Piracy through the Pakistani Prism

The release of 16 Pakistani hostages in Somalia through military action by the Danish Navy brought joy to their families and well-wishers. The fate of four other Pakistani crew members, including the Captain, of the ill-fated MV Suez, however hangs in the balance. The real life ordeal of their families, particularly after the two-week ultimatum given by the pirates, is finally being beamed into our homes and our lives. The families have been desperately reaching out to all ministries and departments which they feel are even remotely relevant, but see a ray of hope only in the untiring efforts of the Ansar Burney trust.

A ransom of 2 million dollars has finally been agreed upon, with the Egyptian company agreeing to pay half of it, the remainder having to be divided between India and Pakistan. The pirates have started threatening the families of the hostages directly, to either come up with the money or be ready to face the consequences. Both the pirates as well as the hostages’ families are however highly critical of the ship owner’s callous indifference, the vessel itself being insured, while hiding behind the smokescreen of the turmoil prevailing within his own country.

It is indeed heart-wrenching to see the children of the Pakistani skipper of the MV Suez offering their kidneys for sale to raise the ransom money required to secure the release of their father from captivity. The families have also appealed for donations as the sum required has to be deposited before the final deadline of 9 May. What is essentially required is for the Pakistani, Indian, Sri Lankan and Egyptian governments to forge a common front to pressurize the Egyptian owner to take his primary responsibility for the safety of the crew seriously in order to amicably resolve the stand-off and ameliorate the needless tension their families are going through.

If polled a few years earlier, a majority of Pakistanis would have insisted that piracy pertained merely to copyright infringements. Three specific incidents since then of piracy at sea can be said to have been instrumental in bringing this spectre closer to home. Increased awareness of the phenomenon has given rise to troubling questions as to why piracy stemming from an impoverished country like Somalia cannot be brought under control and what an effective national asset like the Pakistan Navy is doing about it. This article will attempt to furnish some answers at least.

But first a quick summary of the three incidents that I had referred to earlier. The first of these events involved a Pakistani-flagged fishing vessel with a crew of 29, MV Shahbaig, which was hijacked by pirates around 300 nautical miles east of Socotra Island off the Horn of Africa on 6 Dec 2009. The vessel was then used in the seizure of a British-flagged vehicle carrier MV Asian Glory on new year’s day, prior being abandoned 900 nautical miles north of the Seychelles. The Shahbaig was later found by an EU Warship FS Surcouf which provided it’s original crew with food, fuel and medical assistance to resume it’s journey.

In the second incident, a Panama-flagged general cargo ship the MV QSM Dubai with a crew of 24, comprising Egyptian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Ghanaian nationals, was taken over by a group of armed pirates in the early hours of 2nd June 2010, while travelling through the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC) in the Gulf of Aden. The ship was got freed the next day by Security Forces in Somalia’s semi-autonomous Puntland region, after a brief shoot-out, which resulted in the capture of the seven pirates and the death of the ship’s Pakistani Captain, Syed Jafar Jaffri, a seasoned master mariner, in the melee.

The third incident involved an Egyptian-owned but Panama-flagged merchant vessel MV Suez carrying a cargo of cement from Karachi to Masawa, Eritrea, which was similarly hijacked while transiting through the IRTC on 2nd August 2010. The 17,300 ton vessel was being operated by Port Said – based Red Sea Navigation Company and carried a crew of 11 Egyptians, 6 Indians, 4 Pakistanis (including the Ship’s Captain) and 1 Sri Lankan. Despite a lapse of nearly nine months, the hostages still continue to languish in captivity.

Most people tend to wonder, and perhaps rightfully so, as to why the presence of dozens of fully- armed warships in the area have not created much of a dent in such relentless attacks. The statistics speak for themselves: 142 such attacks were recorded worldwide during this year’s first quarter, with 97 of them occurring off Somalia, up sharply from 35 in the same period last year; as of now, pirates hold some 28 ships and nearly 600 hostages. To be fair, the percentage of successful attacks did reduce since the warship’s patrol began in earnest in the Gulf of Aden.

The Somali pirates have adapted well to the counter-measures employed against them. During their early years, they restricted their operations close to their east coast. As pressure mounted, they branched off to the north in the Gulf of Aden and soon thereafter to the east and south in the heart of the Indian Ocean. This they have managed to do through the use of mother ships, which themselves being captured vessels, are skilfully used to capture more lucrative targets. The hijacking of the 2300 vehicles-carrying Asian Glory as mentioned earlier was arguably the first recorded incident of the employment of such tactics.

The hijacking of the Saudi Aramco-owned oil tanker MV Sirius Star in mid-Nov 2008 by Somali pirates created ripples in more ways than one. Firstly, the VLCC with a length of around 1000 ft and carrying 2 million tons of crude oil was the largest vessel yet to have been so captured. Secondly, having been captured nearly 450 nautical miles south east of Kenya, it demonstrated such reach that few could have imagined. Thirdly, with a crude oil cargo worth $100M by itself, this was the first time that a preposterous ransom of $25M was demanded. It is another matter that only $3.2M was ultimately paid, with an act of nature capsizing the boat that was taking the pirates to safety, resulting in the deaths of five of them and the loss of most of the payment received. Such unbelievable sums of money being demanded by the pirates is a major reason why the cause of piracy is never short of recruits.

Piracy today has assumed such distressing dimensions that the 40 odd naval warships being deployed solely for counter piracy operations off Somalia are proving to be unequal to the task. While a number of countries like China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Australia and Iran have contributed warships for the purpose at one time or another, the most organized efforts are that of the EU task force operating under Operation Atalanta, Combined Task Force 151 and the NATO- sponsored Operation Ocean Shield. Their detractors may do well to note that countless attacks have been thwarted thus, scores of pirates have been killed or captured and a large number of hostages freed from captivity. The latest example is of the daring rescue operation carried out by the Danish Navy on 13 April this year, which resulted in the capture of 15 pirates and the freeing of 18 hostages, 16 of them Pakistanis.

It should be kept in mind that with the ever-increasing outreach of the pirates, whose activities are not just restricted to the immediate east and north of the Somali Coast as in the past, effective surveillance of over 2 million square miles of ocean is a tall order indeed. The difficulty being faced at the tactical level is that the skiffs and even motherships being used by the pirates, which look the same as the countless other similar vessels plying in the area, cannot readily be identified as a possible threat, till they actually initiate a hostile manoeuvre.

The attack in most cases is so sudden and so severe that it catches the vessel so targeted off guard. In the case of the MV Sirius Star referred to earlier, the ship’s deck is a good 10 metres above the waterline, which the pirates had to scale, with the mothership moving alongside, and yet managed to achieve the desired surprise. Early detection of an attack in the offing is the key to a successful evasion. In some cases, the target vessels have managed to extricate themselves through aggressive manoeuvres or non-lethal deterrents like fire hoses or sonic canons; in others, by means of armed guards on board; mostly though by virtue of a quick response by a nearby warship, maritime patrol aircraft or helicopter. The window of opportunity for foiling an attack is rather narrow, falling as it is between the time the pirates initiate an hostile move and before they capture any hostage on board. The traditional piratical practice of hoisting the skull-and-crossbones Jolly Roger prior swooping in on their prey is regrettably a thing of the past.

Once the Somali pirates take over a ship and get hold of hostages, the situation is drastically transformed. There are now just two ways open to secure the release of the ship and the hostages. One is through military action; most nations are however reluctant to employ such means if the lives of the hostages are endangered thereby. In one highly publicised case, the Navy SEALs clinically disposed off the three pirates guarding the sole hostage, Capt Phillips of the MV Maersk Alabama, just as they had been mentally and physically drained through constant US Naval surveillance. In another such case in April 2008, the pirates were targeted by French Naval helicopters and commandos in Somali territory, as they were fleeing with the ransom money obtained from the owners of the private French superyacht Le Ponnant. The downside is that this has made the pirates insecure, jumpy and paranoid and which could possibly help explain their trigger happy behaviour earlier this year against the crew of the MV Quest, which was arguably the first such case of pirates intentionally killing hostages.

The only safe way so far of securing the release of the hijacked ships and hostages is to pay the ransom demanded. Governments are normally loath to enter into direct negotiations with the pirates over the ransom, with the task being undertaken by the ship’s owner or the ship’s insurers. All responsible governments take active interest behind the scene for ensuring the safety and safe return of the hostages. Admittedly, ransom demands have risen dramatically over the past four years from 100,000 dollars to over 5 million dollars at present. In the tense scenario of the present, even negotiations tend to become exceedingly difficult and excruciating.

Most people have a lot of expectations from the Pakistan Navy, and perhaps rightly so. The entire situation is however far too complicated; let me illustrate this in the MV Suez context. Firstly, the ship, like most vessels that ply the world’s oceans, is flying a flag of convenience, which automatically implies that the flag state disowns any further responsibility. Secondly, the ship owners are from Egypt, and the ship itself being insured, the owners lack incentive to negotiate sincerely for the crew’s release, till external pressure is brought to bear. Thirdly, the ship’s crew is a mix of nationalities and purposeful action is only possible if the governments representing them forge a united front and place the safety of their nationals at a high priority.

Since Pakistani seafarers form part of the crew of a large number of ships registered world-wide, it is difficult for any organization, let alone the Pakistan Navy, to keep track of them all the time. Most nations have recognized the need for active cooperation to tackle the piracy threat in a more meaningful manner. The Pakistan Navy, mindful of it’s larger responsibilities, displayed no hesitation in signing up for the Combined Task Force 151, which is solely dedicated towards counter piracy operations. The first PN Ship PNS BADR commenced it’s anti-piracy deployment on 29 Jun 2009, since which time six more deployments have been undertaken. In recognition of Pakistan’s counter piracy efforts, it has not only been made a member of the UN Contact Group on piracy but the Pakistan Navy has been afforded the privilege of commanding CTF 151.

Nearer to home, a positive development has been the close coordination being maintained between the Pakistan Navy and the PNSC for provision of protective cover. The links which the Pakistan Navy has forged in turn over the past few years have proved instrumental in thwarting some attacks against the ships of the national carrier. What is essentially needed is for this level of cooperation to be extended to all relevant organs of the government, inclusive of the Ministries of Ports & Shipping and Foreign Affairs, for the benefit of the country and the welfare of it’s citizens.

Note: This article was published in the daily newspaper ‘Pakistan Today’ in it’s issue of 09 May 2011.

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