A picture taken on January 7, 2010 shows an armed Somali pirate along the coastline in Hobyo, northeastern Somalia. Image Credit: AFP

Somali pirates have finally released the Panama-flagged merchant vessel MV Iceberg 1, along with six Indian sailors who were on board. Taken captive in March 2010, the owner of the cargo ship had stopped negotiations with the pirates, while also not paying any compensation to the sailors’ families. These sailors had been held hostage for 33 months, the longest captivity period inflicted by pirates till date. Most of them have suffered signs of physical torture and illness.

In another development, five Indian sailors, including the captain of a German oil tanker, were kidnapped by heavily armed pirates in the waters off Nigeria’s southern coast, on December 17. The Medallion Marine company, which operated the vessel, SP Brussels, stated that the attack took place about 64km off the oil-rich Niger Delta. The Nigerian Navy has since been deployed to trace the five Indians and the search continues.

Indeed, such incidents highlight the deteriorating piracy situation on Africa’s west coast where, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), there have been 34 incidents between January and September 2012, rising from 30 in the same period last year.

This incident on Africa’s west coast was in contrast to trends on its east, where piracy incidents off the notorious Somali coast manifested a welcome dip. Off Somalia, 70 attacks were reported by ships in the first nine months of 2012, compared to 199 incidents in the same period of 2011, according to IMB. Somali piracy has fallen to a three-year low because of coordinated action by international navies and the deployment of armed security guards by shipping companies.

It may be recalled that a force of multi-national navies has stepped up pre-emptive action against pirates, including strikes on their bases on the Somali coast. Shipping firms have also bolstered their defences with armed guards, razor wires, water cannons, safe rooms and a host of other measures. The IMB states that vessels with armed guards have never been hijacked.

Meanwhile, in early December, the Indian and Russian navies, in a gesture symbolic of international cooperation to combat piracy, conducted a joint exercise off Mumbai to test anti-piracy procedures. Though such exercises are aimed to reassure the citizenry at large, the majority, however, remains oblivious to this scourge because it does not directly affect their daily lives. It needs to be understood that though piracy is a direct concern for shippers, insurance agencies, underwriters, crew and cargo owners, it indirectly impacts all consumers because it can drive up the price of goods, including oil and other commodities.

The Indian Navy had commenced anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden in October 2008. In addition to escorting Indian-flagged ships, many vessels of other countries have also been escorted. Merchant ships are currently being escorted along the entire length of the (490nm long and 20nm wide) Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC) that has been identified for use by all merchant vessels. During its deployments, the Indian Navy ships have prevented 40 piracy attempts on merchant vessels, thus contributing immensely to the common good.

The Indian Ministry of Shipping has estimated that Indian imports and exports, through the Gulf of Aden route, are valued at several billion dollars. About 20-24 Indian-flagged merchant ships transit the Gulf of Aden every month. Although this accounts for only 13 per cent of India’s trade, crew of the most foreign flagged vessels comprise Indian nationals, as India’s large seafaring community accounts for nearly seven per cent of the world’s seafarers.

On another front, the high-profile case in Kerala of two Italian marines, arrested 10 months ago for the murder of two Indian fishermen, was back in the news as both were allowed to fly back home for Christmas, but would have to return within two weeks, as per the court order. The Italians also executed a Rs60 million (Dh4.03 million) bank guarantee assuring their return, as directed by the Kerala High Court. They had been arrested after they shot and killed the two Indian fishermen off the coast in Kerala in February while on duty on the Italian-flagged merchant vessel Enrica Lexie. The two innocent fishermen were apparently mistaken to be pirates. Diplomatic relations between Italy and India dipped as a result of the incident.

An analysis of this incident illustrates the unique and unintended consequences of the cycle of anti-piracy action and reaction. As pirates operated out of Somalia, shippers were advised to hug the Indian coast when transiting to and from the Arabian Gulf. This took them through Indian fishing grounds and the Enrica Lexie encountered what were perceived to be pirates, who were fired upon. The Coast Guard then chased down the merchant ship and arrested the two marines, and for the last 10 months, they have been on trial for murder.

Without doubt, the implementation of anti-piracy measures has been challenging. It is well known that pirates morphed from fishermen, whose grounds were encroached upon and ended up resorting to the much more lucrative piracy business. In response, navies and coast guards took up the cause, with loosely coordinated patrols. The pirates’ response was to gain better intelligence and use mother ships to extend their reach by hundreds of miles. As an antidote, armed guards have appeared on commercial vessels. Most guards are from private maritime security companies and some from the militaries. This was the case in Italy, where Italian marines served aboard Italian-flagged carriers.

It is estimated that more than 50 per cent of commercial carriers transiting the Indian Ocean now have armed guards, which gives rise to unresolved issues of regulation and law.

In a nutshell, piracy remains one of the least understood and complicated global security threats. Since combating this menace is beyond the capability of navies and coast guards, collaboration with shipping companies becomes essential. This, however, has its own pitfalls, as the case of Italian marines elucidates.

Though 2012 witnessed a dip in piracy incidents, the same trend may not continue in 2013. The gains are all reversible because the main conditions on land, such as poverty, political instability, easy access to firearms and a lack of institutional development, remain largely unchanged. As long as these conditions are not completely addressed and as soon as existing security measures are relaxed, piracy will inevitably bounce back.


Commander (retd) Neil Gadihoke is a researcher, analyst and writer on security and maritime issues.