Ahoy there Somalia
The significance of the latest attacks by Somali pirates
PIRATES do not win every encounter. On the evening of Tuesday November 18th an Indian warship attacked and destroyed a suspected Somali pirate boat in the Gulf of Aden, after the men on board had, reportedly, threatened to blow up the Indian craft. The pirates were said to be armed with guns and rocket-grenade launchers, and some escaped on speed boats. On the same day, however, other pirates in the Gulf of Aden did manage to grab a cargo ship carrying grain to Iran.
The pressure to tackle piracy off Somalia’s coast is growing by the day. The threat to merchant shipping in the region is now greater than it has been for decades. The taking of the leviathan 330-metre Saudi-owned Sirius Star in the high seas fully 450 nautical miles (833km) off the Kenyan coast, on Saturday, shows that all tankers heading to or from the Arabian Gulf and all cargo vessels using the Suez Canal are now at risk from pirates, no matter what course they hold to.
Shipping companies face higher insurance premiums, customers could see longer delivery times, less traffic may pass through the Suez Canal. The success of the pirates may also strengthen the hand of radical Islamists in Somalia if gunmen abandon their poorly paid defence of the feeble transitional Somali government in Mogadishu for the promise of adventures and riches at sea.
The geographical range open to the pirates gives them (generally) the upper hand over foreign navies deployed to stop them. So, too, does their ingenious use of fishing boats for satellite cover. Warships can easily intercept captured vessels and, under a United Nations resolution agreed upon earlier this year, chase them back into Somali waters. But it is rare for them to stop the pirates boarding vessels and taking crews hostage in the first place. And by luring warships into Somali waters to watch over captured vessels, the pirates will continue to stretch their operations further south towards the Comoros and the Mozambique Channel–once the hunting grounds of late 17th century English pirates.
There have been at least 83 acknowledged pirate attacks off Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden this year, 33 of them successful enough to command a ransom. The amounts of money being paid have rocketed, with pirates demanding and getting $1m in ransom or more. The number of attacks is probably higher than stated, given the desire of some ship owners to pay a ransom quietly, without involving an insurance company.
The Sirius Star is believed now to be anchored somewhere off the coast of Somalia, near the pirate port of Eyl in the northern Puntland region of the country. It joins a dozen or so other vessels. They include the MV Faina, a Ukrainian cargo ship captured in September with a cargo of Soviet-era tanks bound for south Sudan, with the connivance of the Kenyan government. Ransom demands for the Faina have dropped from $20m to $8m since it was surrounded by American and Russian warships, but there is still no agreement on its release. The pirates are likely to ask for more than $30m for the release of the Sirius Star.
The tanker is owned by the shipping subsidiary of Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil giant. It was carrying oil worth over $100m and was bound for America when captured. For the Saudis, its loss is a reminder of a problem that has been festering just across the Red Sea for some time: Somali analysts say that Saudi Arabia has made big promises of aid and assistance to Somalia, but has delivered nothing of value.
For America, the case of the Sirius Star underlines longstanding concerns that piracy off Somalia, still strictly mercenary, might soon attract jihadist operators. Some think that al-Qaeda has already looked into the possibility of blowing up tankers in the narrows off the Comoros. If the jihadists do not organise an attack themselves, the worry is that they might pay the pirates to do it for them.