November 18, 2009

Flogging the dead horse.

There is, by now, a certain weary and blasé inevitability to the reporting of pirate attacks in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden. Even the headlines look tired (In how many ways can one report a ship hijack anyway? And how often can one quote the same exhausted statistics?) I have a mental picture of editors across the world moaning about the fact that their readership is fatigued by piracy, and that it is time that more stuff on Megan Fox’s wardrobe, or the lack thereof, be on display instead. Enough of boring cargo ships and unknown dumb hostage sailors already!

That said, there is periodically a spark of life in the dying horse. “Pirates seize arms laden cargo ship!!” one story said recently. (The pirates on board, talking to VOA in this media savvy age, deny this. Given the links between piracy and terrorism, I would have preferred ‘Bin Laden and arms laden ship!’ instead). ‘Two ships attacked one thousand miles from Somali coastline for first time”, screams another headline. (Wait awhile, my friend, future attacks may be in the Gulf of Kutch). And so on.

In the last few weeks such headlines seem to have freshened a bit, largely because the weather has not and has, in fact, turned quite pirate friendly. However, there are other factors, too. Pirates have threatened violence with hostage crews and demanded release of pirates in Europe. NATO has warned India that our crews and shipping may be particularly targeted, given that Pakistanis have been found in control amongst a few pirate crews. A high ranking official in Europe has said the UK is not examining pirate links to terrorists adequately. Spain is contemplating calling for a blockade of Somali pirate ports: a long overdue move, in my view. All headline making stuff. However, two years ago all this would have stirred up a small storm in maritime, security and political circles. Today, it is a storm in a tea cup.

Worse, the media’s lethargy in keeping up with contemporary events on land in Somalia while simultaneously and metronomously droning on about 18 years of Somali civil war, fragile UN backed governments and the usual fillers does us another disservice. It ignores the fact that Somalia threatens, once again, to become a major terrorist training ground, with security experts expecting Afghani and Pakistani based terrorists to move to the Horn of Africa in larger numbers. With 1.5 million people driven from their homes, Somalia is well on the way to becoming another powder keg with the fuse lit and sizzling. (Maybe not so coincidentally, that arms laden ship is UAE flagged and reportedly carrying medium range missiles in contravention of the UN embargo on Somalia, reports say. The pirates deny this too.)

While we choose to ignore the issue, we could do well to remember an old tenet of terrorism: gradual escalation. There will come a time when terrorist pirates, whether in Somalia or copycats elsewhere, will kill crews or turn captured ships into weapons of cataclysmic destruction. Maybe that will finally get the world's attention.

The numbing regularity of the hijacks and attacks has the air of kismet about it. Like it has happened in the case of terrorist attacks in Kashmir (or elsewhere) earlier, the world expects ships to be attacked in the Indian Ocean today. Coalition forces do not have to repeat, any longer, that they cannot guarantee seafarer safety: we have bought that argument already. We have accepted what seems to be inevitable.

Meanwhile, Lloyds List tells me that pirate hijack success rates have risen to fifty percent post monsoon. Half the ships being attacked are now captured.

This fatigue means that we are no longer, as an industry or a society, looking at the problem with anything else except stupor; we are certainly not looking at solutions. The problem is perceived as insurmountable and so everybody is working around it without finding a way out of it. Used to attacks, much like a soldier with war fatigue, the maritime world does not expect any improvement anytime soon. We look to the usual suspects in the West for solutions; they will not solve the problem, because they are as war fatigued elsewhere and looking for ways out of present quagmires in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq; they certainly don't want to add another region to this hoary list. Moreover, many of the hijacked crews are Asian, and therefore do not matter all that much.
Piracy, therefore, is fait accompli, and will remain so. No maritime unions are screaming for justice, no shipowners are threatening a boycott, no countries are threatening a blockade of Somalia, no governments are finding solutions, no seafarers are refusing to sail.

Let’s face it, the West has no stomach for fighting the war in Somalia. The Indian government, in its time honoured tradition, does not care two hoots for the fate of seafarers, hostage or not, although the manure will hit the fan should Indians start getting killed regularly by terrorists amongst the pirates, as they probably and chillingly will. (I can see Arnab Goswami going to town with his patented self righteous look then, at least until the ratings drop).

Therefore, the pirates, criminals and terrorists will continue to thrive, both on land and at sea. Shipowners and managers will continue to bemoan rising insurance costs in ‘these tough times’ while doing nothing. Security consultants will continue to laugh all the way to the bank while their employees jump off ships at the first sign of trouble. Bankers and others as far apart as the UAE and London will continue to celebrate rising pirate money flows. Governments will dither. The IMO will pass resolutions until we all pass out.

And seafarers will continue to remain exposed: unarmed, uncared and unsung at the front lines of this new war zone, they will remain the innocents of the apocalypse. Like most innocents, they will bleed and die. Just give them some time.