The waves of piracy are rippling ever further from its Somalian epicentre. But, as the BBC's security correspondent details in this report, the shipping industry is fighting back
Monday, October 01, 2012
On a moonlit night earlier this summer, a heli-borne assault was launched from European warships steaming off the Somali coast.
In the space of just four minutes, machine-gunners had riddled five pirate attack boats, known as skiffs, as they lay beached on the sand. For the first time ever since Somalia's pirates burst onto the scene a few years ago, the EU's navies had struck the pirates' bases on land, raising the stakes in an unspoken war, which cost the shipping industry £4.5bn in 2011. At any one time there are usually more than a dozen ships held to ransom and more than 200 hapless seafarers held hostage just off the Somali coast. So what is it like to sail on a merchant ship through some of the most pirated waters in the world?
It's close to midnight and there is a disturbing blip on the radar. "They've clocked us. I don't like it. We should alter course."
This is Mark Eassom. He spent 25 years in the Royal Marines - leaving as a sergeant-major - and has completed 14 crossings of the Gulf of Aden, and had nine firefights with Somali pirates since then, and thankfully no injuries, so far. He is leading the four-man team from a private armed security company, one of the increasing number of British armed squads getting hired to shepherd commercial shipping through the dangerous waters off Somalia. His bulky, jowly features glow green in the reflection from the radar screen, his brow furrowed in concentration. The blip is moving fast: 20 knots. That's a lot faster than us as we lumber through the night with our cargo of refined fuel.
I glance out the window at the vast expanse of the Arabian Sea, bathed in the moon's glow. Out there lurk the Somali PAGs (Pirate Action Groups), innocuous-looking fishing boats and speedboats that prey on the most vulnerable shipping vessels, like wolves circling a lame prey. Any vessel moving at 15 knots or slower, with a low freeboard - the vertical distance between the waves and the rim of the deck - is especially prone to attack. We are carrying 95,000 tonnes of fuel oil, a rich prize, although pirates will happily settle for a holiday yacht if they think it will produce a ransom. A loud grunt comes from outside on the bridge wings. "Got visual," says a disembodied voice in the dark. We troop outside with binoculars. There, on the horizon, a large vessel with sheer, towering sides. It's legit, though: a container ship. The crew breathe out.
Piracy off the coast of Somalia is big business. Last year pirates carried out 99 attempted boardings of ships, 25 of which were successful. It was a record year for ransoms, even though the number of actual hijackings is falling. Even the presence of numerous warships from the world's navies has only impeded, not stopped, the practice. More than 450 sailors were taken hostage last year. David Cameron is said to be exasperated. He convened an international conference in London in February to address Somalia's problems. Somalis themselves are fed up with their country being associated with piracy and insurgency. And yet, what started out as a series of sporadic coastal vigilante actions in the Nineties, with Somali fishermen fighting back against the foreign trawlers plundering their rich seas or dumping toxic waste offshore, has morphed into something far more sinister.
Pirate attacks are now taking place as far as 1,000 nautical miles or more from Somalia. By hijacking larger ships and using them as a base or a "mothership", pirates have been able to extend their reach to the entire western Indian Ocean, an area spanning 2.8 million square miles. And pirate tactics are evolving. Captured crews are being held for longer, ransom demands have crossed the £6.4m mark. To encourage relatives back home to put pressure on ship owners to hurry up and pay the sum demanded, the pirates have been known to fire off their guns in the air while terrified sailors are phoning home.
So how to cover this as a journalist? To see first-hand how an armed team deploys a merchant tanker through the "high risk area" I needed to find a ship and a security team willing to give us unhindered access as they went about their work. Three months later, I'm pitching and rolling in the chop of Muscat harbour, getting ferried out to a truly massive tanker lying offshore ready for the ten-day, 2,640-mile voyage.
The mountains of Oman are turning hazy blue in the late afternoon sun but the beauty of the scene is lost on me as I contemplate how the hell I'm going to get up the sheer eight-metre hull in these seas, given that I'm in
a wheelchair. We draw alongside and I stare up in awe at this leviathan. The MT Sea Legend is so big it blocks out the sun. Somewhere far above us a deckhand in a white hard hat is stringing out some barbed wire. A gangplank has been lowered to a 45-degree angle, flush alongside the wall of the hull, to let us aboard but it's a moving target, rising and falling with the powerful swell. It's one of those now-or-never moments: Stu, my intelligent hired muscle, crouches in front of me facing away, I lock my hands around his neck and with a violent lunge he launches us both off the boat and onto the shifting bottom step, then powers up the steep gangplank. For him, another ex-marine, this all goes down under "PT" - physical training. My lifeless paralysed feet, encased in sturdy boots, are banging repeatedly against every step. "Sorry about that," grunts Stu through gritted teeth. "It's OK," I reply, "I can't really feel them." By the time we reach the upper deck my wheelchair has miraculously appeared, having been winched up over the side.
I gaze around at the vast expanse of pipes, tubes and machinery. The superstructure is four storeys high, culminating in the distant bridge, which, frankly, might as well be in another country. On the bed in my cabin is a white helmet and fire-resistant gloves, which I'm expected to don in an emergency. There is a single piece of decoration: a poster of American basketball player Nate Robinson, that reads "NBA Slam Dunk Champion". The bridge is spotless and state-of-the-art, with glowing instruments and various officers in clean, pressed uniforms. Far below, a pod of dolphins is surfing through the waves, flying through the air in the fading light. Behind us, the lights of Muscat harbour twinkle on, and ever so slowly the coastline starts to recede. We head down to the mess room for dinner; next door, the off-duty Filipino deckhands are watching videos of cockfighting in Manila. It's too gruesome to watch.
In the morning, Eassom is pacing the deck with the Indian bosun, ordering extra coils of razor wire to be tied all along the edge of the deck. "We need to protect the stern," he confides, "that's the most vulnerable spot." We all know the razor wire won't stop determined pirates - the first attacker over the side always gets a bigger share of the ransom - but it will slow them down if they get that far and it acts as a deterrent. A rather unconvincing dummy has been placed on the stern, a deckhand's hard hat wedged on top of a post. There are other precautions in place too, like water hoses lined up to spray anyone trying to climb the hull. Next comes a security briefing for the entire crew, the Filipino deck hands listening in their oily grey overalls, many with mullet hairstyles and drooping Fu Manchu moustaches. The Filipinos, along with Indians, have borne the brunt of piracy. Even now, there are some marooned in Somalia, reportedly abandoned by their employers after their ship and its cargo were released for a ransom.
We practise an emergency drill, piling down into the safe room called a "citadel". If pirates do get on board, the entire crew will shelter here and radio for help from NATO, the EU Naval Force, the American fifth fleet or whichever
warships are closest, while the pirates swarm all over the rest of the ship, trying to take control. Navies will usually only come and rescue a crew if every member is safe in the citadel, otherwise they risk facing a human shield scenario.
Up on the bridge, a message has just come in from the control centre that monitors piracy in the region.
TO: ALL SHIPS TRANSITING RED SEA / GULF OF ADEN / OFF OMAN / OFF SOMALIA / ARABIAN SEA / INDIAN OCEAN
FM: IMB PIRACY REPORTING CENTRE PIRATE ATTACK GROUPS (PAGS) ARE CONFIRMED AS OPERATING OFF THE OMANI COAST.
AT 0519Z ON 06 MARCH 2012 A MERCHANT VESSEL WAS ATTACKED BY 1 SKIFF APPROX 200NM SOUTHWEST OF SALALAH
As we steam off the far southeast corner of the Arabian Peninsular, skirting the coast of Oman, the team from Neptune Maritime Security in Dorset break out the sniping rifles to check their sights are properly calibrated, a standard drill on day one of any voyage. An empty cardboard box is flung overboard for target practice and they let fly a volley of shots, kicking up plumes of spray far below. "Our aim is simple," says Eassom, "to quickly persuade the pirates that this vessel is not worth attacking.
It's all about putting long-range warning shots into the sea next to the pirates' skiff before they can get in close to fire their AK-47s or, worse still, their RPGs. The pirates don't have long-range weapons and even if they did, they wouldn't have a stable platform from which to take an aimed shot." The only member of the team not to have served in the marines is Ben and he is therefore dubbed a "pongo" - a good-for-nothing; he's been palmed off with a flimsy-looking thing called a "tikka" that resembles a schoolboy's air rifle. The ex-marines keep up a constant banter of jargon. Food is "scran", tea or coffee is "a wet", one's cabin is "a grot" and your bed is "a time machine", but the one I like best is for going sunbathing when a mission is over: "all hands to the bronzing station".
I interview Melvin, the second engineer from the Philippines, who recalls what it was like to be attacked by Somali pirates on board a sister ship to this, the MV Album. Back then, in December 2009, they had no armed guards, no citadel and no real precautions for piracy attack.
"We saw this pirate mothership launch a skiff and it came towards us very fast," says Melvin. "The pirates were waving their arms trying to get us to stop so they could board. They fired shots that hit the ship and they fired four rocket-propelled grenades but they did not explode. I was down in the engine room, very frightened. Every minute I was expecting to see a guy with an AK-47 come through the door." Yet the captain managed to shake them off by speeding up and changing course, part of what's known rather prosaically in the industry as "best management practice", or BMP. The wash, especially from a big tanker, can be overwhelming and pirates are not always good swimmers.
Later, in the darkness of the bridge, the quiet is broken abruptly by the incongruous sound of a Rihanna song being played on the crackly VHF emergency channel. Some bored radio operator somewhere out there in the Gulf of Aden is fooling around. "Make it quiet," shouts the Indian first officer. "I can't do it," protests the Egyptian on duty, "I cannot change the channel." "Te amo," sings on Rihanna, oblivious to the row she has started here. Eventually she morphs into a rap song by Eminem, serenading us as we turn circles in the dark off the Horn of Africa.
It's 5:55am and out of the porthole I can see we are not alone. I count three other giant cargo ships strung out in a line behind us, quivering in the early-morning haze. We are to join an escorted convoy for two days, along the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor, the IRTC. Steaming exactly one mile off on our port side is our escort, a Chinese navy frigate, bristling with antennae, a red flag flying from its superstructure. They are a long way from home. There is suddenly great excitement up on the bridge. A whale is going past us, or rather we are going past the whale. We only catch a brief glimpse of its massive T-shaped tail as it crashes back into the water, then vanishes. Too big to be a pilot whale. Ben says it's a humpback. We all nod knowingly in agreement. Shortly before midnight another convoy passes us in the opposite direction, heading eastwards out into the Indian Ocean.
Another reported pirating comes in: an Indian dhow - a traditional sailing vessel - has been boarded and hijacked just east of our position, all 15 crew taken hostage. Stu recommends I get a "grab bag" ready with essentials inside, in case we have to pile into the citadel in a rush. We pass Aden harbour in the night, preparing to enter the chokepoint between Africa and Asia at the bottom of the Red Sea. The Chinese warship that has been protecting our little convoy for the past two days, is now far off on the horizon. We are
on our own.
Just as I pop into the loo on the bridge, there is a frantic rapping on the door. It's Lito, the radio officer. "Mr Frank, you need to come out!" (As if I were cowering in there under the sink.) "We have a situation." It's organised pandemonium on the bridge. The tanker up in front of us has radioed in that two suspected pirate skiffs are closing in on their starboard bow. Both ships are sounding their foghorns in alarm and to let the potential pirates know they're on to them. We scan the sea ahead and pick them out. They're crossing into our path, fast. Eassom issues orders. Body armour and helmets on, they grab the weapons and two loaded magazines each, deploying to action stations out on the bridge wings. He rouses the fourth member of the team, who's off-duty and supposedly sleeping downstairs. A youthful veteran of 15 years in the Special Boat Service (SBS), he's up with the team, fully dressed and rifle in hand, in under a minute. The captain sounds the ship's alarm and gets on the Tannoy to warn the crew. "Security alert! Suspicious pirate boat approaching. Code yellow, code yellow." This is not a drill.
Passing right across our bows then turning left along our port side is a dhow fishing boat towing a motorised skiff behind. The dhow has a sail, a Yemeni flag and quite a few people on board. They look to be Somalis, not Yemenis, which raises suspicions this could be a fishing boat taken over by pirates, and there is some kind of device up on its bow that the sentries reckon is a grappling ladder. The Neptune team take no chances; Eassom raises his SLR rifle above his head with both hands to show whoever's in the boats there is an armed team on board. It's one of the escalating rungs towards the last resort of opening fire. Ben and the ex-SBS man train their sights on the boats, the rest of the team are out on the starboard side, and keeping an eye on the stern. This is the moment when one of two things will happen: the suspect vessels will pass us by or they will make a dash for us and try to get on board, while firing at the bridge. I try to imagine what it must be like stuck down in some windowless engine room below decks, not seeing any of this, wondering if you're about to spend the next four months hijacked off the Somali coast with an AK-47 pointed at your head. The Neptune security team have made their message clear: stay away from this tanker. For several seconds nothing happens, it's as if time stands still, then the dhow and its tag-along skiff drop behind us and vanish into the blue horizon. Eassom stands down the team and the captain stands down the crew. Later we learn these same boats have just attacked another ship.
Far away to the left, some islands loom out of the haze, then others to the right. We are entering the Bab El-Mandeb strait - Arabic for, "The Gate Of Tears". It's the choke point at the bottom of the Red Sea, a narrow, 20 mile channel that separates Yemen from Djibouti, Asia from Africa. From our vantage point four storeys up on the bridge we gaze out at the edge of two continents. Sailors and security guards tell of a frenzy of fishing skiffs here. They also tell of pirates hiding among them and launching ferocious attacks on shipping. Eassom recalls a voyage where they had eight "contacts" with pirates. Pirate skiffs closed in to just 200 metres. They almost ran out of ammo.
3pm: Steaming on north up the Red Sea off the coast of Eritrea, the sea state has changed. Gone are those placid, mirror-glass waters we had in the Gulf of Aden, now it's decidedly choppy, though we don't really feel it in this great big tanker. The captain is happy as he says it will deter pirates. The Tannoy pings with a ridiculous Butlins-holiday-camp-style jingle. "Your attention please..." Dramatic pause. "Vessel is now clear of high-risk area. Revert to MarSec1."
This is Maritime Security Level 1. Good, that's a relief then. Ehab, the ever-smiling and rather excitable Egyptian engineer on the bridge, asks if I'd like to see "some pictures of the pirates". What? He's been keeping this to himself all this time, but now in glorious Technicolor, I'm seeing on his laptop the horror of what happens when pirates take over a ship. The MT Zirku, a sister tanker to this, identical in every respect and owned by the same company, AMPTC, was hijacked for nearly three months last year at a spot we sailed through ourselves last week. On the same clean, orderly bridge that I've been living on for the past nine days, skinny, crazed-looking men with flip-flops and machine-pistols are wandering around at will, scattering trash. Part of the bridge window is frosted where bullets have hit it, there are gunmen squatting on guard out on the bridge wings and the cabins are completely trashed, strewn with half-eaten bundles of the narcotic qat leaves that Somalis chew. A photo shows a miserable crew squatting on mats, eating some rank-looking rice dish while filthy plates pile up unwashed in the corner. On the green-painted deck the pirates have hauled up and parked their attack skiffs, their shoes scattered in a heap.
"The pirates made everyone sleep up on the bridge here," says captain Sharaf, "while they slept out on the cooler bridge wings, keeping guard. Think of that," he says, sweeping his arms dramatically round the bridge. "All 30 crew crammed into this little space, using just one toilet for 75 days. They made the engineers work all hours to keep the generators running, treating them like slaves, beating them and tying their hands behind their backs, only allowing everyone one shower a week. The meat soon ran out so it was terrible food, poor-quality rice."
I look around the immaculate bridge and try to imagine it all. "See the navigation locker?" says Sharaf. "That's where the pirate leader would keep their supply of qat leaves. There was one pirate who was really addicted and when he needed a fix, he kept kicking the locker door to try to open it. When that didn't work he lost his temper and fired his Kalashnikov at it. Can you imagine the terror? Everyone was cowering here thinking he was going to kill them all. Imagine not knowing if you will live or die." The captain takes a pull on his pipe, wincing at the thought of it. "After that, the company changed its policy, from now on they always carry armed guards on this route."
On the last night at sea we sit out under the stars, the dangerous seas behind us, the team quietly smoking. Armed guards on ships have certainly reduced the pirates' success ratio but they are not the long-term solution. Until Somalia finds peace, stability, a proper coastguard and meaningful employment, piracy off the Horn of Africa is unlikely to disappear.
Frank Gardner is the BBC's security correspondent. You can watch his reports on BBC1 and the BBC News Channel and follow him on Twitter @FrankRGardner