Pirate attack in the Red Sea suggests pirates may be hunting in packs

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Pirates could be changing their tactics by forming packs with which to attack ships, a maritime security group says, after a dozen pirate skiffs tried to hijack a bulk carrier last week.

The International Maritime Bureau’s (IMB’s) Live Piracy Reporting Centre recorded a pirate attack that occurred on Wednesday last week approximately 20 nautical miles off the coast of Eritrea in the Red Sea.
“What marks this attack out for special attention, and the reason it should be of particular concern to all shipping companies and members of the maritime community is that in this instance, it would appear the pirates attacked in large numbers, en masse,” stated David Rider, Communications Officer for Neptune Maritime Security.

Twelve skiffs with five to eight armed pirates in each skiff approached a bulk carrier underway, the IMB said. The vessel’s onboard security team fired warning flares at the pirates, but they continued to close in at a rate of 17 knots. At a distance of around 300 meters, on the command of the ship’s master, the onboard security team fired warning shots resulting in most of the skiffs falling back and circling the vessel.

Two skiffs continued to chase the vessel and returned fire, the IMB report said. The skiffs and the security team exchanged fire and after 30 minutes and numerous approaches the skiffs aborted and moved away. There were no reports of injuries to either pirates or security team and crew.
“While the rather ragged nature of the attack illustrates that the pirates still lack discipline, it should concern everyone in the maritime community that so many pirates would group together to attack a merchant vessel simultaneously,” Neptune noted in its release.
“Whether this represents a genuinely new approach to tactics by pirates is as yet unknown. What is clear, however, is that only the presence of an armed security detail on board the bulk carrier ensured its continued safe passage and the safety of its crew and cargo. Had there been no armed detail on board, it would seem clear that this story would have had a very different outcome.”

Hijackings off Somalia date back at least 20 years, but it is in the past few years that the business has mushroomed into a multi-million dollar international industry. Pirates are changing their tactics as they gain more experience attacking and seizing vessels. IMB director Pottengal Mukundan said last month that, “This June, for the first time, pirates fired on ships in rough seas in the Indian Ocean during the monsoon season. In the past, they would have stayed away in such difficult conditions.”

It has also become commonplace for pirates to use bigger “mother ships” equipped with more sophisticated equipment to allow them to stay at sea longer and strike farther than they were able to do in the past.

Attacks are increasingly violent, involving automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenade launchers. Whereas five years ago pirates were just as likely to brandish a knife as a gun, this year guns were used in 160 attacks and knives in 35, the IMB said in its latest Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships report.

Now pirates are firing back at security teams and attacking in large numbers, as last week’s incident shows. Part of the reason for this is the high stakes involved and the large ransom payments.

According to US think-tank One Earth Foundation, the average ransom per ship in 2005 was US$150,000. By 2010, it had jumped to an average of US$5.4 million per ship, with large cargo vessels and oil tankers a popular prey for the seafaring gunmen.

In 2011, two ransoms over US$10 million have been paid and analysts fear that once the Monsoon season passes and the seas become calmer, there will be a resurgence in violent hijackings.

As of July 20, 20 vessels and 398 hostages were being held by Somali pirates, according to the International Maritime Bureau. So far in 2011, 21 ships have been hijacked off Somalia and seven hostages have been killed.

While international naval patrols have reduced the number of hijackings in certain areas, piracy continues to be a scourge that is costing the world economy. Studies estimate the cost to the global economy from Somali piracy is about US$7 billion to US$12 billion a year.

Some say that the only way to halt pirate attacks is to destroy their bases. During a press conference in Washington in May, Chief General Chen Bingde, from China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) General Staff Department, publicly suggested that China, the United States and others involved in counter-piracy patrols off the coast of Somalia should attack the pirate bases on land.
“It is important that we target not only the operators, those on the small ships or crafts conducting the hijacking activities, but also the figureheads,” Chen said. “The ransoms, the captured materials and money flow somewhere else. The pirates (on ships) … get only a small part of that.”

Earlier this year, a US Navy Commander, Vice Admiral Mark Fox, said he believed some of the pre-emptive techniques used to battle terrorism should be used to combat pirates, particularly the aggressive approach to tracking terrorist financing.