After five years of no major maritime incidents in the Gulf of Aden, the threat of piracy in waters off Somalia has once again flared as a string of incidents this year, including several hijackings of merchant vessels – the first to occur since 2012 – has demonstrated the continued drive and capability of Somali pirates and proven that there is no room for complacency.
Since March 2017, there has been a reescalation of pirate activity in this region, with a sharp rise in the number of attacks and suspicious approaches that have been reported in waters off Somalia, particularly in the Southern Red Sea, the Bab el- Mandeb and the greater Gulf of Aden.
On 13 March, Somali pirates hijacked the first commercial ship – the Comoros-flagged bunkering tanker ARIS 13 – since May 2012. The tanker and its crewmembers were taken some 18 km (11 miles) off the northern tip of Somalia and were released days later following negotiations between the Puntland Maritime Police Force, local Somali authorities, clan elders and pirates. The hijacking ended a five-year hiatus and, since then, further piracy incidents have been reported in this region. Later that month pirates hijacked the dhow MV CASAYR II.
While it was initially feared that the dhow would be used as a mothership for future attacks on vessels further offshore, it was released on 26 March. Hijackings continued into April, with pirates taking three vessels: an Indian vessel AL KAUSAR was taken in the vicinity of Socotra Island with up to 11 crewmembers on board on 1 April; the 4 April hijacking of Pakistan-owned cargo vessel SALAMA 1, which was taken off the coast of central Somalia; and the hijacking of Tuvalu-flagged bulk carrier OS 35 in the area of the Gulf of Aden. More recently, vessels transiting this region have reported sighting skiffs with ladders and hooks on board. Pirates have also continued to make soft approaches in a bid to see the vessel’s reaction, if armed guards are on board and whether they can board and hijack the vessel.
In the wake of this re-escalation of pirate activity in the region, the maritime industry has warned that the ongoing situation in Somalia, coupled with an increasing confidence of vessels transiting this region, were likely factors behind this year’s attacks.
While, in recent years, the number of incidents, particularly in the High Risk Area of the Gulf of Aden, has significantly declined, due to the use of counter measures along with the presence of naval vessels in these waters and armed security teams on board transiting ships, the threat of further attacks has not diminished. Experts, however, have disclosed that this long period of calm has resulted in shipowners becoming less wary of piracy, noting that some vessels have begun to use a route known as the Socotra Gap, between Somalia and Socotra Island. While this route saves time and costs, the threat of piracy continues to be high in this area.
This recent surge in incidents does not necessarily indicate that piracy in this region is set to return to its peak in 2011, when, according to the International Maritime Bureau, pirates launched 237 attacks, but the factors driving pirates to go out and attack vessels have not changed.
Furthermore, the successful hijacking of a vessel this year is likely to fuel more pirate action groups (PAGs) to go out to sea. Consequently, finding solutions on land will be a necessary step towards combating piracy in this region. The withdrawal of NATO warships as part of Operation Ocean Shield, which terminated in November 2016, and the current regional military focus on Yemen further reduces deterrence and means that merchant vessels are required to exercise increased caution and awareness to avoid falling victim to an opportunistic pirate attack.
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