Somali pirates grow bolder by the week but the world’s response lags

By Peter Apps, Reuters

LONDON — Hijacking oil tankers and using captured merchant vessels with hostage crews as giant motherships, Somali pirates grow bolder by the week, far outpacing a loosely coordinated global response. Somali pirates seized their second oil tanker in two days on Wednesday, capturing a Greek ship carrying Kuwaiti oil to the United States after taking an Italian oil vessel.

“The piracy situation is now spinning out of control,” said Joe Angelo, managing director of industry association Intertanko. “If piracy in the Indian Ocean is left unabated, it will strangle … crucial shipping lanes with the potential to severely disrupt oil flows to the U.S. and the rest of the world.” Shippers say they may have to send ships around Africa at greater cost to minimize the risk — but the growing area of pirate operations makes avoiding them altogether impossible. Attacks have been growing exponentially since 2007 as young Somalis in small skiffs with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades took to the water is to seek their fortunes. Their first targets were local dhows and cargo ships, often U.N. World Food Program ships delivering food to stem the humanitarian crisis fed by Somalia’s ongoing instability. But despite a growing presence from international navies, they have since pushed further into the Indian Ocean, rendering the entire region a “war risk zone” in the eyes of insurers. “The situation is only going to worsen,” says John Drake, a senior risk consultant for London-based security firm AKE. “With rising ransoms, pirates are able to hire more men, bribe more officials and wait longer periods to negotiate.” The threat to key supply routes has prompted a host of powers including Russia, China, India, Japan and others to send warships, working loosely alongside Western task forces including those of the EU, NATO and United States. Chat Room Coordination Coordinated through a secure Internet chat room and meetings in Bahrain, they share some information — but largely pursue their own strategies. China, Japan, Russia and others concentrate mainly on running convoys to protect their own national shipping, albeit often with other hangers on. Western navies tend to string their ships along with the most heavily used shipping lanes, aiming to get helicopters to any attacked ship within minutes. The EU force frequently has ships tied up escorting WFP ships into Somali ports. But that leaves precious few warships out in the wider Indian Ocean, now seen the area of greatest risk. There, any ship coming under attack is much less likely to get military support and pirates face much lower risk of interception.