Things they don’t tell you at Harvard Seamanship School:
• After numerous pirate attacks off the Indian coastline, including one on the SCI tanker Guru Gobind Singh just 300 odd miles from Goa at the end of last month, the Indian Navy was sent out to chase a mother ship- the hijacked Polar- away from the Indian coast. Success was claimed- and reported- in Indian newspapers on Dec 1. The very next day, on Dec 2, a containership was attempted to be boarded just 150 miles northwest of Minicoy by men armed with RPGs and other weapons who zipped in on a skiff off a mother vessel. Thankfully, they gave up after evasive manoeuvres by the target.
• On Dec 3, two days after the attack on the container ship and apparently unrelated to it, the Indian navy’s ‘Rajput’ detained a dhow with 19 persons on board- 15 Pakistanis and 4 Iranians. Nobody had any documents on them.
• On December 5, the Bangladeshi ‘Jahan Moni’ was hijacked after an hourlong pursuit near Lakshadweep islands just off the Indian coast. These are the same islands on which a number of Somali pirates were detained in the middle of the year, but only after they had made it ashore.
• The coast of Oman has seen increased incidents attacks and hijacks for months. And so has the Red Sea. And so has, in case you missed it, the Indian coast including off Mumbai.
• The International Maritime Maritime Bureau now says (better late than never) that piracy is increasing in the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea, and that pirates have moved closer to India.
• The Associated Press reports that an unnamed Muslim country is financing a 1000 strong militia that is being trained in Puntland, northern Somalia, just across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen. The force will have armoured carriers and a few aircraft. At least one ex CIA official and a senior ex-US diplomat are involved. Interestingly, old allegations of gunrunning from Yemen to Puntland have never gone away, not least because much of the smuggled weaponry is being sent to the Al Qaeda linked Al Shabaab in Somalia.
• More and more media reports are talking about Westerners being trained in jihadi camps in Somalia and Yemen, or indoctrinated off the internet by rabid clerics and the like.
• US drone strikes in Yemen continue; tens of civilians have been killed. Some Al Qaeda personnel are reportedly fleeing to Somalia- the godforsaken country is being called, somewhat ironically, a safe haven for these fighters.
• The coalition navies are not saying any more, as they were during the useful monsoons, that Somali piracy has decreased. In fact, not a day passes without an attack or the other being reported. Unreported attacks remain unknown and unaccounted for as usual. Pirates strike almost at will. They seem to be nimbler, more adaptable and smarter than the dozen most powerful navies of the world out there. Reminds me of a Tom and Jerry cartoon show.
• Blackwater- the US mercenary organisation accused of serious abuses, including murder of civilians in Iraq- had proposed in an earlier plan that it would use lethal force against pirates, indicating a no-prisoner approach. The plan never took off.
• Figures of the number of sailors held hostage by Somali pirates continue to rise. Official figures have reached somewhere around the five to six hundred mark. Unofficial figures are higher. (Western media went to town on Paul and Rachel Chandler’s release after a year of being held hostage; the mainly Asian seafarer hostages held hostage are not pretty enough to get excited about, I guess, or are damned with the wrong colour of skin.)
• The average ransom for pirated ships has approximately tripled in the last couple of years, judging by reports. No wonder Neel Choong of the IMB says that ‘piracy off Somali waters will flourish”. I rather disagree with him, though, on his use of the future tense. It already flourishes, Mr Choong.
• The average time a mariner is held hostage is up by about forty percent, adding a month or so to his agony, on - as the accountants say- a YOY basis. (What this mariner says is probably unprintable)
• At least one security company – who’s bottom-line I am sure, thanks to piracy, is naughtily firm –says that there may be links between piracy and terrorism, but there is no conclusive proof so far.
• Involvement of terror groups in piracy has complicated negotiations for ransom payments, says the well-known Andrew Mwangura of the East Africa Seafarers Assistance Programme, because terrorist groups have infiltrated teams that negotiate for ransom.
• There is deafening silence as to which country the boat that bombed the MStar bombing in the Straits of Hormuz came from.
After joining the dots above (and, for the sake of good order dotting my i’s, crossing my Rubicon and watching my p’s and q’s carefully), this is what this dumb seafarer wonders:
• Most maritime interests, except seafarers, will refuse to see the link between piracy and terrorism right up to the time when said link jumps up and bites them in their you know whats. They will obfuscate the issue because it is not in their commercial or political interests to acknowledge these links. Plausible deniability rules.
• What worries me most is the piracy-terrorist connection that I believe exists- this chilling connection is logical and natural anyway. Incidentally, what happened to the well-trained Pakistanis, including the one in control of operations, caught by the Russian navy on a mother ship last year? And can somebody tell me, please, what the Somali pirates caught on the island of Lakshadweep a few months ago told us? What have the Pakistanis and the Iranians arrested a few days ago revealed?
• That 1000 strong militia force being trained in Somalia probably has the US behind it somewhere, given the CIA and the ex Ambassador connections (as for the funding, remember the Iran Contra affair when third parties were used?). In any case, ex CIA head of stations do not get involved privately anywhere without US backing. There is probably a proxy war in Somalia in the offing. Should be interesting- African Union soldiers, government soldiers and irregulars, US backed militias, Al Shabaab, pirates and mercenary outfits. Add a dollop of oil and gas to the soup and let the cauldron simmer.
• The pirates are winning. The terrorists are winning too, if only because they are not losing- in fact, the MStar attack has resurfaced the spectre of maritime terrorism once again. The coalition navies are hamstrung and tasked with doing the impossible by nations that care more about geopolitical games than piracy. In any case, the wrong strategy is being used- defending the oceans instead of attacking the pirates. Managing piracy instead of fighting it.
• There seem to be numerous mother ships of all sizes in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea. Surely we can keep track of them, can we not? What happened to all those AWACS and P-3 Orions or other fancy reconnaissance aircraft oozing with all those gizmos and electronics that are supposed to be out there? What about satellites? I mean, isn’t this an age when a satellite can zoom in on a tattoo on an interesting part of Angelina Jolie’s anatomy? Isn’t a mother ship a little bit bigger?
• The pirates are straddling busy sea lanes. Most everything moving out of the Gulf has to pass either the Indian west coast or the Omani coast, whether the ships are going to the Suez or east. VLCCs and others that go around the Cape excluded, of course. I note, idly, that the pirates are doing a good job of disrupting sea lanes, another terrorist aim. Coincidence?
• What about targeting the money? Dubai is the place where ransoms flow and are laundered, or so everybody says. Does it just disappear? Besides, there is a decent level of organisation involved in piracy. These are not just a bunch of teenagers with a mouthful of khat and a gun. What about going after the big guys, or at least their links in the West? We heard those London and Canadian stories eariler this year. What happened?
But don’t take my word for it. To see how widespread the war zone is, take a look at this year’s IMB Piracy map here. It shows, until the beginning of December, piracy attacks in the Indian Ocean, Arabian and Red Seas in 2010. Successful attacks are in red, attempts are in yellow. Take a good look. Each marker tells the tragic story of the callous abandonment of our mariners.
Look at the map, and tell me, in this, the Year of the Seafarer that is thankfully about to end- tell me please, with a straight face, that we are winning the war.
map, December 3, source IMB- Piracy attacks in 2010 to date.
In the time between the writing and publication of this piece by Marex Media, a Thai crewmember was thrown overboard off the ‘Prantalay 12’, (a trawler hijacked two months ago ) 350 miles from Minicoy islands off India as the trawler/mother-ship was being chased by the navy. The crewmember was rescued by the warship INS Krishna. What the pirates are saying is that they will not hesitate to kill the crew if navies get too close.