- Piracy will continue to decline worldwide.
- However, maritime threats will still pose a considerable challenge to global shipping companies, especially in waterways in unstable regions.
- If the maritime security threat around the Bab el-Mandeb strait shifts from financially motivated piracy attacks to ideologically motivated militant attacks, shipping companies will need to rethink their security measures.
After three years of relative calm in the waters between Yemen and the Horn of Africa, a strait known as Bab el-Mandeb, at least seven security incidents were reported in October. Two of the attacks, one on an Emirati ship and the other on the USS Mason, a U.S. Navy destroyer, were confirmed to have been carried out by Yemeni militants with land-based anti-ship missiles. Two others, both on Oct. 22, were likely carried out by Somali pirates. Most concerning was an attempted attack on the Galicia Spirit, a liquefied natural gas (LNG) tanker, involving a skiff loaded with explosives. The skiff exploded prematurely, leaving the tanker unharmed, but the tactic harkens back al Qaeda attacks against USS Cole in 2000 and the MV Limburg in 2002. Finally, on Oct. 26, the oil tanker Melati Satu was targeted with a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG).
Regardless of motives, the fact that both Somali pirates and Yemeni militants appear to be active in the strait once again is troubling news for global shipping companies. Overall, piracy has been declining worldwide, especially along strategic maritime routes. However, it has marginally increased in certain regional waterways. According to the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting center, there are now just a few attempts at piracy in the Bab el-Mandeb strait and the Strait of Malacca each year — two areas of the most dangerous hotspots for piracy in the late 1990s and 2000s. Nonetheless, in addition to the resurgence of activity in the Bab el-Mandeb, piracy is becoming an increasing concern in the Gulf of Guinea and in the waters off Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia as well.
The decline in pirate attacks around the Bab al-Mandeb can be attributed to more frequent international naval patrols and the adoption of more aggressive defensive maneuvers by shipping companies. Today, for example, many companies post armed guards on ships that transit the dangerous waters. When the CPO Korea tanker was attacked on Oct. 22, both of these safeguards were in place and proved effective: Armed guards aboard the ship fended off gunmen and the EU counter-piracy operation known as NAVFOR Somalia responded shortly thereafter, investigating the incident and confirming that it was, in fact, an act of piracy.
Such measures have reduced the piracy threat off the coast of Somalia, but they have not eradicated pirate havens on land. The same day the CPO Korea was attacked, Somali pirates released 26 hostages they had been holding for over four years. It is unclear whether a ransom was paid for their freedom (Jakarta has denied paying for the release of the six Indonesians in the group), but some money likely changed hands. In the past, hostage releases have corresponded with upticks in piracy in Somali waters as cash payments fund new expeditions. If money was exchanged in the latest release, Somali pirate attacks like that on the CPO Korea could resume. It will therefore be important for ships traversing the Bab el-Mandeb in the coming months to remain alert.
Shipping companies should also be concerned by militant attacks, especially those emanating from Yemen. Militants are often less deterred by the standard counterpiracy measures ships typically rely on, including accelerating, changing course, blocking pirates from reaching the deck and employing armed guards. These tactics are meant to prevent thieves from boarding a ship and taking control of it; they are less effective in thwarting attacks meant to damage or destroy a ship. Armed guards can do little against anti-ship missiles or small boats laden with explosives, and regional naval patrols cannot respond quickly enough to stop such attacks. Moreover, the European Union's NAVFOR Somalia mandate will be up at the end of the year, and it is unclear whether it will be extended. However, one thing is certain: If the threat in the Bab el-Mandeb shifts from piracy to militancy, shipping companies will have to rethink their safety protocols.
In the heyday of Somali piracy, from 2009 to 2011, international naval patrols organized convoys to escort ships through the most dangerous areas, raising awareness of potentially hostile craft and decreasing response times. It is possible that convoys could likewise mitigate the risk posed by militants. Of course, timing would be crucial: Whereas pirate attacks take place over the course of several minutes as vessels approach the targeted ship, board it and gain control of it, incoming anti-ship missiles and explosives-laden speedboats require a much more rapid response. Moreover, though the tanker ships hauling crude oil and liquefied natural gas are double-hulled and can withstand the small arms and RPG attacks traditionally favored by Somali pirates, they are less able to weather heavier explosives such as anti-ship missiles or explosives-laden skiffs. Given the number of attacks that were conducted during October, the chances of more attacks occurring in the months ahead are high. If allowed to continue, Yemeni militants will eventually hit a tanker carrying LNG or crude, causing a shock to international shippers that rely on the Bab el-Mandeb, as well as to the energy markets they service.
Ultimately, mitigating the piracy and militant maritime threats will come down to control over land. Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia were able to wipe out piracy in the Strait of Malacca by overrunning pirates' onshore bases. One of the reasons Somali pirates have been able to operate for so long is that they can act with impunity along Somalia's ungoverned coastline. Similarly, Yemen's civil war has created an environment more akin to Somalia's lawlessness than to the sovereign control along the Strait of Malacca. With the type of attacks coming from Yemen more potent, the security measures shipping companies have long relied on will no longer work as well as they once did.