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Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Somali Pirates: Resistance Can Be Deadly

"BBC News" reports Sailor dies in clash with pirates north of Seychelles, referring to the attempt by a Seychelles patrol vessel to halt the attack. During the exchange of fire, some crewmen escaped and other tried to retake their ship. This proved deadly to one crewman:
A Seychelles patrol boat appears to have reached the hijacked vessel first, with a Danish warship from Nato's counter-piracy force only arriving after the fatal clash.

When the Seychelles boat opened fire the pirates "evidently lost control", Mr Stolberg told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper.

In the ensuing confusion, reports suggest the crew tried to overwhelm their captors, and two crew members managed to escape.

"The pirates shot dead one of our men, probably in a fit of anger," Mr Stolberg said.

Nato spokeswoman Lt Cdr Jacqui Sherriff told the BBC News website that when the Danish ship, the Esbern Snare, reached the scene, the master of the Beluga Nomination urged it to keep its distance because of the earlier clash.
Now there are number of voices being raised about whether the use of force will escalate the level of violence in what has been a relatively "safe" form of hijacking, crew kidnapping and hostage taking. See here, for example:
Despite acclaim for the Korean action, it could have undesirable consequences. It opens up questions whether violent assaults should be made on hijacked ships in circumstances when there are high risks of loss of life to the assaulting forces, the ship’s crew and the pirates themselves. Such actions could lead to an escalation of violence off Somalia. Already there are reports of the Somali pirates threatening revenge against South Korean ships and crews.

The international shipping community remains generally opposed to employing armed security guards onboard vessels passing through high risk piracy areas. Reasons for this include fears about the risks of escalating violence and of injury to the crew and damage to the ship, as well as the uncertain legal implications. Similar considerations apply to military assaults on the pirates holding hijacked ships. Following the Samho Jewelry incident, the European Union Naval Force operating off Somalia said it would not follow suit in storming ships to secure their release for fear of endangering hostages.
And, as seen here, the pirates have threatened that future captives of force-using countries (in this case, Korea) will be executed in a form of "revenge killing" and deterrent against future rescue efforts.

Most rescue efforts have been undertaken when the ship's crew was known to be in a "citadel," essentially a "safe room" on a ship. NATO has provided guidance regarding the use of citadels on ships (from here):
  • The use of a CITADEL DOES NOT guarantee a military response. Before owners, operators and masters commit to a policy that recommends the use of a citadel, it is important to understand the criteria that military forces will apply before a boarding to free the ship can be considered:
  • 100% of the crew must be secured in the CITADEL.
  • The Crew of the ship must have self-contained, independent, 2-way external communications. Sole reliance on VHF communications is insufficient.
  • The pirates must be denied access to propulsion.
The following points should also be taken into consideration when preparing CITADELS:
  • All emergency equipment in the CITADEL should be fully and regularly tested for functionality.  The communications system should have a power supply for a minimum of 3 days, based on a continuous open line1
  • A full list of emergency contact numbers including UKMTO should be held inside the CITADEL.
  • At least 3 days of food and water provisions for all the crew should be available in the CITADEL.
  • Medical supplies, including medication for the treatment of physical trauma, and sanitation should be made available.
The cautionary point made above the the use of a citadel does not guarantee that there will be a military response is important. The area covered by the Somali pirates is vast, the number of warships relatively small given that expanse and the number of trained teams able to insert themselves onto a merchant is also a small number.

This was discussed on our internet radio show, Midrats last Sunday when we interviewed Capt. Alex Martin, the leader of the U.S. Marine team that successfully retook the merchant ship Magellan Star (about 29:55 on).

Listen to internet radio with Midrats on Blog Talk Radio


  1. The remainder of the BBC article goes on to quote Mr Stolberg and his dissatisfaction with the military response. Pity he had failed to take note of the warnings in force on the use of citadels (two crew were outside) and the vulnerability of this particular ship (very low freeboard) in a high threat area. He should have taken an armed team onboard for this passage if the risk/reward was worth it commercially for this expensive cargo of yachts and motor boats. The Danish warship was nearly 1000 nms away when the incident first occured. The Seychelles Coast Guard no doubt did their best but they are not a blue water navy and not up to this level of intervention. The Beluga team should have taken all of this into account in their risk assessment and not cried foul when it all went wrong. These are extremely dangerous waters.

  2. No matter which way you cut it, you can't deny that the NATO repsonse has been pathetic, though. Media reports indicate that the Samho Jewelry was targeted. Perhaps the Beluga was also targeted because of the useful cargo: speedy motherships.

  3. Anonymous1:50 PM

    Today's Economist reports that pirates are relatively humane to their hostages. But considering yesterday's report that the seamen of the Samho Jewelry were tortured perhaps the tide has changed. As the success rate for pirate attacks drops from 50% to 25%, pirates are bound to become more aggressive and violent. Escalation is the name of the day.