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Friday, December 12, 2008

Somali Pirates: Was there really an attack on the cruise ship Athena?

Let me preface the following by a couple of cautions.

First, I have been at sea in an area where there were lots of fishing boats. Sometimes as you proceed along, the fishing boats move closer to your ship as they try to lower the nets they have strung in between them so your hull doesn't catch the nets. In such instances it looks like you have either snagged their nets and have started to tow the fishing vessels or as if the boats are closing on you with some other intent. I have had this happen off Vietnam, Japan and Taiwan, normally in littoral waters as we were approaching or departing a port. Second, I was not on the cruise ship Athena and all reports I have seen are second hand at best. Keep that in mind as you read the following.

The first is a newspaper report about the incident, in which the owners of the vessel discount an attempted attack. See Questions over whether MV Athena cruise ship to Fremantle was attacked by pirates:
The operator of a luxury liner carrying 437 passengers has hosed down reports that pirates tried to board the ship off the coast of Somalia.

Reports said more than 29 pirate boats surrounded the MV Athena, which is carrying 200 Australian women and 187 men, as it passed through the Gulf of Aden on Tuesday night local time.

A couple on board the Athena, which is due to dock in Fremantle on December 20, were reported saying they saw 29 small boats with up to six pirates on each boat approach the liner.

They said crew members had used water cannons to stop the pirates from boarding the ship.

But Grant Hunter, Australian managing director of Classic International Cruises, which operates the ship, today told ABC radio that no pirates had tried to board.

Mr Hunter acknowledged that as the Athena pulled up to the southern end of the Gulf of Aden, several tuna fishing skiffs loomed "some half a kilometre to three kilometres away" as the ship queued to enter a secure port area.
"Under normal international security regulations, all the ships in that particular grouping put their fire hoses on board (and) activated those," Mr Hunter said.

"The crew were spraying water off the side of the ship but at no stage did any of the skiffs attempt to get near the vessel, board the vessel.

"They weren't aggressive to the vessel."

Mr Hunter said that as part of routine security, the captain did ask passengers to remain in their cabins for about 90 minutes until the ship cleared the queue.

He said that it was difficult to understand how the reports emanated, because passengers had been eyeing the tuna boats from afar with binoculars - and vice versa.

"I don't think that indicates they were boarding," Mr Hunter said.
Now, from an email I received from a source who wishes no attribution except a statement to the effect it is from source at a private security firm "with core strength in maritime security," and offers another, different view:
The on-again/off-again, it happened/it didn't happen, attack on the Australian cruise ship ATHENA did, in fact, happen, and we should no longer doubt the extraordinarily large number of pirate skiffs involved, originally reported by eyewitnesses as about 30 to ATHENA's port side and 12 to starboard. When the press heard eyewitness accounts from passengers onboard, the cruise line acknowledged the attack initially, only to deny it 24 hours later, referring instead to passengers who were mistaken about the "very friendly" fishermen whose boats surrounded the ship (but nonetheless prompted the crew to deploy fire hoses). Companies have their reasons for saying things, and the cruise line wishes its passengers aboard ATHENA a "memorable cruising experience." It is not the company's fault that pirates tampered with the memories of her Gulf of Aden passage December 2nd.

The latest version of the corporate story has compelled Portuguese Captain Antonio Morais to explain to passengers that the "very friendly" fishermen his cruise line first described in version 2.0 were, version 3.0, pirates on a recce/training mission. Doubtless, Classic International Cruises should award the captain a medal for saving his ship and her souls (not to mention a judge's spot on "Dancing With The Stars" for the deft corporate waltz he was compelled to perform).

Nevertheless, the facts remain: after two and possibly three boarding attempts, pirates mounted a full-on effort to capture his ship. Fortunately, Portuguese mariners rock, and speed kills, sometimes thankfully: Captain Morais and ATHENA outran their attackers.

And the number of boats makes sense. Two to four boats (nominally as many as 24 combatants) capture tankers and freighters with crew of 20 or so. Some 40 boats with 200 combatants, pirates figure, can take and hold a defenseless cruise ship with hundreds of passengers and crew.

Despite the cruise line's denials, this attack was evaluated by our people, and others with a stake in the game, as totally authentic, and it involved the approximate number of boats initially reported by ATHENA passengers. I also believe it figured solidly behind a German cruise line's decision to pull passengers and much of the crew from the cruise ship COLUMBUS December 8th, fly them to Dubai and put them up in a five-star hotel to await that ship's arrival, all at considerable expense.

I also believe SECSTATE Rice and/or our people at the UN referred to ATHENA to build support for the U.S. initiative circulated at the UN to go ashore, if need be, to pursue pirates (full Security Council vote slated for December 16th). If and when we go ashore in Somalia, it is very much game-off for pirates and a most serious game-on for President-elect Obama, our Navy, Marines and special forces, and the international forces fully committed in the region. It also represents a unique challenge to General William E. Ward, U.S. Army, first Commander of U.S. Africa Command.

Perhaps it's a sign, too, that pirates made a grave error by targeting a ship named after the Goddess of Wisdom.
As is my custom, I have highlighted quoted material in blue, with my own comments in black.

The point of my opening comment is to point out that it is possible for the actions of fishing boats to be misunderstood. On the other hand, given a report by a warship of a previously observed event as a "swarm attack" (see here ) and the clear report of an attempt to attack another cruise ship, things may be as my anonymous source states.

And it would be a coup and a potential financial windfall for the pirates if they got a boatload of tourists . . . and a major escalation in this on-going conflict.

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