It is a truth that piracy has been in decline over the past five years, particularly in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden. Today the greatest threat to seamen comes from armed criminals gangs operating in South East Asia and West Africa, mostly attempting to kidnap crew members for ransom, to steal oil from product tankers, or undertake robbery at sea. However, there is an emergent threat, that terrorists seize ships and use them to attack other vessels. The attempted seize by Al Qaeda of the Pakistani frigate PNS Zulfiqar on the 6th September 2014 was an unexpected and worrying development. I have written previously (in The New Pirates) about the possible hijacking of cruise ships by terrorists, but the case of the PNS Zulfiqar highlights the present dangers, especially as the situation in Libya, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Nigeria worsens.
Except for taking of the tanker Aris 13 on the 16th March 2017, a matter which was quickly ended because of pressure from Somali leaders and the action of the Puntland authorities, there was been no successful hijacking of a large ship in the Indian Ocean, since the taking off Oman of the Suezmax tanker MV Smyrni on 12th May 2012. The Smyrni and her 26 crew were released on the 10th March 2013 after payment of a ransom, which was probably between about $9.5 m. It was initially reported that the MV Marzooqah had been hijacked in January 2014 in the Red Sea, but it subsequently became clear that she had been boarded by the Eritrean Navy. A fishing vessel and a dhow were hijacked in 2013 off Somalia and there have been a number of attempted hijackings in 2014, notably in the Southern Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
In 2014 to the end of October the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) reported five hijackings, and seventeen boardings in West Africa (five of the boardings were off Pointe Noire in the Congo), and a number of attempts to board; although this is significantly less than the figures for 2013. Violence remains commonplace in these waters. For example pirates shot dead the captain and the chief engineer on a cargo ship off the coast of Nigeria in mid-February 2012. According to Cyrus Mody of the IMB, “Armed pirates chased and fired upon a drifting bulk carrier. Vessel raised alarm and headed towards Lagos. All crew except the bridge team took shelter in the citadel. Due to the continuous firing the captain and the chief engineer were shot.” A similar incident occurred on the 29th April 2014 when a product tanker was boarded near the Tulja Oil Terminal in Nigeria, the Chief Engineer was killed and the Third Officer was injured.
The objective of the Nigerian gangs is not to take the ship for ransom, but to steal oil cargoes, or kidnap officers for ransom. The hijacking in January 2014 of the oil tanker MT Kerala off Angola fits this pattern, although it was the first time that these gangs had operated so far south. There were contradictory claims about the hijacking, the Angolan Navy claimed that the crew were a party to the hijacking, whereas the owners said that it was a straight forward hijacking. The ship’s Greek owners, Dynacom, issued a statement that said: “Pirates hijacked the vessel offshore Angola and stole a large quantity of cargo by ship-to-ship transfer. The pirates have now disembarked.” The Angolan state oil firm, Sonangol, said that the hijackers had stolen 12,000 tonnes of diesel worth $8 million from the ship.
Although the Gulf of Guinea is now more dangerous than the waters off Somalia, local regulations restrict the use of armed guards. In 2013 BIMCO issued an alert reminding shipowners that the Nigerian Navy does not permit armed guards on merchant vessels and that only Nigerian Navy personnel may be used. Colin Gillespie Deputy Director (Loss Prevention) of The North of England P&I Association said, of West Africa that “Local laws require that armed guards should be from the local security forces. This introduces potential safety, security and political issues with the use of such guards, particularly if a vessel needs to operate in the territorial waters of more than one coastal state in the region.” Local naval forces may or may not be effective. There is also no effective maritime surveillance off West African ports and insufficient international coordination. Because of the restrictions on the use of armed guards it is vital that BMP4 is implemented effectively on-board ships transiting the Gulf of Guinea. It is also important to remember that BMP4 states, “If armed Private Maritime Security Contractors are to be used they must be as an additional layer of protection and not as an alternative to BMP,” in other words BMP should always be the first layer of protection.
There have been concerns about the increasing numbers of attacks on product tankers in the South China Sea. The Pottengal Mukundan of the IMB, has said that “There has been a worrying new rise in attacks against small coastal tankers in southeast Asia. We advise small tankers in particular to remain vigilant in these waters and report all attacks and suspicious small craft.” In the first ten months of 2014 there were thirteen hijackings in southeast Asia, including one on the 22nd April in the Malacca Straits. On the 3rd October the Sunrise 689, a small product tanker, was hijacked off the Anambas Islands in the South China Sea, while en route to Vietnam, part of its gasoil cargo was transferred to another vessel and the ship was released on the 9th October. The Moresby 9, another small product tanker was hijacked in the same area in July 2014, and the V.L. 14 was hijacked 30 nm north of Palau Tioman, Malaysia on the 28th August 2014, both had product transferred to other vessels. In addition there have been a number of boardings in 2014, particularly off Indonesia, involving the theft of ship’s stores and the crew’s possessions.
In the main, because of the use of BMP4 and the advice from onboard security personnel, vessels are now far more resilient and able to deal with pirate attacks, although we must never become complacent.
However, seamen need to be alert to the possibility of terrorist attacks at sea. The attempted seizure on the 6th September 2014, of the PNS Zulfiqar, a Pakistan Navy frigate, by al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) was not widely reported. The attack was carried out in part by Pakistan Navy personnel who had been recruited by AQIS. Ten militants and one petty officer died, and two renegade officers were captured, when the operation failed. Only the quick actions of a naval gunner saved the day, when he killed six militants, dressed as marines, in an inflatable boat. A second group of four naval personnel, who boarded with official IDs, were also AQIS terrorists; at least one, a naval officer, blew himself up. If militants in other areas adopt similar tactics, not to mention the real risk of further incidents in Pakistan, merchant shipping may have to deal with a new and extremely dangerous threat, the use of naval and other vessels by Islamic extremists. So just when you thought that it was (relatively) safe to go to sea, another threat has emerged which could make the life of the seaman even more difficult.