Lest there be any doubt, an Oct. 11 pirate attack on a supertanker 237 nautical miles off Somalia is a reminder that piracy — though much diminished in 2013 — remains a deadly threat and one that has spurred new warnings for yachts to steer clear of the southern Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the western Indian Ocean.
“The attack this morning demonstrates that there is still a clear and present danger from pirates off the Somali coast,” said Rear Adm. Bob Tarrant, operations commander of the European Union Naval Force. “It is crucial that naval counter-piracy forces maintain pressure on these criminals and that the maritime industry remains vigilant.”
The Bahrain-based International Naval Counter Piracy Forces renewed its warning to yachtsmen after the attack and a September meeting with representatives of the International Sailing Federation and other yachting groups to discuss the threat.
“All sailing yachts under their own passage should remain out of the High Risk Area or face the risk of being hijacked and held hostage for ransom,” the advisory reads.
The area extends south and southeast from the Suez Canal and the Persian Gulf’s Strait of Hormuz to 78 degrees east latitude and 10 degrees south longitude.
Pirate incidents off Somalia have fallen dramatically, with just 10 reported this year through September, down from 70 in the same period in 2012, according to the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Center. It attributes the decline to the naval forces’ anti-piracy work, security teams on vessels, compliance with best management practices on ships and a more stable Somali government.
Yet the yacht advisory says the threat to cruisers remains deadly. The root causes of the piracy — extreme poverty and poor law enforcement — remain, and the pirates are becoming desperate.
“Pirates … have deployed from beaches in reckless, risk-averse and hostile missions, and are actively hunting ‘soft’ targets of opportunity,” the advisory warns. “Any perceived weakness will be identified and exploited.”
The advisory also notes that in the past year hostage treatment has become more brutal because of friction between pirates and Islamic factions over control of the hostages and a dwindling supply of hostages to put up for ransom.
The U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence gave the following account of the attack on the 1,082-foot Hong Kong-flagged Island Splendor on Oct. 11, the same day as the release of the movie “Capt. Phillips,” the story of the 2009 hijacking of the American container ship Maersk Alabama:
Eight pirates in two skiffs fired on the Island Splendor. The master raised the alarm, sounded the ship’s whistle and increased speed. As the crew mustered, an armed security team took position and fired warning rocket flares. The skiffs, now 2 to 3 nautical miles away, ignored the warning flares and continued their approach. When one of the skiffs closed to 437 yards, the security team fired a warning shot across its bow, but the pirates didn’t back away, so the team fired a second shot as the skiffs closed to 273 yards. One of the skiffs then stopped and returned fire with an automatic weapon, triggering full-on return fire from the security personnel. It was only then that the skiffs aborted the attack and left.
This is the first report of a ship coming under small-arms fire since the end of the southwest monsoon season in the Indian Ocean at the end of September, according to Dryad Maritime Intelligence, a U.K.-based security firm. Somali pirate attacks typically wane during the June-to-September southwest monsoon and December-to-February northeast monsoon, which stir up big seas.
It is also the first large merchant vessel fired on since April, but just four days after the Oct. 11 attack, a second vessel — a Korean fishing boat — came under attack in the same area, leading Dryad to conclude the attacks were by the same group and signaled the beginning of the post-monsoon stepup in pirate operations.
Somali pirates are back in the mainstream media with the release this month of "Captain Phillips," with Tom Hanks playing the title role of the American freighter captain who was rescued from Somali pirates by U.S. Special Forces.
The movie was released just as a real Somali pirate was lured into capture by a fake offer to make a movie about his life. When the alleged pirate — known by the nickname Afweyne, or Big Mouth — arrived in Belgium, he was arrested.
Belgian federal prosecutors say Mohammed Abdi Hassan is facing hijacking and kidnapping charges stemming from the 2009 hijacking of the Belgian dredger Pompei. The crew was held hostage for 10 weeks and released after the ship's owner paid a large ransom, according to a report by ABC News.