Tim Compston, Features Editor at Security News Desk and SecurityMiddleEast.com, listens to concerns regarding the protection of shipping in the Indian Ocean, Red Sea, and the Gulf of Aden and, worryingly, that attacks on seafarers are once again on the rise.
Last week on the one year anniversary of the High Risk Area (HRA) reduction in the western Indian Ocean, MAST - the maritime risk management firm – certainly didn't pull any punches when it issued a warning regarding the high risk of attacks on vessels in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes due, in part, to the political instability in Somalia and Yemen, which is having an impact off-shore as well as on.
As evidence of the heightened threat to shipping, MAST singles out a series of recent incidents including: an attack by six armed men on a chemical tanker – CPO Korea – 300 miles off the east coast of Somalia, which MAST says was recently classified as a pirate attack; an attempted attack on an LNG tanker in the Bab-el-Mandab strait and missile attacks on a UAE supply vessel and US Navy warships off the coast of Yemen by Houthi rebels. Set against this, MAST also flags up the recent NATO announcement that its counter piracy mission in the Indian Ocean is to end, with naval resources being shifted to the Black Sea and Mediterranean.
High Risk Area
Offering his thoughts on the situation today, Gerry Northwood OBE, COO of MAST - and a former Royal Navy counter piracy commander, and the lead planner in EU NAVFOR when the Indian Ocean HRA was originally created, says: “Last year’s reduction of the High Risk Area in the Indian Ocean was welcomed by many in the shipping industry as the last successful Somali pirate attack on a western commercial vessel was in May 2012. However recent incidents have shown that this vital shipping route is under threat from pirates and terrorists and NATO’s withdrawal, while from the best of motives, may send the wrong message to shipping companies and their crews.
“Right now the international community is struggling to demonstrate real progress in developing Somalia politically and economically; we have seen a pirate attack in the Somali basin and terrorist activity against warships and commercial vessels in the southern Red Sea. NATO’s withdrawal will provide succour to those who mean seafarers harm in the Indian Ocean region.”
Operation Atalanta extension
Turning to some better news on the anti-piracy front, on Monday 28 November 2016, the European Council extended Operation Atalanta’s mandate - EU Naval Force (EU NAVFOR) (Somalia) - to deter, disrupt and repress acts of piracy off the coast of Somalia, until 31 December 2018. EU Naval Force (EU NAVFOR) (Somalia) was first launched in December 2008 following a surge in piracy attacks in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean.
When I interviewed EU NAVFOR spokesperson Lieutenant Commander Jacqueline Sherriff way back in 2013 it was clear, five years into its mandate, that a critical tipping point had been reached and that number of attacks was falling, quite dramatically: "If you look at the number of attacks in 2010, for example, there were 174 - of which 47 ships were pirated - and we were involved in 65 disruptions, whereas last year  this was down to only 35 attacks."
Pressed on what was driving this change for the better, Sherriff attributed this to a number of factors coming together: “We are becoming more efficient and work extremely closely with NATO, the combined maritime force, and the independent deployments, to coordinate the efforts of the warships operating throughout the Gulf of Aden and the wider Indian Ocean." Back then the Lieutenant commander was also keen to stress the benefits of good communication: "We talk every day to the different task forces. It is very much intelligence driven so if we get word that a PAG (Pirate Action Group) has deployed from the coast of Somalia, the nearest warship will go and investigate."
According to Sherriff, the mandate of the force had been expanded: "Before March 2012 we could only take action at sea so we were watching pirates building up their logistics dumps on the beach literally feet away from our reach, they had complete impunity. This was changed by the European Union and, consequently, we undertook a DPLD (Disruption of Pirate Logistics Dump) action in May 2012 where a helicopter went up at night and fired on skiffs and outboard engines on the shoreline - not the pirates themselves. This sent a very powerful message."
Fast forwarding to today, EU NAVFOR stresses that the decision for implement a two year mandate extension was driven by concerns within European Union member states that whilst pirate attacks on merchant ships transiting the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean are currently suppressed, pirates still have both the intent and capability to go out to sea and mount an attack.
Speaking last September, during a breakfast briefing for major shipping industry representatives, Major General Martin Smith MBE, emphasised that, moving ahead, there is can be no room for complacency whilst also reiterating the progress that has been made thanks to the ‘collective effort’ of shipping companies and dedicated naval forces: “It is clear that we have (together) come a long way since early 2011, when 736 hostages and 32 ships were being held for ransom in anchorages off Somali beaches. However, the recent incidents of Iranian dhows being captured by groups of armed men demonstrate that there are still some who are prepared to go out to sea and take vessels for ransom.”
He added: “Collectively we have been able to curtail their [pirates] use of mother ships to attack far from the coast, but I remain convinced that if pirates perceive that we are lowering our guard, they will seize the opportunity and plan an attack on a vulnerable ship. And if they take one ship, this could re-energize their business model, which you know all too well, could cost the international community and shipping industry dearly.”