It seems inconceivable: How can Somali pirates in speedboats foil warships from the world's most powerful navies in order to prey on shipping lanes crucial to the oil supply? The short answer — it's a big ocean and no one wants to be top cop.
NATO and the U.S. Navy say they can't cover everywhere, and American officials are urging ships to buy private security. Warships patrolling off Somalia have succeeded in stopping some pirate attacks as they happen. But outright military assaults to wrest free a ship are highly risky.
Yet when pirates took their biggest prize yet over the weekend — a Saudi supertanker carrying $100 million worth of crude oil — it raised the stakes dramatically. The pirates struck hundreds of miles off the coast of East Africa, far out to sea where ships had presumed they were safe.
Governments, navies, oil companies and ship owners are scrambling for solutions, and finding few options are ideal.
One private security company, Blackwater Worldwide, is offering to provide security services. The North Carolina-based firm, which scored big government contracts to provide security in Iraq, says it plans to dispatch the MV McArthur, a 183-foot vessel with a crew of 14 and a helicopter pad, to the Gulf of Aden to provide escort services.
"We have been contacted by ship owners who say they need our help in making sure ... goods get to their destination safely," Bill Matthews, Blackwater executive vice president, said recently in a news release. "The McArthur can help us accomplish that."
Shippers and insurance companies tended to minimize piracy's risks — at worse, pay a ransom, get your ship, crew and cargo back unharmed — but have now awoken to the potential economic impact. The turmoil could force cargo ships and tankers to take longer routes around Africa, drive up costs and, though it hasn't happened yet, even raise oil prices.
David vs. Goliath
"For a long time I thought this piracy thing was complete nonsense ... isolated incidents being blown up," Giles Merritt, director of the Security & Defence Agenda, a Brussels-based think tank on security issues.
But this is different, he said. "It's unbelievable to me that we can run AWACS aircraft that can tell you anything that is moving. but apparently we cannot spot small boats full of chaps with machine guns."
Somali pirates, given free rein in a country with no stable government for two decades, have attacked more than 90 ships this year and successfully seized 36, everything from palm oil and chemical freighters to luxury yachts. They have raked in millions of dollars in ransoms and are negotiating for more over 15 vessels currently held in their strongholds along the coast.
Pressure is on for more warships to patrol. Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said Tuesday his country was ready to join an international effort. The kingdom's navy has 18,000-20,000 personnel, but has never taken part in any high-seas fighting. Officials from Djibouti, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Sudan are to meet Thursday in Cairo to hammer out an anti-piracy strategy.
But NATO, the U.S. Navy and other militaries say it isn't as easy as sighting a pirate speedboat and intercepting it.
Military officials say the area prone to such hijackings covers 2.5 million square miles of sea, impossible to patrol effectively. The pirates use larger "mother ships" to tow the faster, smaller skiff used in the attacks hundreds of miles out to sea. The problem is that even the mother ships are hijacked fishing boats and crews, impossible to pick out among the thousands of such boats that ply the waters.
Military authorities say their radar does spot pirates on the prowl and they alert crews of threatened ships. But the vast stretch of the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden is simply too large: Warships cannot escort every ship and cannot always get to an attack scene in time.
Their focus has been the Gulf of Aden, between Somalia and Yemen, where 20,000 merchant ships a year pass on the way in and out of the Suez Canal, the quickest route from Asia to Europe and the Americas. Three NATO and Russian ships, and up to 15 warships from a multinational force are patrolling there, along with an unannounced number of U.S. Navy vessels.
They have carved out a protected corridor through the Gulf of Aden, and last week the NATO ships engaged in a firefight with pirates attempting to hijack a Danish ship. Still, on Tuesday, pirates succeeded in seizing a Hong Kong cargo ship carrying wheat to Iran.
The capture of the Saudi supertanker Sirius Star opened up an entirely new front further out in the Indian Ocean — nearly as far from the Gulf of Aden as Paris is from Moscow. It signaled a threat to another key route, one that rounds Africa's southern tip and is used by vessels too large to traverse the Suez Canal with full cargos.
"Shipping companies have to understand that naval forces can not be everywhere. Self-protection measures are the best way to protect their vessels," U.S. Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, commander of the Combined Maritime Forces under the 5th Fleet said after the Sirius Star's capture.
Holding off on military action
Pirates usually attack in small speedboats, using ropes and ladders to climb a ship's hull and seize the crew. Once they have a ship, military action to free it holds dangers. The pirates are trained fighters, heavily armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, and they have the crews as hostages.
NATO and the U.S. Navy said Tuesday they would not try to intercept the Sirius Star, and its captors took it with the 25-member crew to Harardhere, a pirate den on the Somali coast.
The pirates' strongholds on the coast are well known. But no government has broached the idea of military action to clean them out, reluctant to get drawn into Somalia's chaos. Moreover, a bloody assault could undermine what passes for Somalia's central government, already beleaguered by advancing Islamic militants.
The militants represent another danger. So far pirates have avoided association with al-Qaida militants in Somalia, but that could change. Or, Islamic militants could be inspired by shipping's vulnerability to pirate attacks.
"If some pirates with a few machine guns are able to hijack a supertanker, you can imagine what al-Qaida could do if it really wanted to," said Olivier Jakob, managing director of the Swiss oil market research firm Petromatrix.
The American military's solution has been to advise ships to hire private security. But many in the shipping industry have been reluctant, fearing armed guards will prompt increased violence from pirates.
So far violence has been minimal. The well-organized pirates have almost never harmed hostages and rarely steal cargos, preferring to release for ransoms that some experts say can reach $2 million.
One solution may be unarmed security teams. Using water hoses to batter attacking pirates has worked in the past — even greasing guardrails so pirates can't climb them can be successful, such firms say.
"We've gotten loads of requests in the last 24 hours from shipowners and managers of the Saudi oil companies to put security teams aboard," Nick Davis of Britain-based Anti Piracy Maritime Security Solutions (Non-Lethal), said Tuesday.
Shipping companies are examining other options, too, including avoiding use of the Suez Canal to stay out of the Gulf of Aden. That means longer trips around Africa.
So far, oil prices are dropping because of the world financial crisis. But if the pirate danger is not handled, that could change, warns Jakob, the oil marketing expert.
"If we were to have a similar type of hijacking on another tanker, I think the markets would take notice," he said.