Although we are living in a high-tech and high-security world, the threat of Somali pirate attacks can be a common problem for ships that are passing from the Mediterranean Sea through to the Indian Ocean. Pirate attacks were a major problem in the early 2000s, and were not only a great danger for the safety of those on board, but also the goods on board, potentially jeopardising the quality of the products being shipped. One of the main trade routes for UK and Europe ocean cargo is through the Mediterranean Sea, passing through the Suez Canal to the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea. This route gives access to the east of the globe, accessing major regions such as India, UAE, China and the north of Africa and then on to Australia. While this route provides opportunities for importing goods, it used to be a route that held great risk.

Piracy was a major problem for importers up until 2012’s major fall in attacks due to tightening of security and government actions. Generally, Somalian pirates target ships passing through the closing of the Red Sea, hijacking for goods and keeping the crew on board hostage. According to World Shipping Council, there were 439 pirate attacks and 45 merchant vessels hijacked worldwide during 2011, which was the peak of Somali piracy.  237 of these attacks and 28 of these hijackings occurred in the Gulf of Aden, off the coast of Somalia, and in the wider Indian Ocean. At the time these statistics were released, 12 ships and over 170 seafarers were being held hostage by Somali pirates for ransom. 

So, what types of freight were at risk of being hijacked? Typically, liner vessels (e.g. container ships and roll-on/roll-off vessels) were at less risk due to their higher operating speeds, boarding height above the water and the bulky nature of their cargo. With that said, liner vessels were also targeted by Somali pirates. The pirates increased their advantage by using already-hijacked merchant ships when attacking in the northern Arabian Sea and along the coast of India. This is around 1,500 miles from the coast of Somalia itself.

Pirates used varying methods of attack to maximise surprise, but the most common techniques employed were high-speed motorboats, or skiffs, launched from mother ships (to extend their reach) to approach and fire at the target vessel(s). Pirates used weapons such as rocket-propelled grenades to slow down the ships and gain access to the deck. Once the pirates hijacked a ship, they most likely demand a large ransom for the safe return of the crew, the goods on board and the ship itself.

Should a load need to be transported to the East, there was a high risk that the ship could be hijacked, particularly up until 2011. Of course, this created dangers and implications for the load being transported, potentially causing delays or even goods to go missing. The Somali piracy issue was one of Africa’s largest freight route problems, yet efforts from governments and cargo businesses have caused drastic change, dropping the number of attacks drastically. There is a constant attempt to reduce these risks, and companies such as the World Shipping Council (WSC), International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) and International Maritime Organisation (IMO), all go to great lengths to ensure that shippers can access the route as safely as possible, avoiding traps or opportunists.

Furthermore, governments actively monitor the affected areas and offer training and information on what to do if captains spot any signs of being targeted or are under attack. Furthermore, the IMO Maritime Safety Committee (MSC 89) are now approved to provide guidance to ship owners and operators. This includes the use of private armed guards on ships operating in the high-risk areas for further protection.  

Although governments provide help for shippers, maritime shipping associations have initiated the ‘Save our Seafarers’ campaign, which fights for further security and efforts to be made to reduce the number of attacks. Governments are being challenged to make changes, such as authorising naval forces to detain pirates and to prosecute and punish them.

As a result of government efforts, the peak of piracy in 2011 suddenly showed drops in pirate attacks, and in 2012, attacks reached a six-year low.

Rachel  Jefferies, Editor, FORWARDER magazine