Pirates have returned to the waters off the horn of Africa, with the hijacking of a large commercial vessel on the busy shipping route on Monday. It’s the first incident reported in the region since the height of the Somali seizures in 2012, and it could be the beginning of a new spate of attacks, after one of the pirates warned “in the coming days we are going to seize even more foreign ships.”
The latest assault was carried out on the MT Aris 13, a tanker vessel en route to Mogadishu from Djibouti and owned by a Panama-based company. Various groups monitoring piracy confirmed that eight Sri Lankan crew members were being held captive, with the pirates demanding a ransom for their release.
The attack — and the pirate’s warning — will raise fears of the return of widespread piracy on one of the world’s busiest shipping routes, which cost companies billions of dollars at the height of attacks in 2011.
Here’s what you need to know:
- The MT Aris 13 was seized by pirates approximately 11 miles (17km) off the northern tip of Somalia by pirates travelling in two skiffs — with weapons spotted in at least one of them. The capture was confirmed by the EU Naval Force, a group countering Somali piracy, who said Tuesday that it had received “positive confirmation from the master of the Comoros-flagged tanker” that his ship and crew are currently being held captive while anchored off the north coast of Puntland. It is unclear how many pirates are on board.
- The vessel, carrying gas and oil and used to refuel other ships while in port, was attempting to cut through the Socotra Gap — between the tip of Somalia and the island of Socotra. This route is used by vessels traveling down the east coast of Africa to save money and time — though it brings with it a significantly increased threat of piracy.
- As well as travelling on an especially dangerous route, several other factors made the Aris 13 a target for pirates. The vessel has a low freeboard — the distance from the waterline to the upper deck level — of 3 meters, making it easier for pirates to board the ship. It is also was travelling at just 5 knots, again making the pirate’s task easier.
- The group claiming responsibility belongs to the Majerteen/Siwaaqroon sub-clan, according to the charity Oceans Beyond Piracy, and they are led by the pirate Jacfar Saciid Cabdulaahi. Mogadishu-based Goobjoog News reports that the pirates spoke to media on Tuesday. One unnamed member of the group said: “We are fishermen who decided to take up arms and defend ourselves. The resources of our ocean are being depleted by these ships. We will clear them.”
- In a warning to all other vessels travelling in the region, another pirate said: “In the coming days we are going to seize even more foreign ships.” The pirates were apparently surprised by the media coverage the attack was getting, given “our cries and all that of Somali fishermen have fallen on deaf ears.”
- Piracy off the coast of Somalia peaked in 2011, with a total of 176 attacks. By 2016, attacks had pretty much stopped, the result of more foreign navies keeping watch in the region. The dropoff was also the result of shipping companies taking greater precautions when traversing the shipping lanes off the Somali coast, such as posting armed guards on board ship, travelling at faster speeds, and using safer routes.
- While the attack will certainly be of concern to authorities and shipping companies, Oceans Beyond Piracy said: “While this incident marks the first major hijacking since 2012, it does not yet indicate a large-scale return of Somali piracy.” Despite this reassurance, the conditions which originally permitted piracy to flourish in Somali remain. The country is on the brink of yet another famine, which could see more people considering piracy.
There have been several other indicators of a ramping up of piracy in the region. In 2016, the number of reported failed attacks and incidents rose, while security teams onboard vessels deterred 11 attacks during the same period. Just last week, one ship was approached and followed for 40 minutes in the Gulf of Aden by two skiffs with up to 20 armed men, before giving up.