Crime wave

The changing nature of piracy and related illegal maritime activity has forced a rethink in the way governments and businesses approach the threat, writes Alex Chitty

Crime wave

Alex Chitty, Global Response

As 2011 drew to a close, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) reported, for the first time in five years, a decline in piracy attacks upon commercial vessels. Although it was slight, with just six fewer attacks in 2011 than in the previous year, news of the decline could be seen as a vindication of the international naval presence in piracy hotspots, particularly the Gulf of Aden.

Despite the fall, however, many in the maritime industry have warned against early celebration. While shipping companies have installed ‘citadel’ safe rooms to keep their crews safe, pirates have invested in new technology themselves. Just as growing numbers of navy interceptors cruise the dangerous waters off Somalia and Yemen, so pirates have begun to coordinate multiple vessels, throwing off search and rescue teams and re-supplying their comrades. As governments and businesses look towards the next decade in maritime security, it is clear the battle against pirates is far from over.

Smuggling, crime, and terrorism also remain major concerns. In 2011, authorities across the globe seized four times more vessels carrying narcotics than in 2009, and governments from Australia to Mexico have reported recent increases in people-smuggling over the past two years.  As fuel prices have risen, so has the practice of illegal fuel bunkering [the process of supplying a ship with fuel] in Nigeria and the danger of terrorism to Indian offshore oil and gas infrastructure.

These complex strands of maritime security are often interconnected, and each will present its own challenges in the coming decade. Speaking to Global Response, Laurent Galy, secretary of the National Maritime College of France, outlined his concerns. “The oceans have never been quiet, but the past few years have seen maritime crime take on a whole new dimension,” he says. “Whatever form maritime crime takes, civilian and military experts agree that the solution does not lie at sea, but on land.”

Modern threat 

On the morning of February 13, 2012 armed pirates approached and fired upon the Panama-flagged bulk carrier MV Fourseas SW as it lay drifting in the Gulf of Guinea, 10 nautical miles south of Lagos, Nigeria. As the pirates pursued the ship north, her crew notified the IMB’s reporting centre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which quickly informed Nigerian authorities.

For the captain and chief engineer, however, it was too late; they were shot and killed while the remainder of the crew took shelter in the ship’s ‘citadel’, a safe room designed to withstand prolonged attack. The Nigerian navy were unable to reach the scene due to rough seas but theFourseas’ distress signal was picked up by a French warship, which dispatched a helicopter, scattered the pirates, and escorted the Taiwan-owned vessel back to Lagos. Her crew, along with the two bodies, were taken ashore.

This attack exemplifies piracy in the modern age, with small teams of fast, skilled pirates able to inflict massive damage on important trade routes in a short period of time. The asymmetric nature of the pirate threat, says Mark Hankey, CEO of British maritime security firm Flag Victor, can make it particularly dangerous. “For example, pirates have been more aggressive in trying to penetrate citadels on board vessels once boarded, or attack with multiple craft instead of one or two,” he says. “Such trends are forecast to persistently remain.”

Furthermore, says Hankey, attacks in areas close to the shore, like that upon the Fourseas, represent a growing trend.

One means of combating pirate attacks is the use of private maritime security companies (PMSCs), a sector which has shown strong growth in the past five years. Typically consisting of a small team of guards with firearms and non-lethal countermeasures, PMSC crews will board a ship before it enters a dangerous zone, protecting the civilian crew through a show of force when pirates make their presence known.

To date, it is thought that no ship carrying a PMSC crew has been captured but as their deployment becomes more common over the coming years Hankey warns of “pirates on both sides of the divide” and the dangers posed by unregulated and potentially untested PMSCs. Flag Victor claim to mitigate this risk through a web-based platform which links shipping companies with security contractors, but not before they have been checked by the British company’s team. The website also links PMSC teams to ‘inbound’ and ‘outbound’ voyages, avoiding the costs associated with one-way journeys.

While PMSCs have been successful, their role is reactive rather than preventative, and relatively high costs mean only around 35 per cent of ships in dangerous areas currently carry them. For companies without access to PMSCs, international navies have been an important line of defence against the pirate threat, particularly in the seas off East Africa. However, as the attack on the Fourseas shows, even the world’s most powerful navies are often unable to arrive on the scene before a tragedy takes place.

Using the example of the India Ocean, Hankey explained the difficulties faced by military enforcers: “This ocean, at 2.5 million square miles in size, is nigh on impossible to police effectively”, he said. “A warship can cover around 360-400 miles per day whilst remaining fuel efficient, meaning a lot of ships are needed to cover the area of threat.” As fleet sizes are cut and the pirate threat grows, Hankey suggests, the use of navies as police forces is becoming an “expensive option”.

The consensus among professionals, then, is that an enduring answer to the pirate threat lies on the shore rather than at sea. By eliminating safe havens and finding ways of punishing pirates on land, governments may yet be able to stop them acting with impunity at sea.

Ports in a storm

The world’s ports, interfaces between the maritime and land-based worlds, are chokepoints for the transfer of illegal goods. With 50,000 vessels carrying 80 per cent of the world’s trade through 4,000 ports, these hubs of activity are central to the fights against narcotics, human trafficking, piracy and even terrorism. By 2014, almost six million new shipping containers are expected to join the international inventory of around 30 million, and estimates suggest that only around two per cent of containers arriving in the US are effectively searched.

Aside from the question of smuggling, port authorities have in recent years begun to invest heavily in countering the threat of terrorism, either through devices taken aboard ships at port or by direct attack.

In part, these concerns are a result of the 2004 SuperFerry 14 bombing, when a small explosive device was hidden inside a television and brought aboard a crowded passenger ferry at the major port city of Manila in the Philippines. The ferry left Manila at 11pm on February 27 bound for the southern city of Cagayan de Oro but never arrived; one hour after embarkation the bomb detonated, killing at least 116 people.

While many large cruise operators are able to screen luggage to prevent a terrorist attack on board, smaller passenger vessels are often constricted by time concerns and the imperative for fast turnaround times. Despite the continuing threat, says Laurent Galy, the situation has improved in recent years. “New regulations and international co-operation are now in place, meaning owners, seamen and port workers are aware of the terrorist risk,” he says. “We can never say a ship or a port has full protection against terrorism but we can now say ships and ports are as protected as other industries and sites.”

Direct attacks upon ships in ports pose a separate set of challenges for port authorities, and will continue to so in the coming decade. In the past 20 years, numerous attempts have been made to strike vessels in port with ‘suicide boats’, the most notable example being the US navy destroyerUSS Cole. On October 12, 2000, during a routine fuelling stop in Aden, Yemen, the Cole was approached by a small craft whose occupants placed a ‘shaped charge’ of explosives against the ships hull, detonating it almost immediately and killing 17 American sailors.

Such attacks have not been limited to military vessels. In 2008, two merchant ships were attacked by Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam rebels in the sea north of Sri Lanka, shortly after leaving port. The Ruhuna and Nimalawa, carrying humanitarian supplies according to the Sri Lankan government, were approached by three small vessels at speed, whose occupants tried to ram the two ships and detonate explosives. The terrorist boats were destroyed by military guards stationed on board the ships, but not before one could detonate its payload close to Nimalawa, causing hull damage and forcing her back to port.

With this type of attack in mind, many major ports are investing in countermeasures. The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) has recently spent USD19 million on a fleet of new harbour patrol craft, designed to help keep the busiest port in the world secure along with other roles including environmental monitoring. The six new boats feature advanced technologies, including the MPA’s Harbour Craft Transponder System (HARTS), which requires all boats and ships in Singapore’s vast harbour to carry a transponder, meaning any craft without one can be quickly identified and investigated.

An MPA spokesperson explained that the primary role of the patrol craft is to “ensure Singapore’s port waters are safe and pollution free” adding that the vehicles, capable of speeds up to 20 knots, respond to incidents and “conduct regular checks on harbour craft on their compliance to the Harbour Craft Security Code”.

Other ports and areas close to the shore are not as fortunate. As frequent attacks on Nigerian oil infrastructure and ships have shown, the relationship between terrorism, crime and piracy is complex; though often separated ideologically, their effects and the measures taken to mitigate them often have similarities.

Western military analysts have suggested that the next terrorist attack on a ship may take place in the Bab-el-Mandeb strait between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, meaning vessels using this busy waterway will come under intense scrutiny in the coming years.

Risk assessment

In January 2012, delegates from academia, industry and government gathered in Nantes, France, for the annual Maritime Security conference, known as MARISK. The conference, organised by the Saint Nazaire Port Authority and the shipping industry, addressed key areas including the need to develop non-lethal and economical means of protecting ships from attack; the effects of an attack on offshore energy installations; and the possibility of developing a ‘ship of the future’ to deter a terrorist or pirate threat.

Laurent Galy lead the conference discussions, and spoke to Global Response about MARISK 2012’s main achievements: “This forum was an opportunity for top-level discussions led by recognised international experts, including a jurist specialising in the laws on maritime safety and security and other high-level professionals.”

According to Galy, the conference allowed people from a range of sectors to share their perspective on maritime risk. “For example,” he says, “industry experts could show academics the importance of economic factors, and working seamen could explain the difficulties they face.”

Since foreign military or police intervention is prohibited on the land, pirates from the Gulf of Guinea to Somalia are able to negotiate ransoms which frequently exceed USD1 million. Like Flag Victor CEO Mark Hankey, Galy believes the key to effectively combating piracy and answering the maritime security threat lies on the land. Despite this long-term view, both stress that until a solution is found ships must continue to actively protect themselves.

In keeping with this mission, a major new project in ship protection was announced at MARISK 2012. The EUR12 million Ship of Future project will equip the French military training vessel Partisan with a plethora of anti-pirate countermeasures, each designed to deter pirates through non-lethal means while keeping the ship’s crew safe.

The experimental vessel’s modifications will be part-funded by the French Environment and Energy Management Agency and it will initially use radar systems and infrared cameras to detect a danger as early as possible, allowing the captain to alert authorities via the IMO reporting centre. Once within range, pirates will be ‘blasted’ with sound from long range acoustic devices, designed to induce pain without inflicting lasting injury.

At closer range, the ship’s crew will control powerful anti-personnel water cannons from the safety of the Partisan’s citadel, where they will retain full control over the ship and use cameras to monitor the pirates’ activity. As a last line of defence, the crew will be able to turn off lights across the ship and activate tear gas canisters. According to Eric Prang of Sagem, the French company involved in the ship’s conversion, “the aim of this equipment is to make the boats difficult to board, to make them hostile and unwelcoming for the pirates”.

Galy, however, warned that such a ‘ship of the future’ might take away a crew’s sense of responsibility. “Modern technologies can give the seaman a feeling of impunity, particularly on large ships where one can lose a sense of subjectivity and the notion of danger,” he said.

Counting the cost

In January 2012, researchers examining aerial photographs of Somalia noticed a new structure in the remote pirate stronghold of Hobyo. According to their analysis, carried out at the London think tank Chatham House, the installation may be a modern communications centre and telecoms mast capable of receiving Automatic Identification System (AIS) data on ship locations as well as long-range radio broadcasts.

This type of advanced technology may come to characterise piracy over the next decade or so. Some have suggested that the modern age of piracy began in South-east Asia following the Second World War, when pirates began using cheap military surplus outboard engines. More recently the price of GPS, radar and satellite phones have plummeted, further expanding the illegal use of these invaluable command-and-control tools.

Whether advances like the Hobyo mast will allow pirates to regain the advantage in the dangerous waters around troubled countries is yet to be seen. Like pirates’ tactics, the situation is fluid and opaque, making it difficult for the industry and for governments to stay ahead.

Despite the slowdown in attacks over the past year, some estimates suggest that in the first month of 2012 attacks rose by as much at 140 per cent, perhaps marking the start of new wave of crime at sea.

According to one recent report, the cost of piracy in 2011 was around USD7 billion, 80 per cent of which was borne by ship owners. “Piracy”, says Mark Hankey, “is a costly business, and we are ending up, by default, with the privatisation of the world’s sea lines.”

Laurent Galy agrees, suggesting that countering maritime crime through force may drive down the number of incidents but in doing so is also likely to increase the death toll. “In the next 10 years, my opinion is that the number of successful pirate attacks will decrease, but the human cost will increase.”

Galy also noted that the MARISK 2012 conference was a chance to assess some of the human factors behind the pirate threat. “In Somalia, former fishermen have been unable to do their jobs due to overfishing in their waters,” he says. Such factors, coupled with the presence of large numbers of unprotected vessels close to the coast, he adds, are at least a part of the reason for the development of Somalia’s pirate ‘industry’.

Future efforts, then, must focus not just on deterring physical attacks by pirates, terrorists and criminals but upon addressing grievances and developing alternatives for those who turn to crime at sea. Without effective political changes, physical security remains the best way to keep crews, passengers, and investments safe from harm.

Source: Global Security

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