Wednesday, February 18, 2009



An important lesson from 2008 having a bearing on national, regional and global economic security is the need for a global co-ordinated counter-piracy strategy.

2. This need was highlighted by the dramatic surge in the activities of pirates of Somalian and Yemeni origin in the seas to the West ofIndia----particularly in the Gulf of Aden. It has been estimated that pirates ---predominantly from Somalia ---- carried out more than 112attacks in the key shipping lanes of the Gulf of Aden, located between the south of Yemen and the north of Somalia, and the Indian Ocean east of Somalia during 2008. They had in their custody at the end of the year about 20 ships, including an Ukrainian ship called "Faina"carrying over 30 tanks to Kenya and a Saudi super-tanker called "Sirius Star" with crude oil worth about an estimated US $ 100 million. The pirates have since released the super-tanker and the ship with tanks after the alleged payment of ransom by the owners of the ships.The surge reportedly pushed up insurance costs and earned the Somali pirates tens of millions of dollars in ransom.

3. This surge was comparable to the dramatic surge in aircraft hijackings in the 1970s particularly after the Arab-Israeli war of 1967.Different non-State actors carried out the hijackings for different reasons---- some for political reasons such as demanding the release ofterrorists and other criminals in custody and some for mercenary economic motives such as demanding ransom payments by threatening tokill the passengers and the crew.

4. Apart from stepped up physical security at airports and on board aircraft, another step that contributed to effectively dealing with theproblem was a series of measures taken by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) in Montreal and its member-countries to putdown hijacking. Among these measures was an agreement not to pay ransom or concede other demands of the hijackers and on the grantof mutual legal assistance for the arrest and prosecution of the hijackers.

5. There have been instances of non-compliance with such measures. Among such instances, one could cite the repeated refusal ofPakistan to hand over to India the Khalistani hijackers of the 1980s and India's succumbing to the pressure of the Pakistani terrorists whohijacked an aircraft of the Indian Airlines to Kandahar in December 1999, releasing three terrorists from custody and handing them over tothe hijackers in Kandahar. However, such instances of non-compliance have been rare.

6. While taking a strong line of not succumbing to the demands of the hijackers, many countries also raised special intervention forces tofree a hijacked plane from the custody of the hijackers even at the risk of some casualties among the passengers and the crew if they wereleft with no other way of terminating a hijack situation.

7. An agreement not to pay ransom to pirates under any conditions should be an important building block of any meaningful counter-piracystrategy. Instances of daring piracy by some Somalis increased during 2008 apparently because some of the shipping companies secretlypaid ransom to get their ships and crew released. This made piracy a very lucrative occupation for the Somalis and Yemenis. A firmdecision not to pay ransom is important not only for counter-piracy, but also for counter-terrorism. Since Somalia is an important base forthe activities of Al Qaeda and its associates, it would be reasonable to apprehend that some of this ransom money could be going into thecoffers of these jihadi terrorist organisations.

8. An agreement not to pay ransom has to be complimented by the raising of a special intervention force to get hijacked ships released.While there have been many instances of the pirates' attempts to hijack ships being thwarted by the intervention of naval ships onanti-piracy patrol, there has been practically no instance of any hijacked ship taken to a Somali port being freed from the custody of pirates.This would be possible only with the help of special intervention forces. The recent mandate for one year given to the UN member-countriesby the Securitry Council to intervene against piracy originating from Somalia through land or sea-based measures should enable suchspecial intervention forces to operate under an international legal cover. Who will raise such special intervention forces---by the oft-affectedcountries or by regional organisations or other multilateral bodies? These are questions which need to be decided and acted upon.

9.Strengthening physical security for ships is another important component of any counter-piracy strategy . Such physical security could bedivided into two categories---- ship security and sea or maritime security. The US and other Western countries have been repeatedly sayingthat ship security is the responsibility of the company owning the ships and that shipping companies should engage commercial securityguards to play a role similar to sky marshals on board aircraft. While it is correct that Governments have no role in providing security toprivate ships, they could help in strengthening security by laying down an anti-hijacking drill for ships which could be included in thesyllabus of the training institutions training commercial seamen.

10. After the hijacking of the Ukrainian ship in September ,2008, a number of countries, including India and China, has despatched some oftheir naval ships to the Gulf of Aden region to deter piracy and, if deterrence fails, to intervene in the high seas to thwart attempted hijackings. While these anti-piracy patrols are meant to escort commercial ships of their countries, if need be, as they transit through thepiracy-affected areas, and also to escort ships of other countries employing a large number of their nationals in their crew, they have nothesitated to go to the help of commercial ships of other countries too when they are attacked by pirates.

11. A Malaysian naval ship twice beat back pirates attempting to hijack a Chinese ship on December 18,2008, and an Indian ship on January1,2009. While in the case of the Indian ship the Malaysian naval personnel beat back the pirates before they could board the ship, in thecase of the Chinese ship, Malaysian intervenion forced the pirates to run away after they had boarded the ship.The number of suchsuccessful interventions has been on the rise and this could have a downward effect on instances of piracy in this area during 2009. Manyof these successful preventions or interventions were made possible by helicopter patrols or by the ready availability of copters to respondto distress messages. A study of some of these successful interventions also indicates that the sight of an approaching naval coptercreates greater fear in the minds of the pirates than the sight of a naval ship approaching them. For strengthening maritime security----eitherin high seas or in coastal waters---- there is a need for increasing helicopter patrols, which can detect suspicious vessels and movementsmore easily than a naval or coast guard ship.

12. While there are instances of prevention or thwarting of attempted hijackings of ships, there is no instance of a termination of ahijacking after a ship has been hijacked and taken to a Somali port. This is due to paucity of intelligence from Somalia and its ports wherethe ships are taken after hijacking. Successful termination depends on precise intelligence on the port where the ship has been taken andconditions on board and around the ship. No intelligence agency----not even the agencies of the US--- has the capability for the collection ofsuch intelligence from Somalia through land-based operations.

13.According to a Reuters' report of December 13,2008, Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary, admitted during a regional securityconference in Bahrain that the US lacked the intelligence needed to pursue the fight against pirates to the Somali soil. The Reuters'despatch added: Quote With the level of information we have at the moment, we’re not in a position to do that kind of land-based operation,”Gates told a regional security conference in Bahrain. “Our first need is intelligence, (to know) who is behind it.” Referring to media reportsthat “two to three clans or extended families” were behind the pirate attacks on ships off the Somali coast, Gates said: “If we can identifywho those clans are then we can operate on land under the auspices of the United Nations and seek out ways to minimise collateraldamage.” Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, who commands the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain and oversees a coalition of navies fighting piracyoff Somalia, also expressed concern about the difficulty in identifying the pirates. He said firms should use armed security guards muchmore to protect their vessels. Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, an expert for maritime security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, saidadding land operations to those at sea is crucial to an effective military response to pirate attacks. “The single most difficult problem theforces are facing is that they don’t ... have the jurisdiction to chase them into their natural habitat on land and to deal with them there,” saidRoy-Chaudhury. Unquote

14.So long as terrorism is not defeated in Somalia and political stability not restored there, the virtual impossibility of freeing a hijackedship will continue. So long as this continues, shipping companies will continue to pay ransom to get their ships released. So long as ransomamounts continue to flow into the hands of Somali pirates, the danger of part of these payments going into the coffers of Al Qaeda and itsassociates will continue. So long as the money flow continues, terrorism will continue. This is a vicious circle to which no answer has beenfound so far.

15. The only short-term solution till things improve in Somalia enabling land-based intelligence-collection and termination operations is ajoint campaign of attrition against the pirates by the naval patrols of different countries by luring the pirates into a trap and neutralisingthem. Who will take legal action to have the captured pirates prosecuted and jailed since there is no Government in Somalia capable ofdoing this? Unless there is a legal machinery to deal with the pirates after they are captured, they will manage to get back into circulationand indulge in more acts of piracy.

16. The stepped-up anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden area and the escorting of commercial ships transiting through the area is havingan effect on the piracy. But, this is only one important component of what should be a co-ordinated anti-piracy strategy. There are othercomponents which need attention. These have to be identified and follow-up action has to be taken. The Indian Navy should take theinitiative in organising a brain-storming session of officers of different navies participating in the anti-piracy patrols in order to lay thefoundation for such a co-ordinated strategy. The present efforts are piecemeal and ad hoc. They are more in the nature of fire-fightingmeasures than in the nature of a strategic response. (19-2-09)

(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For TopicalStudies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: )