Page last updated at 00:01 GMT, Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Taking on Somalia's pirates

By Frank Gardner
Security correspondent, BBC News

Royal Navy lookout escorting food ship off Somalia, 2009
The force's main aim is to protect vulnerable food ships

Somali pirates are poised for renewed attacks on shipping off the coast of Somalia, according to the Royal Navy's Cdr Gerry Northwood, the head of operations for the EU's anti-piracy taskforce, codenamed Operation Atalanta.

The multinational force, commanded by a British Rear Admiral, was deployed in December with the principal aim of protecting vulnerable food ships travelling to Somalia.

Compared with last autumn, pirate attacks off Somalia are down this year, but that may be about to change.

Multinational naval officers at the Northwood base, just outside London, say increased patrolling by coalition warships has reduced the number of successful hijackings.

But Cdr Northwood is warning that the pirates' supply of captured ships is running low, tempting them to renew their attacks.

"What we've seen in the recent past, as many as 15 or 16 vessels held hostage or hijacked and under ransom negotiation, we're down to seven now, or the pirates are down to seven vessels held, so the indications are they've got plenty of space down there for some more," Cdr Northwood told the BBC.

"So if you look at that in terms of the numbers held against what they can do and achieve in terms of ransom negotiations, there's every expectation that you would expect them to go out there and try and bring in some more vessels."

Four warships

The EU taskforce does not exactly boast an armada.

It has precisely four warships - from Britain, France, Germany and Greece - and a single maritime patrol aircraft, all expected to cover more than a million square miles of ocean.

Somali pirates can afford to be patient and with more than a million square miles of ocean to patrol, no one is expecting instant results

But the dramatic rise in piracy off Somalia last year - up 200% from 2007 - drew the world's attention and now there are warships from Russia, China, India and other countries all working in coordination with the EU taskforce to patrol the western Indian Ocean.

The US Navy also has its own dedicated anti-piracy taskforce, CTF151, based in Bahrain.

So I asked Cdr Northwood if any of these coalition warships were ever able to get to a merchant vessel under attack in time to actually stop it being hijacked.

"From the point when the merchant vessel has seen the pirates to the point where they are on his bridge and it is game over, is about 10 minutes," he said.

If the merchant vessels can take protective measures, he added - either by putting up barricades to block the pirates getting on board, or locking themselves into their super-structure and making it difficult for the pirates to gain access - that buys the coalition force time.

"If they can extend that period out to about 30 or 40 minutes, it actually becomes very feasible that a coalition warship, or helicopter, or maritime patrol aircraft will arrive on the scene and will be able to assist them."

Hostage situation

Down in the taskforce HQ's Joint Operations Centre watch, officers from several European countries are monitoring maritime traffic, logging requests for protection and keeping in constant email contact with several navies.

Royal Navy and Royal Marines off Somali coast, 2009
Operation Atalanta is just two months into a one-year deployment

When a merchant vessel comes under attack the ship's master usually has time to activate a security alert which is picked up by the UK Maritime Trade Office in Dubai, and the taskforce is alerted.

But by their officers' own admission, once a ship is taken over by pirates there is not much the warships can do.

By then it is effectively a hostage situation, with the pirates taking care to feed and protect their captured crew and cargo while the bargaining goes on, often for months, to secure their release unharmed.

Rarely is anyone prepared to risk an armed confrontation with the pirates when they are holding crew members at gunpoint.

Hooks and ladders

At the headquarters of Operation Atalanta, staff have built up a comprehensive picture of how the Somali pirates operate and according to Cmdr Northwood, it varies from north to south of the coastline.

Pirates operating from Puntland, mainly in the Gulf of Aden, favour using ladders, he said.

Royal Navy boats escorting food ship into Bossasso, Somalia
The EU taskforce seems to be having some deterrent effect on pirates

"A skiff (a low fast boat used by pirates) that is up to no good will probably have about three or four feet of ladder extended over the front of the boat," he added.

"And also within the boat you'll also have a tarpaulin, and under the tarpaulin there will be a few extra crew members hiding themselves away, plus their stash of AK47s and rocket propelled grenades, so they come quite well armed."

Further south, off Hoboyo on the east coast of Somalia, the group that operate tends to favour using grappling hooks, he added.

The pirates, say naval officers, tend to station themselves out to sea overnight, often chewing the narcotic qat leaf, then between first light and mid-morning they close in and attack the first vulnerable looking merchant ship they spot.

Their favoured approach is to come up from behind on the port side, often choosing the point where the ship's freeboard - the distance between the deck and the waterline - is at its lowest.

Frequently, they are deterred by non-lethal methods like water cannons or even barbed wire but when they do manage to climb aboard they often fire their assault rifles, and even their rocket-propelled grenades, indiscriminately.

Early days

One officer said it is a miracle more people have not been killed this way. This begs the question: Should merchant vessels be arming themselves in defence, as suggested controversially in December by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates?

Captain Richard Farrington, Operation Atalanta's Chief of Staff, thinks not.

"Industry thinks it's a bad thing, we think it's a dangerous thing and we would not condone it," he told the BBC.

"It's ultimately down to the decision of the individual shipping company but it brings with it as many problems as it does solutions and on balance we think it's more likely to escalate a difficult situation than improve it."

It is still early days for Operation Atalanta: It is just two months into a one-year deployment.

So far, the signs are that the EU's limited taskforce is having some deterrent effect on the pirates.

But piracy is a multi-million dollar business, Somali pirates can afford to be patient and with more than a million square miles of ocean to patrol, no-one is expecting instant results.

Print Sponsor

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Straits Times SAF joins in piracy patrol - 4 hrs ago
Xinhua News Agency Turkey passes motion authorizing navy presence off Somalia coast - 43 hrs ago
The Hindu Navy warship to continue anti-piracy operations - 09 Feb 2009
MSNBC Somali pirates free Chinese fishing boat crew - 08 Feb 2009
Washington Post Attacks by Pirates Spur New Training for Seamen - 08 Feb 2009

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific