Maritime Piracy: The Evolving Threat
BY ADRIAN KING
© 2008 FrontLine Security (Vol 3, No 4)

Piracy on the high seas has been making the news headlines; most notably with the audacious hijacking in November of the Saudi-owned super tanker Sirius Star. At present the vessel, together with its multinational crew, languishes off the Somali coastal town of Hardeheere while negotiators attempt to reach an agreement with the present illegal custodians over a ransom payment for its release. The Sirius Star is just one of many vessels hijacked in recent times by pirates operating from Somali coastal towns and ports. In order to set in place the most effective defence and security measures to use against these pirates we must understand who they are and how they have been able to achieve success. There are unavoidable shipping routes within the ranges of pirate groups, so we must gain a thorough understanding of pirates' attack methods to enable us to best protect our vessels and develop successful countermeasures.

A History of Somali Piracy
The Somali pirates we see riding the seas in powerful speedboats bristled with armaments have their origins in a much simpler way of life. Over a period of several years, evolving circumstances have morphed these hardy seafarers from simple fishermen protecting their territorial fishing grounds into armed gangsters holding the power to disrupt the global economy with a single act. The escalation of the region’s piracy and the evolution of the pirates can be linked to the overthrow of Somalia’s President Mohammed Siad Barre in 1991 by warlord clans and the subsequent and protracted demise of the country’s economic and social infrastructure.

From 1991 until 2006 pirates have honed their techniques and developed their tactics to match their victims’ capabilities and responses. There is no shortage of potential victims either, found amongst the abundant and largely defenceless stream of international shipping traversing the Gulf of Aden and the seas off the Somali coast. Driven initially by economic need and then emboldened and encouraged by the relative ease of earning very large sums of money, pirates quickly developed their trade into a profitable and attractive career. With success, however, has come a long list of beneficiaries from the fruits of extortion, which may include some of the Somali extremist militant jihadi groups.

In 2006 however, the situation changed when the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), advocating a moderate form of Islam, attempted to establish higher degrees of security and implement the rule of law in their areas of geographical influence. Piracy seemed in decline for a while. It was a temporary respite however, because that same year, Ethiopia invaded Somalia, ousted the ICU, and confusion and lawlessness reigned once again, as it still does today.

The main perpetrators of piracy, based on the eastern coast of Somalia, are identified by the area they operate from and the group they are affiliated with. There are four main groups attacking international shipping in this way. The most effective and prominent such group is the Somali Marines – sometimes called the Defenders of Somali Territorial Waters – was responsible for 80% of shipping attacks during 2007 and operates from the coastal towns of Haradheere and Eyl. Other groups include one from the port of Marka (Marka Group) and one from the port of Kismayu (National Volunteer Coast Guard). Both are somewhat less organized than the Marines and tend to target smaller vessels. Both Marka and Kismayu are controlled by a spinoff of the ICU, the Islamic militant group al Shabaab (The Youth – the subject of an HMS Special Report: The Somali Jihadi Threat, 12 November 2008), that has been linked to the Sirius Star incident as one of the profiting organizations should the ransom be paid. The final group is a loose collection of pirates called the Puntland Group. They suffered a rare setback in April when Puntland security forces stormed  a hijacked vessel and arrested seven suspected pirates after a prolonged gun battle.

Piracy Tactics and Techniques
The success of these pirates is based on their complete understanding of the waters they operate in and the knowledge that the majority of their intended victims are not equipped or trained to repel them. Even if boarding attempts fail, which they do frequently, attention can be quickly turned towards other, less prepared ­targets.


The Liberian-flagged oil tanker MV Sirius Star is at anchor 19 Nov 2008 off the coast of Somalia. The Saudi-owned crude carrier was hijacked by Somali pirates on 15 Nov, about 450 nautical miles off the coast of Kenya, and forced to proceed to anchorage near Harardhere, Somalia.

The pirates’ method of attack is fairly predictable: shadow, chase and board. The majority of actual boarding attempts are completed in under 40 minutes. Pirates employ fast speedboats in their attacks – normally two or three, but sometimes more. In one case, 10 speedboats were employed in a swarming attack. Mother ships are almost certainly in the vicinity. launching the attack craft, providing logistic support and controlling the overall situation. Mother ships are usually dhows or fishing craft, although in one case a covered raft was reported as providing such support.

Weapons are commonly carried by the pirates and are frequently used to intimidate the crews. Automatic assault rifles of the AK-47 variety and rocket propelled grenades with high-explosive anti-tank (HEAT) warheads are most prevalent. Other types of weapons are undoubtedly available but as long as success is achieved with the current armaments, an escalation in this area is unlikely. According to a recent HMS Maritime Special Report (Weapon Effects, November 2008), the RPG round is designed to penetrate military armoured vehicles and in ideal circumstances can penetrate between 30 and 60cm of homogenous steel, depending on the warhead series and the range it is fired at. In most of the reported cases, where rounds struck the ship (usually in the bridge or accommodation areas) minor damage was sustained, but on occasion fires were started.

Successful Escape
Analysis of 59 attacks between February and September 2008 showed that Somali pirates were successful in boarding 41% of the vessels attacked during that period; the majority of which were either general cargo (including container ships), or tanker vessels. A combination of increased speed and evasive manœuvring were shown to be the most effective methods of avoiding ­capture by those able to escape attack. Also successful in repelling boarding attempts were the use of fire hoses directed at the attackers or a preemptive muster of the crew on deck, thus showing the attackers that the ship will not be a soft target and that boarding will be repelled by a trained and determined opponent. For these methods to be successful, however, early recognition of the threat is crucial.


The Belize-flagged cargo ship owned and operated by Kaalbye Shipping, Ukraine, was seized by pirates 25 September and forced to proceed to the Somali Coast. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

One other major factor in achieving a successful escape is the master’s judgement of the likelihood of being boarded, balanced against the consequences of resisting the pirates. In all attacks processed, despite the pirates opening fire on the vessel in most cases, no injuries were reported and no significant damage sustained.

Masters who recognized that they were about to be attacked, or identified suspicious craft and took appropriate action, usually made their escape.

Effective Countermeasures
The employment of security guards on board ships sailing in high-threat areas is now being hailed as a possible solution to this increasing problem. In reality, however, this may not work as anticipated. In incidents seen so far where pirates were repelled, the bravery and determination of the master and his crew were often beyond what could be reasonably expected. What advice and guidance can a hired security guard (possibly with little maritime experience) offer a seasoned master who has already received instruction from his company security officer (CSO) and P&I Club?

Clearly, such duties require a broad skill set, including specialist training and a full briefing of the rules of engagement. Such a position requires an appreciation of the reaction and repercussions of their action, and an understanding of risks to master and crew if the need to open fire arises. Security guards may be an option if they are in sufficient numbers and prepared and equipped to meet the threat of lethal force wielded by the attackers. Otherwise, we may see more of them opting to jump over the side once the pirates’ determination to board is tested and found not to be wanting.

It appears the real solution to piracy is to create a climate where piracy is no longer seen to be practicable. This would mean political stabilization of the country of Somalia, creation of a viable economic base, and re-implementation of the rule of law on land and at sea. At this time, such a climate is unlikely in the near future and in the short and intermediate terms, foreign warships and company or IMO-recommended anti-piracy measures will be the order of the day. As far as tactics and measures to be employed by a master preempting the possibility of an attack, this is an issue of effective crew training and being prepared in command and control techniques, capable of application of a coordinated response and good seamanship.


Pirates seized a Panamanian-flagged vessel and held the 23-man crew hostage in Somali territorial waters. Between January and October 2008, Somali pirates had reportedly hijacked more than 30 ships.

Understanding piracy and terrorist threats and trends, and having usable mari­time intelligence to support decision making at all levels towards initially planning the voyage and then preparing for a possible attack is crucial in mitigating against or avoiding attack altogether. By having the correct level of crew training and relevant countermeasure equipment, while being prepared in the operation of the equipment, and displaying a visible anti-piracy capability, the master may deter the attackers, who after all, have no shortage of vessels to try their luck.

Sustainable Resolution
Piracy on global trade routes can have an almost instant damaging effect on the world’s economy, although at present it is unconfirmed whether this is even a concern of the pirate groups. The international community is responding to the current threat at sea on the Indian Ocean and in the Gulf of Aden, but this is surely a temporary solution to a problem that requires far more resources than are available or willing to be committed at the present time. In the short term then, the best we can do is equip and train personnel in techniques and procedures that have been shown to work in practice, with early recognition of the threat and avoidance of the situation paramount in reducing pirate successes in all areas.

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Adrian King joined HMS in 2007 as a Maritime Consultant supporting the development of clients’ maritime counter terrorism capability. HMS, part of the Allen Vanguard Group, a premier supplier of integrated counter-IED training, research and consultancy. HMS created and maintains TRITON, the world’s largest open source database of terrorist incidents.
© FrontLine Security 2008

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