Multinational anti-piracy force established in the Gulf of Aden but threat remains great

Despite early successes, the American head of the anti-piracy task force in the Gulf of Aden knows that any declaration of victory may be a long time coming.

A team from the U.S. Navy cruiser Vella Gulf captured nine suspected pirates in the Gulf of Aden on Feb. 12. The cruiser is the flagship of a multinational anti-piracy task force. (Courtesy U.S. Navy)

As Somali pirates intensified attacks on shipping, an international task force established naval patrols to protect commercial vessels and intercept pirate skiffs. U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Terence McKnight said it didn’t take long for his fleet to nab several pirates, but McKnight expects the criminal gangs to adjust to their new foe on the water.

“My guess is they’re probably going to try to wait us out and maybe move into another area where we’re not,” McKnight said in mid-February. “They’ve collected a lot of money, and they’re probably pretty happy right now.”

McKnight spoke with Professional Mariner from the quarterdeck of the USS Vella Gulf, a guided missile cruiser and flagship of the task force. His sailors had just intercepted two groups of pirates in skiffs carrying a weapons cache, including AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades. Sixteen suspected pirates were captured.

The number of pirate attacks, which surged in late 2008, continues to mount this year. A survey by the French military counted 24 attacks in the first seven weeks of 2009.

The truly global scope of the pirates’ deeds crystalized in the United States with the first report of an American-owned ship becoming a victim. The chemical tanker MV Biscaglia, owned by Greenwich, Conn.-based Industrial Shipping Enterprises Corp., and its 28 crew were held for two months before the owners paid a ransom reported to be $1 million.

James Christodoulou, chief executive of Industrial Shipping, said dealing with the pirates was a stressful experience for the company while its scared crew were hostages. The company’s negotiators established a base in a Weehawken, N.J., hotel, and Christodoulou himself traveled to Somalia for a face-to-face meeting with a shady clan leader.

“If it happens, God forbid, get lots of coffee, because you really don’t sleep. It’s a 24/7 type of situation,” Christodoulou said.

McKnight, with three American ships, was joined by Denmark’s naval flagship HDMS Absalon. China’s navy also has thwarted pirate attacks in the region, where a dozen nations have sent military ships. Even landlocked Switzerland contributed 30 elite troops and experts.

Still, security analysts are skeptical that a maritime task force alone can solve the piracy problem. The root cause is lawlessness inside Somalia, said Jeroen Meijer, vice president of crisis management consulting at Control Risks.

“Somalia is a failed state,” Meijer said. “There is no international community willing to change that situation.”

Meijer said ships should evade the pirates rather than expect navies to patrol 2.5 million square miles of water successfully. Vessels at risk have a freeboard of less than 18 feet, sail slower than 14 knots or are fully laden and therefore less maneuverable. Meijer suggests posting conspicuous lookouts.

“Show that alertness,” he said. “Show that you’re prepared,” and the pirates may skip your vessel.

Christodoulou recommends that any company planning to sail through the Gulf of Aden should stock extra fresh water and a satellite phone. It should establish a special phone number and e-mail for the sole purpose of communicating in the event of a pirate attack.

He urges ship managers to talk to their crews beforehand, emphasizing that the company cares about their safety. “Incorporate the human element into every step of the process,” he said.

During the Biscaglia incident, the crew’s families received a letter from Christodoulou every week and a phone call from the company daily. Early on, the company warned relatives that the captivity might last as long as 60 days. As that point approached, relatives became so anxious that some of them couldn’t eat.

“God forbid it went to Day 61,” Christodoulou said.

McKnight’s fleet uses helicopters and rigid-hulled inflatable boats (RIBs) to catch the pirates. Kenya has agreed to host the criminal trials.

In a typical operation, a commercial ship with eagle-eyed lookouts evades or repels the pirates with fire hoses or by dislodging their grappling hooks and ladders. The Navy dispatches a helicopter, which locates the fleeing skiff and directs the RIBs, McKnight said. The pirates aren’t interested in fighting the boarding teams, which are protected by U.S. Marine snipers on the helicopters.

“It’s a law-enforcement environment,” McKnight said. “We would only use force if we had somebody fire upon us or show weapons.”

Piracy attacks remain frequent nonetheless, and the gangs are becoming more clever, according to a report by the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute. In seizing one commercial vessel, a set of pirate skiffs acted as decoys for another.

The report said: “Any comprehensive solution to the problem will have to involve ground operations to stabilize the country itself, as well as to unsettle pirate sanctuaries and destroy pirate infrastructure.”

McKnight noted that operations on Somalia soil are beyond the scope of his task force’s orders, but he said he would welcome any positive political developments.

“To get a functioning government in Somalia would help us out a tremendous amount,” he said.

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff