The seizure of the Saudi supertanker has driven the world navies to take first steps to combat the increasingly brazen Somali pirates. The US and multinational naval force patrolling the coast off Somali urged merchant vessels Thursday, Nov. 20, to sail with armed guards on board and only on lanes patrolled by warships.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report that the second measure is not practical when the volume of merchant shipping using the Gulf of Aden en route for the Suez Canal amounts to 20,000 vessels a year.
Russia will be sending more warships to the danger zone, said Russian Navy commander Adm. Vladimir Vysotsky. They will act as back-up for the Fearless frigate posted there since September.
Vice Adm. William Gortney, of the United States Navy, said merchant ships crews were being taught non-violent measures to prevent pirates boarding their vessels, such as sharp rudder movements and speed adjustments to throw their speed boats off course.
But France and Britain are not planning to send more ships in addition to the three British warships in the area and France’s two frigates.
A NATO fleet of US, French, British and Danish warships along with Indian, Malaysian and Russian naval vessels are patrolling the Gulf of Aden and Somali waters. They were unable to prevent the seizure of three other merchant vessels this week, or last Saturday, the Saudi tanker, Sirius Star, the largest vessel ever hijacked, with 2 million barrels of oil and a crew of 25.
Too close to Hormuz for comfort
However, the Indian Navy reported that its stealth frigate INS Tabar sank a pirate “mother ship” in the northern Gulf of Oman Tuesday, Nov. 18.
The incident occurred 528 km southwest of the Omani port of Salalah. When the Indian frigate spotted rocket-propelled grenades and other arms aboard a speed boat, with fuel and other supplies, its captain challenged the boat to halt, and were greeted with a threat to blow up the Indian warship if it came nearer. The Indian sailors opened fire and sank the pirate ship.
Some US and shipping sources are not sure that Somali pirates were aboard that craft, mainly because the area was well off their beaten track because it is heavily patrolled by US Fifth Fleet and many other warships.
A reason for concern is the incident’s proximity to the Strait of Hormuz, which means that either the Somali brigands are venturing into new waters, or the vessel belonged to al Qaeda, which maintains a presence on the Aden coast, or to arms smugglers.
Although the Indian Navy claims success in foiling the bandits on more than one occasion, as do the British Royal Navy and France, most cases end in the paying of ransoms.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terror experts are skeptical about the availability of sufficient resources to root out the piracy scourge for the following reasons:
The Multinational Marine Task force stands and watches
1. The multinational naval force patrolling the Gulf of Aden is not numerically up to the task of policing the broad expanses of ocean beset by piracy. It is doubtful whether a fleet of the size needed is available anywhere.
2. Most vessels of the Multinational Marine task force are not allowed to attack the pirates for lack of agreed rules of engagement among their governments. They therefore stand by as the pirates capture ships and take their crews hostage.
The Indian Navy is an exception to the rule, while the Russians have taken to posting armed guards aboard their merchant vessels.
3. Even if they were permitted to attack the pirates’ speed boats, that would not terminate the attacks. Naval forces would have to hunt them down on land up to their dens, and also tackle the Islamic militias which together with al Qaeda control coastal Somalia. (See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 371 of Nov. 9: Al Qaeda in Full-Blown Offensive to Capture West African “Waziristan”)
War-torn Somalia has been sunk in civil war and anarchy since 1991. Since the Americans were burned in Mogadishu in 1993, no government is prepared to mount an operation of this kind.
4. The pirates’ Abu Dhabi facility cannot be located for liquidation because it does not operate out of fixed premises. If the money changers acting as pirates’ agents are killed, others will soon take their place.
5. The shippers say they cannot afford to post small, especially-trained commando armies on each merchant vessel without raising their world freight and insurance charges to a level which is unrealistic in today’s global economic crisis.
The cynical solution of paying “protection” suits the Gulf oil emirs best
One shipper described the situation off Somalia as “quasi-war” and demanded the same naval protection enjoyed by merchant vessels in World War II. A number of industry firms have appealed to the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon for action to restore safe navigation. Most reject the idea of rerouting vessels via the Cape of Good Hope for voyages from Asia to Europe and across the Atlantic, instead of the Suez Canal.
The Suez route is thousands of miles and many days shorter than going around the Cape of Good Hope off the southern tip of Africa. Yet this is exactly what the big Norwegian shipping group Odfjell SE decided to do with its 90 tankers after the Saudi supertanker was seized.
Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal offered to join an international initiative against piracy in the Red Sea area en route to Suez, which he called “a disease like terrorism,” but he did not elaborate.
Although his outrage was no doubt genuine, he knew perfectly well that the Saudi shippers had been authorized by their government to enter into discreet negotiations with the pirates’ agents in Abu Dhabi Sunday, Nov. 16, the day after the Sirius Star was seized far out to sea opposite the coast of Kenya.
This decision is critical in that the Saudis, the world’s largest oil exporters, clearly prefer to fork out a huge ransom – the pirates are demanding $25 million for the $100 million worth of crude, the brand-new 313,000 dwt tanker and the 25-man crew – to avoid getting mixed up in a military operation to set them free.
The decision bears significantly on this particular war on terror.
Saudi Arabia is harking back to the impasse that developed in the 1970s, when the Palestinians began hijacking commercial airliners. Airlines were encouraged by their governments to start paying out regular protection money to the Palestinian terrorist organizations for the sake of immunity for their planes and to buy advance tips of plotted skyjacks.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terror experts fully expect that the Saudi ransom will represent the down-payment for a regular stipend and so lead the way for other Gulf oil producers and major merchant vessel shippers to follow.