded the vessel.
Status: Chinese and Indian forces responded to the distress call, although pirates had fled the vessel by the time security forces arrived on the scene. The vessel continued to its destination under naval escort and all crew were reported to be in good health.
14-16 April: Several suspicious approaches
This period saw a series of attack in the Gulf of Aden, including reporting two suspicious approaches and one attempted boarding over the two days. In the first incident on 14 April pirates opened fire on a small boat and repeatedly attempted to board the vessel, although it is unclear what deterred the attackers.
On 15 April, a product tanker reported an exchange of fire between security guards and pirates in the Gulf of Aden, 110 nm northwest of Bosasso, causing the skiffs to abort their attempt.
On 16 April, a container ship reported three separate approaches in the Bab el Mandeb by different groups of skiffs within the space of one hour, causing their security team to twice show their weapons and fire warning flares towards the assailants.
Separately, Puntland security forces claimed unspecified international naval forces had responded to a distress call from a ship in the Gulf of Aden on 15 April, and subsequently killed two out of the nine pirates approaching the vessel. It is unclear if the reports were linked to the attack on the product tanker on 15 April however and the claims have not been independently corroborated.
*These incidents are not inclusive of all piracy-related incidents in the reporting period and include hijackings and boardings since 13 March 2017 and suspicious approaches since 14 April.
Assessment and outlook
Our overall analysis has not altered since an initial assessment of Somali piracy following the Aris 13 hijacking, with the principal drivers of piracy remaining consistent. However, events since have given a better picture of the current threat environment, the identities of the pirates and common locations for attacks. Although the perpetrators have not been confirmed, some attacks have been linked to former pirate groups active during the 2008-2012 Somali piracy epidemic such as Aw Kombe, and the notorious pirate leader Bakeyle or “rabbit”. Such links are in line with reports that two of the hijacked vessels were brought to former pirate strongholds in Eyl and Hobyo. Some attacks have clustered off the Puntland and Galmudug regions, both former launchpads for pirate attacks. The Puntland Intelligence Agency, Abdi Hassan Hussein, has warned that pirates are in the latter stages of preparing further attacks against vessels in the region. Although there are few details of the method of attacks, pirates have been heavily armed and used skiffs, although have so far failed to secure ransom payment and have only been able to hijack small or easy to board vessels. Attackers have also been unable to maintain possession of all but one of the hijacked vessels, the MV Salama 1 which is thought to still be under pirate control.
Importantly, the hijackings in recent weeks have occurred against a backdrop of rising suspicious approaches and are not entirely isolated incidents. While they mark the first successful hijackings of commercial vessels in the HRA since 2012, the attacks come after an increase in suspicious approaches in the region over the past year, with the past 12 months seeing a 77 percent year-on-year increase in piracy-related incidents, based on Risk Portal data. Several incidents have required embarked armed security teams to fire warning shots to deter suspected pirates.
Although the recent hijackings have taken place close to the Somali coastline, several suspicious approaches since July 2016 indicate pirates remain active off the Yemeni coast, as well as off Somalia. In October 2016, gunmen attacked the chemical tanker the CPO Korea some 330 mn east of Somalia, illustrating the threat. If the perpetrators do prove to be linked to major pirate groups active during the 2008-2012 period, their experience and the know-how to attack larger commercial vessels further out at sea is a relevant consideration. The approaches in the Gulf of Aden and Bab el Mandeb over 14-16 April again reaffirm continued threat picture. In one incident, a container vessel reported encountering three different sets of skiffs within one hour, illustrating the scale of activity in the area in recent days.
The ongoing suspicious approaches and attempted attacks since 2012 also reflect how the underlying drivers of piracy have remained in place since the 2008-2012 epidemic. Weak security onshore in Somalia, illegal fishing in Somali waters and a lack of legitimate economic opportunities for Somalians have gone unresolved. This has been illustrated by continued reports of hijackings of five suspected dhow hijackings in 2015, including the Siraj and the Jaber. As long as these conditions persist, it is likely that pirates will continue to look to take advantage of a weakened security environment at sea, such as vessels failing to implement counter piracy measures and any draw downs in the international naval forces.
Finally, the hijackings highlight the continued necessity of taking effective counter piracy measures such as the implementation of BMP4 measures, armed security teams and effective crew training and drills. Although unconfirmed, it is highly unlikely that any of the hijacked vessels had armed security on board and were likely travelling at slow speeds. The attempted hijacking of the Tuvalu-flagged OS 35 merchant vessel served to demonstrate how drills, effective use of a citadel and established communication protocols with international naval counter-piracy support can prevent attacks succeeding. Additionally, the presence of an embarked security team was likely vital in the prevention of a successful boarding of a product tanker in the Gulf of Aden on 110nm, although exact details of the incident remain unclear.
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